Wynonna Judd's excellent 2003 outing What the World Needs Now Is Love was steeped in rock & roll and country tunes done in her inimitable fashion. It reflected Judd's uncanny ability to sing new music with the passion, style, and finesse of the old gems. Country and pop radio being what they are -- namely, paranoid frightened defective computers with human faces -- all but ignored it. The radio and video channel worlds reflect the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Rather than trying something different by showcasing real quality and individualism, they become narrower and more paranoid with each passing year as they program recycled crap. Update 2009: Wynonna Judd is back with Sing: Chapter 1, a collection of standards and cover tunes that have inspired her throughout her life and career. And it's a stunner. Produced by Brent Maher and Don Potter, this set contains 12 tracks that range from country music standards to blues tunes, R&B nuggets, and American pop radio classics by the masters. The opener is a reading of the prewar 1932 finger-poppin' swinger "That's How Rhythm Was Born" (wherein Judd and Vicki Hampton do their own Andrews Sisters on the backing chorus). Judd delivers it effortlessly with all the good time verve -- and a smoking Stéphane Grappelli-inspired violin solo by Fats Kaplan -- the original contained, but with a bit more sass. She counters this with a gorgeous, deeply emotional, string-laden version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," that is as dramatic and darkly dreamy as ANYTHING k.d. lang ever attempted.
This is followed by a beautiful version of Sippie Wallace's "Women Be Wise," with all of its sassy natural inflections retained even as Judd updates the context, and then a version of Dave Bartholomew's New Orleans R&B stomper "I Hear You Knockin'" that gives the Dave Edmunds cover a run for its money -- and comes damn close to Fats Domino's. Other country classics include Merle Haggard's "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good," Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The House Is Rockin'" (and here it really does), and a completely shocking, utterly bereft deep soul-blues reading of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." Here, the simmering, smoldering eros in Judd's voice is tempered with genuine loneliness, accented by the nylon-string guitar and a convincing string arrangement. It's devastating. Add to this a shuffling bluesy rocker in Leiber & Stoller's "I'm a Woman," with some smoking Rhodes piano, and you have the uptempo part of the program covered. But add the three ballads that close the set -- the Bacharach/David "Anyone Who Had a Heart," the 1952 standard "When I Fall in Love," and the closing title track by Rodney Crowell -- and you have true classicism. This final track is a new pop country anthem; it underscores Judd's sheer individualism and style, and offers a complete illustration of her gifts as a singer. Sing: Chapter 1 is perfection in performance, material, production, and musical execution. Judd is reinventing herself AS herself: she is a country singer every bit the individual that Patsy Cline was, and is so iconoclastic with her phrasing, tension, shading, and drama that she is a truly unique stylist (a rarity in the 21st century). If you want to hear a singer's singer, one who can move you to the core of your being with her way of interpreting a song, Wynonna Judd's deeply moving, authentic Sing: Chapter 1 is a fine place to begin. This may be her finest hour.