Years before the Judds finally ended the longest goodbye in show business history — 14 months of one-nighters from the time mother Naomi announced her retirement due to chronic hepatitis until their final concert last December — Nashville wags placed bets on how long it would be before daughter Wynonna left the extremely successful country duo for a solo career. For while Naomi masterminded the group’s direction and contributed its seductive alto harmony, everyone knew that lead singer Wynonna had the real pipes. But Wynonna, one of the most important female country voices to arrive in the last 20 years, never made any attempt to strike out on her own.
Now comes her long-awaited solo album, Wynonna. It starts out strong, with the sassy, Bonnie Raittish blues groove of ”What It Takes.” But even though this song makes a lot of noise about Wynonna asserting her independence and being mistress of her own fate (”I just like to make my own way”), the surprise is just how much the rest of the record resembles the Judds’ albums of old.
On cut after cut, Wynonna comes across as the proverbial baby robin about to make her first solo flight, but with the mama bird never out of sight. Naomi may have rallied from her sickbed to harmonize on only one song here (the vaguely spiritual ”When I Reach the Place I’m Goin”’), but her presence is almost as strong as it was when she dominated the duo’s concert stage as a sort of flirtatious show poodle. Exactly half of the 10 songs repeatedly allude to parting, leaving home, new beginnings, Mama, and, of course, death. All of this milks the circumstances of the Judds’ breakup, reinforcing Wynonna’s image as a nostalgia- monger, a hard hitter at the softest possible emotional targets.
On a strictly musical level, when Wynonna sticks to her own country- storytelling turf, she is often sublime. She elevates the generally pedestrian lyric of Dave Loggins’ ”She Is His Only Need,” a portrait of a pathetic small-town loner and his unconditional love for a waitress, into a haunting and affecting nugget. She likewise inhabits the bittersweet Naomi Judd-Mike Reid ballad ”My Strongest Weakness,” sounding like the very voice of pain, as if she were the only woman who has ever tried to quiet a healing heart. But Wynonna has trouble going beyond what she and her mother call ”Judd music,” mostly because she’s chosen weak pop material. The insipid bounciness of Andrew Gold and Lisa Angelle’s ”I Saw the Light” and the forced randiness of ”No One Else on Earth” leave her audibly adrift.
And so Wynonna finds the singular Judd in transition. Despite her glorious, enormously expressive voice, she still suffers an identity problem, stuck between country and pop, confidence and confusion, the real and the synthetic. Wynonna and Naomi, who changed their names from the less backwoodsy Christina and Diana Ciminella, were stressing image over reality for so long that it seems to be taking Wynonna a while to figure out who she is. The daughter’s growing pains may last longer than expected.