The Judds Changed What It Meant to Be a ‘Country Duo’

by Jim Casey
(Photo by Rusty Russell/Getty Images)

On the way to their Country Music Hall of Fame career, The Judds changed what it meant to be a “country duo.” Sure, mother Naomi and daughter Wynonna weren’t the first tandem to join forces and earn enshrinement into country music’s most sought-after club. Flatt and Scruggs (1985), The Louvin Brothers (2001), Homer and Jethro (2001), The Everly Brothers (2001), The Delmore Brothers (2001), and Brooks & Dunn (2019) preceded The Judds’ Hall of Fame induction on May 1, 2022—just one day after it was announced that Naomi Judd had passed away.

However, not only did The Judds revive the country duo in the mid-1980s, but also they helped pave the way for future duos, like Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland, as well as present-day tandems like Brothers Osborne. Hear me out. I get it, other country duos were in existence before The Judds’ meteoric rise, including the underappreciated Bellamy Brothers. But when The Judds dropped their 1984 debut album, Wynonna & Naomi, they did more than embark on a Hall of Fame journey. Really, they revived one of country music’s art forms: the permanent duo.

Permanent Duo

The Judds really opened the floodgates for a genre full of permanent duos to emerge. Just take a journey through the CMA Awards archives and check out some of the pre-1988 winners of CMA Duo of The Year. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White in 1987. Dan Seals and Marie Osmond in 1986. And Willie Nelson and “fill in the blank” during numerous years, including Julio Iglesias (1984), Merle Haggard (1983), and Waylon Jennings (1976).

In fact, in country music today—unlike many other genres—the permanent duo is celebrated at the CMA and ACM Awards in its own category. That changed because of The Judds, who won the CMA Vocal Group of the Year (two or more members) category from 1985 to 1987. In 1988, the CMA rebranded the category Vocal Duo of the Year to focus on permanent duos (for the most part). And The Judds claimed that title four years in a row from 1988 to 1991. Of course, along came Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks the next year, and Brooks & Dunn won the award 14 out of the next 15 years.

‘We’ The Judds

With their mother-daughter harmonies, not to mention Naomi’s stage presence and Wynonna’s soulful delivery, The Judds proved to be a winning combination from 1983 through 1991. Of course, Wynonna also went on to have a very successful solo career.

The Judds scored 20 Top 10 hits, including 14 chart-topping singles. The duo brought home five Grammy Awards, nine CMA Awards, and seven ACM Awards. When they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on May 1, The Judds became the first all-female duo to join the club. In fact, only one other duo in the CMHOF—songwriting spouses Felice and Boudleaux Bryant—features a female member.

“I’m gonna make this fast, because my heart’s broken, and I feel so blessed. And it’s a very strange dynamic to be this broken and this blessed,” said Wynonna Judd, in part, at the CMHOF medallion ceremony. “Though my heart is broken, I’m going to continue to sing because that’s what we do.”

Re-read the penultimate word in the previous sentence: “we.”

I love Wynnona’s wording choice, whether intentional or not. Not only does “we” represent the duo of Naomi and Wynonna, but also it encompasses the “we” of artists, in general. Whatever the connotation, we—the audience—are thankful for The Judds.