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Walking into a bookstore in the East Village one day in 1983, I heard a woman singing on the store's record player (yes it was the vinyl days of yore). I thought at first it was a new Bonnie Raitt record but quickly realized that it was a very different sound, more acoustic, more country. It was, of course the Judds, and the significance of the story is that they were once considered semi-underground and hip. That changed as soon as they sold gazillions of records, but their sound didn't. The Don Potter formula of acoustic-based backing with Wynonna's big voice out front, combined with an unerring knack for picking great tunes ("A Girls Night Out," "Let Me Tell You About Love," and "Maybe Your Baby's Got the Blues" are included here) made for a career that matched quality with quantity.

On her new live disc, Wynonna gives the Judds their due, while celebrating her own brilliant solo career, as well as the music of her "(s)heroes." Overblown in the best Nashville tradition, this 27-song collection demonstrates Wy's own knack for finding songs. But great material is not the only thing that has helped her move millions of Wynonna units. There is that voice, growling one moment, evincing that classic country catch in the throat the next. But maybe more than anything else, it is the clear vision that she seems to have of exactly what her music should sound like.

Over the years, she has made records that flew in the face of whatever trend Nashville was chasing at the time, eschewing new traditionalism as much as country-disco. Her records have always been relatively stripped down affairs relying on the musicianship of new-legends like Steuart Smith on guitar and Wille Weeks on bass to add just the right touch. Her current band, showcased here, does a bang-up job of reproducing the roots-rock sound that she has always favored (she was roots-rock before roots-rock was cool). They also provide chameleon-like backing as Wynonna pays tribute to her influences with renditions of Joni Mitchell's "Help Me," Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love is," Earth Wind and Fire's "Shining Star," Tina Turner's "The Best," and Elvis's "Burning Love," that are more amazing impersonation than reinvention, but fun none the less. The last tune merely confirms my completely unsubstantiated belief that Naomi Judd's admitted date with "the King" resulted in a love child--and it wasn't Lisa Marie.

Oddly, Judd doesn't do a Bonnie Raitt tune. Perhaps the connection is too obvious. Like Raitt, she loves to rock, but also like the other redhead she actually reaches the pinnacle of her talent on the ballads. Her performance of the classic country story-song "She Is His Only Need" is one of the best vocal performances of any song ever. She makes the difficult phrasing of the lines sound effortless, allowing the emotion to come through--it breaks me down every time I hear it, much like the weeper, "Is It Over Yet."

There is no doubt the woman can rock as well. It is hard to understand the brouhaha about Gretchen Wilson when Wy has been tearing it up all these years. From "Tell Me Why" to "Don't Throw That Mojo On Me," and doing it without playing into the kitsch appeal of redneck chic. Perhaps her appeal to me, and to her legions of fans, might be summed up best by the title of the bonus track on the CD, "Attitude," and a line in it that states, "This redhead has something to say."
• Michael Ross

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