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Wynonna // storming music her way

Even before you pick up the telephone and hear her throaty, full-bodied laugh apologizing for the 40-minute delay, it's obvious talking with Wynonna will prove no easy challenge.

It's not just because of the events in her own topsy-turvy personal life _ over the past year, the country superstar has learned of a biological father she never knew, married the father of a child she originally bore out of wedlock (only to discover she's pregnant again; due in July) and recently ended a near-two-year layoff from touring.

And it's not due to Wy's now-legendary mercurial temperament _ which kept her own publicist guessing whether the interview would happen until the very last moment.

It's more a feeling _ an attitude that powers every note on her latest record, revelations, and grows stronger once you're finally trading quips with her, courtesy of Ma Bell.

Forget about all those cookie-cutter creations of the Nashville establishment, it says. Here's a true country diva who has learned to do what she wants exactly when she feels like it.

"You get what you get, when you get me," admits the fire-haired, 31-year-old singer, laughing again. "If I'm in a bad mood, you know it and if I feel good, you know that, too. My mother calls me "Hurricane Wynonna,' because I used to blow into a room and suck up all the oxygen."

To hear Wynonna tell it, things weren't always this way.

Before their 1991 farewell, when Wy and her mother Naomi Judd were the top selling mother-daughter team in country music _ to the tune of six Grammys and 15-million records sold, thank you _ the eternally youthful-looking Naomi (now age 50) was the outspoken one.

She talked to the crowds, did the interviews and provided the public image _ while her daughter's powerful singing brought critical acclaim and spoke volumes on its own.

But when hepatitis forced Naomi off the road five years back, Wynonna was faced with the daunting task of learning to stand on her own.

And she has.

"I've been on tours where I fit into lovely categories _ the dutiful daughter or whatever _ but at the end of the day, am I really satisfied with my art?" she says, brashly. "These days, when (1-year-old son) Elijah says "No,' I claim victory. It took me 28 years to learn how to say that."

Of course, when Wynnona's two big "no's" finally came, they shook up the country music industry like few things before or since.

First, Wynonna announced in 1994 that she was pregnant with a child by her boat salesman boyfriend, Arch Kelley III _ and that the couple wouldn't be marrying right away (they eventually tied the knot in January).

Later in 1994, she gave up on live performing for nearly 18 months to concentrate on motherhood _ in the process, changing managers and booking agents.

Both decisions rankled country music conservatives, who criticized her unwed motherhood and looked skeptically at her need for an extended leave of absence _ despite similar moves by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Garth Brooks.

Industry insiders wondered how smart it would be for someone three years into establishing a solo career to step off the fast-paced merry-go-round of today's country music scene.

"All I knew was what I didn't want," Wynonna says now. "I didn't want to be on a bus in 10 years, divorced, with my kids living in another state. Inner peace is more important than a No. 1 record."

Coming from anyone else, that kind of statement would sound suspiciously naive; after all, you don't get to the top of the Nashville heap by worrying about your inner peace.

But it seems Wynonna has done just that _ taking more than a year to craft the material on revelations by reportedly sifting through some 2,000 songs. The result, including tunes by former British teen sensation pop star Lulu and blue-eyed soulman Delbert McClinton, shows off her powerful, finely tuned vocal sense amid Nashville's slickest production values.

Just don't call it country.

"It's my mother's fault," Wynonna says of the album's broad sweep, ranging from Bonnie Raitt-style blues tunes like Somebody to Love You to a cover of the Southern-rock anthem Free Bird.

"She took me in a U-Haul from Hollywood to Appalachia," the singer adds, referring to time spent growing up in California before moving to Kentucky and later, Tennessee. "I'm not just one thing . . . I'm not just country."

Wynonna says there were no special techniques for finding which songs worked, either:

"It's like walking into a room of people, and there's one person you are drawn to. What is it about that person that makes you want to know more? Maybe you fall in love? That's what choosing songs is like."

To spend any time talking with Wy is to learn her special brand of metaphysical jargon.

A country star since her late teens, Wynonna admits to coming of age in the cocoon of her mother's protection and the country industry's back-breaking workload _ not the greatest preparation for linear thinking.

So ask her about feeling sheltered nowadays (she still lives near mother Naomi on a 550-acre farm in Tennessee), and you get this answer: "I try hard to listen to the voice that's not listened to . . . tap into the personal and stay away from the professional. I don't live in the world a lot of left-brainers do. I struggle every day to understand the misunderstood and strive to be better."

And the turmoil that has recently surrounded her life? "It's like taking a drink out of a firehose. I don't have the answers . . . I put on my armor, wear some comfortable shoes and go make it happen."

What about her son's effect on her personal and professional life? "Elijah rocked my world and stopped my program . . . He stopped my insanity. Without Elijah, I wouldn't have gotten off the tour bus and learned how to be a human being, not just a human doing _ like my mother says."

When talk turns to the state of modern country music, however _ and its current crop of cowboy hat-wearing, boot-kicking fashion models disguised as recording artists _ Wynonna suddenly gets serious.

"Even where you work, there are people selling out every day," she says. "Those are people who are afraid to take a chance. I see these people and I'm sad for them, because they're denying their own true nature . . . like they're afraid of being found out."

These days, it would seem there's not much left to learn about Wynonna, whose life with Naomi and actor/sister Ashley Judd has already been turned into a made-for-TV movie. But that doesn't stop the tabloids from trying.

Her recent travails _ from her pregnancies to the marriage and ongoing struggles with weight gain _ have turned the singer into an unwilling queen of the National Enquirer set.

"I remember standing to say, "I do,' and hearing helicopters flying around," Wynonna says of her wedding to Kelley, which was besieged by photographers in aircraft. "We have taught our children to believe this stuff _ you know how gossip works. What's great about life is that your friends know better and your enemies don't care."

Born Christina Ciminella (later changed to Wynonna, from a reference in the song Route 66, according to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll), she tagged along with mother Naomi through a succession of homes in California, Kentucky and Tennessee, until a top Nashville producer heard a demo tape of the two women singing and passed it to RCA Records.

The Judds gained fame with evocative ballads and bluesier numbers, building the perfect bridge between country's traditional past and glossy pop present, but Wynonna's solo albums _ including 1993's Tell Me Why and 1992's Wynonna _ have strayed even farther toward the pop mainstream.

Predictably, Wynonna will admit no calculation in the progression of her art. "When you wake up every day, you have to go for your gut," she says, intensely. "In this age, it's easy to sit back and play it safe, fat and happy. If I fail now, at least I've failed on my own terms."


Wynonna appears Saturday, with Blackhawk opening, at the USF Sun Dome, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. Tickets are $24.50 for the 8 p.m. show. Call 974-3002.