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Connee Sandahl

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What's the point of heart surgery if you can't have some fun with it?

Cledus T. Judd says he got the inspiration for "Coronary Life"--the lead single from his new album Juddmental--as he was being rolled into the operating room for ticker repair. "You know you're in trouble," he riffs, "when the doctor looks at your chart and says, 'Damn! "

Besides the dead-on parody of Chad Brook's "Ordinary Life," Juddmental also boasts the deliciously dizzy "Livin' Like John Travolta" (a sendup of Picky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca"), "Shania, I'm Broke" (Shania Twain's "Honey, I'm Home"), "Where The Grass Don't Grow" (Tim McGraw's "Where The Green Grass Grows"), "In Another Size" (Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood's "In Another's Eyes"), "Christmas" (Faith Hill's "This Kiss") and "She's Inflatable" (Diamond Rio's "Unbelievable").

Rounding out Judd's fourth Razor & Tie collection are the spoof-a-second ditties "Ricky Tidwell's Mama Is Gonna Play Football" (with guest vocals by country hitmaker Daryle Singletary), "Cledus, The Karaoke King" and "Hillbilly Honeymoon".

Judd co-wrote nine of the 10 songs and co-produced the album.
One of country music's most inventive wordsmiths, Judd crafts lyrics that are pointed, precise, witty and, quite often, intricately rhymed. He dotes on rap music, and its influence on his own work is pervasive. "You'd think we just sit around and make this stuff up as we go," he says. "But it took us a month, for example, to write "Cledus Went Down To Florida." I don't want to make it sound like I'm doing brain surgery, but I do study the business. It's got to be a big record before you can parody it. If it's not, the general public won't know the song and they won't get the gist of the parody.

Judd had his eye on "Ordinary Life" from the moment it came out. "I called [Brock's record label] and told them I was thinking about doing a parody of it. They said they weren't sure it was going to be a hit--that it wasn't taking off the way they thought. But I told them, 'That's a hit record.' It was only up to No. 63 when I wrote the parody. I'll be danged if two months later it wasn't a No. 1 record. I'm proud of that one because I took a shot long before it was a hit." Usually he waits until a song is near the top of the charts before he begins his lyrical renovations.

As a courtesy Judd always requests permission to parody other artists songs. He wanted to cover "In Another's Eyes" on his last album, but Garth Brooks' people wouldn't give him the go-ahead. This time around they did. Judd thinks Brooks may have feared a parody would have hurt the song's chances for a Grammy award (which it did go on to win). Says Judd, "I'm walking around thinking that if my song can keep Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood from getting a Grammy, I ain't making near enough money." Not surprisingly, Judd uses the parody to poke a bit of fun at Brooks' rock star alter ego, Chris Gaines, The comedian credits "In Another Size" as being performed by Waite Gaines and Patricia Earwood.

Nowhere is Judd's cleverness better displayed than in his tongue-in-cheek homage to John Travolta, his role model from Saturday Night Fever. "lf you come to my apartment, you'll see why I wrote that song," he explains. "All I have in there are black-light posters, a disco ball and a 1971 olive-green leather recliner that has temperature control and vibrates. Everything in my apartment is from the 70s. I was highly influenced by disco music. It was all I listened to. This song was the hardest one to write. We researched it. We pulled off webpage after webpage about Travolta. We read his bio--everything about him we could find.
Elsewhere on the album, Judd parades his twisted takes on inflatable toys ("She's Inflatable"), the aggravations of holiday shopping ("Christmas"), his own spotty finances ("Shania I'm Broke"), legends in their own minds ("Cledus The Karaoke King") and passions peculiarly South- ern ("Ricky Tidwell's Mama Is Gonna Play Football," "Hillbilly Honeymoon").

Judd's real name is Barry Poole. In 1993, he was well on his way to a career as a hairdresser in his hometown of Crowe Springs, Georgia, when he heard about a talent contest being held every week at the Buckboard, a country music nightclub near Atlanta.
"I went down to the club on a dare," he says, "and I took eight buddies with me in a van. The piano player asked me what I was going to do, and I told him I had these two funny rap songs. He said, 'We don't play rap songs.' I said, 'OK, then you just play Delbert McClinton's "Shaky Ground," and I'll make it fit.' I sang the first song, and there was this guy in a suit and tie who kept coming up and putting 20-dollar bills on the stage. By the second song, he'd put down 80 bucks. I told him that if I had another song, I'd do it for him and make some real money. And he said, I'm paying you to shut up,' I figured if I could sing this bad and make this kind of money, I'd found my niche."

Determined to make it in show business, Cledus soon set out for Nashville in a critically battered pickup truck. He remembers there were holes in the doors where the speakers had been ripped out and gaps in the floorboard that were wide enough to enable him to count the white lines creeping along below. The vehicle did have one functioning windshield wiper, but it was on the right-hand side.

Judd estimates he never made more than $4,000 a year his first three years in Nashville--most of that from doing odd jobs around Music Row.

