In a sense, our discussions of ‘80s country albums have reflected the general evergreen debates of country music’s history, not just in terms of sound but also in terms of generational divides. Yes, the latter is what drives the former in how new sounds form while old ones rebound, but I’m referring more to the vicious cycle of relevancy. Veteran artists have to eventually relinquish their thrones to the next young artists in line. It’s bittersweet, but as we’ve seen from examples led by George Jones and Merle Haggard, there is a way to strike the right balance and not make the transition so jarring. Basically, it’s a very weird, misunderstood time period in country music. And as we continue our conversation of the neotraditional wave, I want to shine a spotlight on a duo that put their own spin on it and, at least to me, don’t get enough credit for it. Onward!
Country music was somewhat chaotic in the early-to-mid-’80s. We’ve touched upon certain reasons for why here and there before: the fallout of the Urban Cowboy phenomenon and a general decline in record sales; an influx of overly polished, sleepy, easy-listening country from dime-a-dozen artists; and just a general lack of direction overall. It’s not a fondly remembered time period, but as I’ve said time and time (and time) again, creatively the genre was about to enter one of its best-ever decades.
But I’m going to temper expectations for the reason why, as while it’s easy to point toward the neotraditional wave led by artists like George Strait and Ricky Skaggs as the genre’s needed adrenaline rush, in truth, it’s more than just that. This will be a heavy anchoring point for pretty much all of the remaining albums to discuss from this decade, but the key that led to country music’s renaissance … well, it’s a sense of individuality. Despite how much we can divide and further group certain artists into similar categories, the beauty is that everyone’s version of that established sound – whether it be rooted in tradition or branch out to include elements of pop, rock, or whatever else – is staunchly their own and not so easy to categorize after all.
That doesn’t mean it had to do anything drastically different or grandiose to get there, however. As we examined last week through George Strait’s Strait From the Heart, sometimes reverting to a back-to-basics approach and then updating it for the modern era can keep the chain of tradition going while establishing something new. We find ourselves in similar territory once again, with a mother-daughter duo who made music with the feel of an old-time folk sensibility, yet charged it with vibrant arrangements, stellar harmonies, and a gutsy presentation to give it weight.
I’m not sure if I can call the Judds underrated in general, so much as … unfortunately overlooked during this particular era in hindsight, which is a shame, given that they dominated it more than most. The duo, comprised of mother-daughter team Naomi and Wynonna Judd, emerged from the sort of rags-to-riches story I can’t quite summarize here (but have elsewhere), but despite several failed attempts to market themselves to record industry executives, they broke through to become not only country music’s biggest duo of the decade, but arguably the first, too.
That’s right – when you think about it, while many groups found a home in country music, the duo concept hadn’t really yet been fully realized. Most industry awards tended to reward duets to artists known primarily for their solo work but came together from time to time (Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, etc.), which is why I’m always quick to label this era as a period of change in so many beneficial ways. But one also has to consider how the concept of a mother-daughter duo with a sound anchored more through folk influences like Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell could have easily failed or never taken off during this overly polished time period. It wasn’t until a chance audition with RCA Records that this story truly took form.
Oddly enough, the Judds also started with a six-song collection marketed as a “Mini LP,” a primitive form of the EP that, at least during this time period, was but a mere short-lived marketing concept; oh, how things change. Most of the songs found their way onto subsequent releases, which may be one reason why it feels a bit piecemeal in hindsight today. Their debut album proper, Why Not Me, is what really got the ball rolling, and the formula is actually quite simple. Again, much like the aforementioned George Strait, The Judds opted for a back-to-basics approach that echoed clear influences but also showcased a strong individuality that would pave the way for more to come.
Of course, it also makes the actual technical discussion of this album remarkably (and refreshingly) easy: a grounded acoustic focus with just windswept polish in some of the atmospherics to keep it warm and inviting but not sleepy or lacking; a counterbalance provided by Wynonna Judd’s tone that can be confident and assertive without being overbearing; and a similar general assertiveness in the writing.
Again, in context of this particular era it’s just a remarkably clear-toned album, where at its best it’s defined by plenty of strong, mid-tempo grooves (“Why Not Me,” “Love is Alive”) and can be plucky, bouncy, and engaging even through its softer focus. It’s a core that they’d somewhat lose on later works for more conventional polished. It’s also one that feels even more short-lived due to their 1991 breakup perpetuated by Naomi’s chronic hepatitis.
Now, if I had to nitpick, I would say that some of the schmaltz and polish of the era is still reflected in some of the slower-paced ballads like “Sleeping Heart” and “Bye Bye Baby Blues.” It can also become a bit too comfortable and formulaic after a while in the way it typically follows a more delicate-sounding cut with a jumpier one, which can range from the excellent title track to a more jerky throwaway cut like “Drops of Water.”
But I’d also say Wynonna as a vocal presence is easily capable of playing to both mediums effectively. I’ve always preferred her more naturally moody, sullen tone that lends a lot of naturally heartbreaking ethos to a song like “Mr. Pain,” or a more desperate urgency to songs like the title track or “Mama He’s Crazy.” But she’s always confidently in control of the recording, which helps supplement this album’s general tempered feel and adds a genuine sense of thankfulness to a track like “Love is Alive” that would have come across as cheesy in lesser hands.
Ironic, though, because it when it comes to the actual writing here, this album often finds itself on the losing side of love. It’s definitely the sort of album that prioritizes its performances over the actual content itself, given that it can feel a tad conventional in its scenes and sentiments overall. But here, that mostly works. The title track really is a classic, not only for its excellent groove and stirring hook made better by its performance, but for its confident plea for something more that likely isn’t going to come. And I’d say that constant search is what informs the album at large – in scenes where the idea of perfect love was found only to be lost again and stings all the worse because of it (“Mr. Pain”), and in ones where sifting through the aftermath of that can take its toll on one’s own recovery. It’s hardly a dark album, per se, mostly due to an abundance of upbeat, faster-paced moments that could double as kiss-offs to what once was in finding a way to heal. And I certainly wouldn’t have minded them trending in that darker direction had they wished.
If anything, however, it’s what makes the few moments of stability in “Love is Alive” and “Mama He’s Crazy” work better. The love may not be perfect, but if it brings personal happiness and fulfillment, that’s worth cherishing all the more anyway. As a whole, then, by adopting its own focus, Why Not Me not only helped get the ball rolling for the Judds, for country music duos, and the general sonic direction, but has also held up remarkably well for its timeless simplicity – enough to where you wouldn’t think such an intentionally breezy, straightforward release could have so much impact. But it did, and I’d certainly pick it on a rainy day or when the nights get cold anytime.
Join me next time, where we’ll continue our discussion of expression and individuality with a turning-point in one artist’s career for the better: Reba McEntire’s My Kind of Country.
2 thoughts on “World Records, No. 15: The Judds, ‘Why Not Me’ (1984)”
Very nice thorough look at an important pair in country music. Never heard of a mini LP ?before!
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It’s basically like what the EP is considered today!