Music has always been a big part of my life. My earliest childhood memories revolve around studying the covers of my parents’ record collection, “borrowing” their tapes for long-term storage in my room, and taping weekly count downs so I could teach myself to play the songs on piano or just to memorize the rankings. One of those “borrowed” tapes was the solo debut of this week’s Keeper of the Flame spotlight: Wynonna Judd. I spent hours listening to Wynonna’s self-titled debut album and have fond memories listening to it on my yellow Sony walkman on long drives. It’s one of the few albums that I have on multiple formats and that I still listen to regularly today. One of my favourite tracks on that album is “No One Else on Earth”, which peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart twenty-eight years ago this week, on October 24, 1992.
Much ink has been spilled on the life and career of the Judd family in the popular press and how that might have filtered into and impacted the career of Wynonna is an interesting point of reflection. I won’t be digging too much into those details here, but will reflect most on the short period surrounding the song’s release and chart life.
Wynonna Judd was already a certifiable country music star when she set out on her own as a solo artist in 1991. As half of an incredible mother-daughter duo, The Judds had 22 singles peak in the Top 20 of the Hot Country Singles between 1983 and 1991 – 14 of which reached #1. Over the span of their nine-year career, the duo released eight studio albums, one Christmas album, and two Greatest Hits compilations. They sold more than 20 million records and won 60 industry awards. A diagnosis of Hepatitis C for mother Naomi forced the duo to retire in 1991 following their Farewell Tour. This tour served not just as the retirement of the duo, however, it also launched the solo career of Wynonna.
In 1991, Wynonna moved from RCA to MCA for her solo career and began working on her solo debut while on the Farewell Tour with Naomi. As music critic Bruce Feiler notes in Dreaming Out Loud, “Wynonna was in a delicate situation, trying to retain the tradition she had established with her mother while also trying to establish herself as a fresh new voice.” She embarked on this journey with the support of producer Tony Brown (then president of MCA), former backup piano player for Elvis Presley in the 1970s.
Wynonna made her debut as a solo artist in January 1992 on the stage of the 20th American Music Awards. “Talk about pressure,” reporter Richard Harrington wrote in profile of the singer later that year, “Wynonna Judd made her solo debut in front of a television audience of 35 million and a Los Angeles auditorium full of stars. …establishing on that winter night a claim to one of the great voices in American music.” That night she sang “She is His Only Need”, a song that was to be included on her then unreleased debut solo album. The performance on the AMAs generated a lot of buzz for her forthcoming album, which was released just two months after this performance.
Following this performance, “She Was His Only Need” was released to radio and debuted on the Hot Country Singles chart the week of February 15, 1992 peaking at #1 nine weeks later on April 11, 1992. The song hadn’t even exited the chart (it was at #26) before her follow-up “I Saw The Light” made its debut at #58 the week of May 9, 1992. This song, too, reached #1 in 9 weeks, reaching the summit on July 4, 1992 and holding the top spot for three consecutive weeks. Two weeks after “I Saw The Light” dropped out of the #1 position but was sitting at #14 when “No One Else on Earth” debuted at #74 the week of August 15, 1992. This single proved to be the biggest of them all: despite taking one extra week to climb to #1, “No One Else on Earth” hit the top of the chart on October 24, 1992 and held the #1 spot for four consecutive weeks – meaning that she held the top spot of the chart for 15% of the calendar year. The only other artist with three #1s in 1992 was Alan Jackson, but they only held the top for a combined four weeks. With “No One Else on Earth”, too, the song was sitting at #21 when her fourth album cut debuted at #66. This was the first of her singles off of Wynonna not to reach #1, peaking at #4 the week of February 13 1993.
Each of these singles charted for 20 weeks, which seems incredibly short in comparison to charts today. But the race to #1 for the first three singles was also much quicker, and shows just how much the chart cycle has changed given that her songs were entering before the single preceding it had exited. These singles preceded Billboard’s recurrent chart rules, which were instituted later in the decade as a way to keep the chart cycle moving.
The album was also thriving. Wynonna was released March 31, 1992 and debuted at #1 on the Country Albums chart the week of April 18, 1992 and held the spot for three consecutive weeks before dropping to #3 and then hovering at #4 behind Billy Ray Cyrus’s Some Gave All (#1), and Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind (#2) and No Fences (#3) for 11 weeks. During this same period, The Judds had three albums on the chart: Greatest Hits Vol. II at #32, Greatest Hits at #35, and Love Can Build a Bridget at #62. Wynonna certified 5× multi-platinum in the United States for sales of five million copies. To say that Wynonna had success with her debut solo album would be an understatement.
“No One Else on Earth” was the most successful song, not just of group of songs from her debut album, but also of her entire solo career. It also stands apart from the rest for its sonic blend of rock and soul influences. It’s the growl of her voice and the brash horns that had me sold on this song from first hearing.
Unfortunately, the period following her debut and sophomore solo albums was marked by personal controversy and tabloid stories about her marriage, the announcement of pregnancy out of wedlock (taboo for the country music industry), and the very public discovery about the identity of her father. It may very well be that some of this personal drama likewise played a role in Wynonna’s solo career not fully capturing the same success that she had with her debut solo album.
In his episode on “Wynonna” for his Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast, Tyler Mahan Coe discusses the sonic anomaly that is “No One Else on Earth” within this string of released singles. “No One Else on Earth” was originally released as the B-side to her debut solo single “She Was His Only Need” – perhaps testing the waters with her tradition-loving audience. The two singles that preceded her most successful single and the one that follows it harkened back to The Judds’ sound that made her popular. Why follow her biggest hit with one that returns to this sound? As Coe observes, not only was there no other song that sounded like “No One Else on Earth” on Wynonna, but it also afforded them the opportunity to test the waters with this new sound. Coe states: “Start with a single that sounds like The Judds. Give them a single that sounds like The Judds gone electric. Then, blow the barn doors wide open with a straight-up pop before dealing it back to The Judds’ sound and looking around to see if anyone noticed.”
What were they testing, exactly? Was it testing her ability to succeed as a crossover artist? Both “She is His Only Need” and “No One Else on Earth” peaked on the Adult Contemporary chart (at #25 and #35 respectively). Or, as Coe discusses, were they testing country response to a change in sound? He notes in the podcast episode that as “No One Else on Earth” was approaching #1 there was a lot of discussion surrounding whether or not this song even sounded like country music. His assessment, one that maps the trajectory of her solo career in the years following the debut album, is that her team read “My Strongest Weakness’s” peak at #4 as a sign that her country fans wouldn’t stick with her based on the change in sound of the previous track and to revert to her roots.
This is an interesting response to how “No One Else on Earth” performed. The song may have taken one extra week to get to the top of the chart, but it was her longest-running #1 song of the first three singles released. And her longest-running #1 of her solo career. She wouldn’t have a #1 again util 1996 with “To Be Loved By You” and that was her last. Is it possible that her team misread the interest? If she never had that same success again with music that harkened back to The Judds more traditional style… is it possible that her audience was less disappointed in the stylistic shift away from that style, than they were in her return to it with her fourth single?
Food for thought.
Reading on Wynonna:
- Bruce Feiler, Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes and the Changing Face of Nashville (New York: Perennial, HarperCollins, 1998).
- Harrington, Richard. “Wynonna on Her Own,” Washington Post, 16 August 1992.
- Tyler Mahan Coe, “Episode 12: Wynonna,” Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast (released 9 January 2018).