One of his employers, country dance impresario Wynn Jackson, suggested the name "Cledus T. Judd," and a grateful Barry Poole promptly snapped it up. Initially, Judd recorded for Cross Three Records, a small independent label. It was here that he attracted his first industry-wide attention before moving up to New York-based Razor & Tie Records in 1996.

"I had about three goals when I came to Nashville," Judd recounts. "One was for my mama to meet Vince Gill, because that's really what got me into the business. We were sitting there in front of the TV in 1992 and watching him sing "When I Call Your Name.' And my mama cried. I told her, 'One of these days, you'll meet him.' When we were doing my video for 'Wives Do It All The Time,' Mama came up to watch. She didn't know Vince was going to be in it. Then he walked in. Man! After a moment like that, it's all down hill. Fulfilling my mama's dream out- weighs all mine. I also wanted to work with George Jones and Tammy Wynette and do the Grand Ole Opry. I got to work with Tammy in Vegas a few years ago, and I actually toured some with George Jones. Then, this year, I did the Opry. Knowing where I was 10 years ago and knowing where I am now is the most fascinating thing that could happen to somebody.

Because parodies are seldom played on radio and because neither the Academy of Country Music nor the Country Music Association gives awards for comedy recordings, Judd turned to music videos. He has made 11 of them to date (counting the forthcoming "Coronary Life" and "Christmas". And he gives them credit for helping him sell more than 770,000 albums so far. "Most people write songs with radio in mind, Judd says. "But I write for CMT and TNN. They're my radio. Hardly anybody comes up to me and says, 'I love that funny song.' It's 'I love that video.'"

Judd's first collection of music videos will be released later this year. "Because of these videos," he reflects, "I have an image. And that's so hard to get in this business." His entries have won CMT's Independent Video of the Year awards for two of the past three years.

In spite of his successes, Judd still views the country music world with sense of wonder. It both thrills and humbles him, he says, when another artist strikes up a conversation with him or volunteers to appear in one of his videos. Among those who have done cameos for him are Gill, Shania Twain, David Ball, Joe Diffie, Buck Owens, Deana Carter, Trace Adkins and Charlie Daniels.
Now in fine shape physically, Judd discusses his recent round of health problems as if they were sitcoms. They were rolling me in through the double doors for my heart operation," he relates, "and here they'd pulled my picture off my website, blown it up and put it on the operating room door. Inside they were playing my album over a computer, blasting it like it was a car stereo. I went under listening to 'Every Light In The House Is Blown' and came to with 'If Shania Was Mine.'

"I was born with an extra heart valve," Judd continues, "so they went in and destroyed it. I know good and well that when I'm 80, the doctors are going to come to me and say, 'If you just had one more heart valve, we could save you."

The over-equipped heart wasn't his only affliction, he adds. "I was on the road in Virginia when my gall bladder starting acting up. l'd been hurting all night. It got to the point that I told my bus driver, 'Either take me to a hospital or let me get out and you run over me.' So he took me to the hospital. I walked into that emergency room at 4:30 in the morning, and there were 35 people ahead of me. The nurse looked up and said, 'My God! You look like Cledus T. Judd.' I said, I'II be Robert Redford if it'll help me get in here. I'm about to die.' Two hours later, I had my gall bladder out. That's where celebrity pays off, and I used it to the limit. I promised them free albums, Shania's phone number, anything they might want.

It will take a long and vigorous life for Judd to complete the projects he has scheduled or aspires to do. He is already looking toward his next album, which he says will be called Cledus T. Judd: Songs To Eat By. He's also signed a book deal for his autobiography. Then there is his mega-dream-recording a duet with his idol, Weird Al Yankovic, "I've done wrote the song," he reveals. "it's a takeoff on Donny & Marie's I'm A Little Bit Country/I'm A Little Bit Rock & Roll." Beyond that, he plans to do a re-make of Andy Griffith's 1954 spoken-word classic, "What It Was Football.

Is that it? Well, not quite. "l'd want to do a duet album with all the top country female chicks. Serious music. I'm not the greatest singer, but I can sing. And I want to do a rap record. I'm a big rap fan. As my career grows, I like to do more standup comedy. People don't go to Jeff Foxworthy to hear him sing parodies, and they don't come to me to hear me tell redneck jokes. But I'II branch out eventually."

Judd knows and reveres the great country comics who came before him and sprinkles his conversation with references to Minnie Pearl, Homer & Jethro, Jerry Clower, Stringbean, Junior Samples, Ray Stevens and Pinkard & Bowden.

"I just want to carry on the tradition," he says. "I was backstage at the TNN/Music City Awards this year. I'd had all that surgery, plus root canals-- you name it. Michael Peterson came up to me and said one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me. He's got this real soft voice, you know, and he asked me how I was feeling. I told him I felt great now. And he said, 'Take care of yourself. We need you.' I had to turn away. I didn't know that they need me. This business will go on long after I'm gone. But I hope that I've made an impact."

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