Six years ago, Cledus T. Judd announced that he was hanging up his overalls and heading home to Kentucky to spend more time with his family. “From the first day I was home with my daughter I knew I had made the right decision. I was home with my child and happier than ever!” he says.
Of course fans around the world were disappointed. But if they had known the real reason for his exit, they might have felt concerned, maybe even alarmed.
That part about being with his daughter was true. What he kept hidden was the darker side of his often troubled past. He had already overcome his battles with drug addiction, his struggles to heal the scars of sexual abuse he’d endured as a child, and several divorces, but maybe worst of all, his feeling that he just didn’t matter as much anymore.
“So I left Nashville behind. I focused mostly on my daughter and my morning radio show, but after I would get off in the mornings my daughter would be at school I became bored. I’m a creative soul and there was nothing to feed it. I tried to find any kind of work I could after my show,” he recounts. “I’d buy and remodel dilapidated houses. Then, when I came home, covered in dirt and soot, coughing up coal, I’d think, ‘Man if Kix and Ronnie could see me now!”
Cledus chuckles before resuming his story. “Ten years before, I was standing in front of twenty thousand people. Now I was standing in front of a run-down fireplace, breathing asbestos. And when my wife and kids weren’t around, I’d get on my phone, Google my name and watch my old videos. I’d remember where I was when I did each one. Or I’d watch the award shows and remember how I would sit there amongst the greats — Brooks & Dunn, Toby, the Flatts! I never really won an award but I was privileged to have a seat amongst them. And yes sometimes alone in those run down houses I would shed a tear or two, I’m not gonna lie.”
No one outside of his immediate circle had any idea. Their memories of Cledus were framed in the laughter he inspired through his song parodies and videos — “I Love NASCAR,” “My Cellmate Thinks I’m Sexy,” “Did I Shave My Back For This?” They might have replayed his albums, beginning with Cledus T. Judd (No Relation) from 1995, the Gold-certified I Stoled This Record (1996) and on to Parodyziac!! (2012), maybe wondering as they smiled, what had ever happened to their favorite country musical comedian and chronicler of life’s absurdities? A comedian that sold close to three million records. “I never thought I’d sell three much less three million!” he adds with a chuckle.
They wouldn’t have dreamed that back in 1990, he drove out to the middle of Jacksonville’s Main Street Bridge and contemplated escaping his demons with a leap into the St. Johns River; Or how years later, after leaving audiences cheering and clapping for more, he slipped into shadows away from the stage.
“I’d go onto the empty bus after a big show and bury my head in a pillow and cry. I could make them laugh but I didn’t know how to make myself laugh.”
His self-imposed exile began, as did a process of healing. He kept a hand in the business as a co-host of the WTCR morning radio show out of Huntington, West Virginia. Very rarely he would do another gig. His confidence was shot to the point that he might have stopped them entirely, if not for one engagement that helped put him back on track.
A year or so ago Ray Stevens asked him to open for him one night in Renfro Valley, Kentucky. “Ray is my idol, so I did it,” Cledus says. “I did 35 or 40 minutes. After I was done, the whole place – over 1500 people – gave me a standing ovation. When I got off the stage, Ray asked me, ‘Cledus, why did you retire?’ I said, ‘Well, Ray, I just didn’t feel like I had much relevance anymore.’ Then Ray said, ‘Well, 1500 fans just stood up for you out there. I think you’re relevant.’ He winked at me, shook my hand and walked off. That was the sign that told me, ‘You know what? You are relevant. You are good at what you do. If anybody ever needed you in your lifetime, they need you now.’”
Before making any decisions, Cledus gathered his family to ask their advice. His daughter Caitlyn responded, “Dad, if you’re gonna go stand on the back of a hay truck and sing funny songs to make money, I would rather you stay home and be with me. But if you’re going to change people’s lives, I’ll be waiting for you when you get home.”
“Besides,” she added, “we’re sick of watching your old YouTube videos. Go out and make some new ones, and besides I’ll need a Ferrari in a few years.”
That settled it. Cledus headed back to Nashville to write songs, both serious and humorous. Brantley Gilbert picked up one of them, “Three Feet Of Water,” for his 2017 album The Devil Don’t Sleep. Recently he’s finished a new single and its video, a satire of Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line’s #1 single “Up Down,” titled “My Weight’s Goin’ Up Down.”
Friends cheered him on. Fans flooded his Facebook with their approval. Old and new have welcomed him back. An email to Cledus from CMT’s Leslie Fram speaking for them all: “YOU ARE BACK! I love it. You are a genius!”
“My whole family cried when they read the email from Leslie. Then we all went and celebrated at the Waffle House. A royalty check came in that same day so what better place to spend it all than the Waffle House!” laughs Cledus.
Yes, Cledus T. Judd — playful satirist, unforgettable entertainer, skillful writer — is back. But he’s changed too.