When Wynonna Judd recorded her first solo album last year, it was universally promoted as her coming-of-age record. Symbolically titled Wynonna (note the lack of surname), it marked her emergence from the shadow of her mother, Naomi, with whom she had made up the phenomenally successful country duo the Judds. In truth, Wynonna was very much a record of transition — a trying — on of contrived musical costumes, as if to figure out who she was, emotionally and musically.
On Tell Me Why (Curb/MCA), the younger Judd is clearly over her separation anxiety — from her mother, yes, but also from country music, the genre that spawned her. In her first real breakout flight from the nest, Wynonna establishes herself as what she has always truly been: a hybrid artist, raised as much on Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor as on George Jones and Patsy Cline.
In short, Wynonna has made a pop record, full of intelligent rock-, blues-, and gospel-flavored songs that highlight her three great obsessions: Jesus, Elvis, and Mama. And it’s terrific, even if on ”Father Sun” she briefly spins into the glossy contemporary-Christian world of Amy Grant, high on Good News, with a slick, dreamy production style and a long, showy instrumental bridge that seems tacked on.
Although produced by Tony Brown, who began his career in gospel and served briefly as Elvis’ piano player in the mid-’70s, Tell Me Why does at times descend into a sterile, seamless L.A. feel, especially in the bright keyboard fills and stinging electric guitars on Karla Bonoff’s title cut. Yet Brown never goes too far in that direction, mostly sticking with the looser R&B grooves of two Jesse Winchester songs, the smoking ”Let’s Make a Baby King” and the spooky ”Just Like New,” which mines the Elvis mythology through the metaphor of the car the King drove out to Hollywood. And he wisely lets Wynonna kick up her heels on Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s wryly funny ”Girls With Guitars,” with background vocalists Lyle Lovett and Naomi Judd working the rocking boogie groove of classic Judds tunes.
But even in this sentimental nod to her old incarnation, Wynonna displays new emotional maturity and confidence in her ability to deliver the goods. While she leaps embarrassingly into falsetto on the album’s last cut, gone are the too-cool vocal affectations — the elongations of words in hiccups and exaggerated cadences — that cluttered much of her earlier work. Gone, too, is a sense of calculation in her lyrical strikes at such easy emotional targets as religious faith and Presley. Rather, with Tell Me Why, Wynonna has put the posturing behind her and embraced, with soaring soprano and compelling openness, her obsessions as the forces that sustain her — ”That Was Yesterday,” a prideful, bluesy tribute to her mother as a songwriter, stands out — instead of glibly trading on them for an easy payoff.
Back when Wynonna was half of the Judds, it was pert and pretty Naomi who got the attention, as if the year were 1957, Naomi a sleek and saucy Thunderbird, and her daughter the less stylish yet practical Buick. Nobody seemed to notice that when it came to singing, Wynonna was the real show car, with a high-performance engine under the hood. Tell Me Why ought to keep people from making that mistake again. A