Last month in Nashville, a beaming Cledus T. Judd walked the red carpet at the American Country Countdown Awards with his 10-year-old daughter, Caitlyn. He was happily promoting his latest parody song, "Luke Bryan," a collaboration with Colt Ford sung to the tune of "Blurred Lines."
Inside the show, his fellow stars warmly greeted him, including Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan himself, who sweetly took time to visit with Caitlyn. In his heart, however, Judd knew he was done with the performing end of the music business after a more than two decade long comedy career that landed him airplay of 25 videos on CMT, numerous record deals, a spot on tours with many country superstars and sales of more than 2 million records (according to Judd).
"Looking around at that awards show, I knew my time was probably up," he confesses in an emotional interview with Billboard. "I didn't want to be the guy that's still hanging on, poor old Judd playing another fire convention." Still, he says, "I wanted my daughter to feel it one more time. I wanted her to know that carpet is almost unattainable to millions who want to walk it. And Cledus T. Judd walked it a whole bunch of times."
It was the combination of turning 50 last month, getting baptized in 2014 and his continuing endeavor to be the best possible father to Caitlyn that ultimately made up his mind, he later told Billboard.
Just a few weeks later, he made his plans to retire from the music business known in a brutally honest New Year's Day Facebook post in which he referenced his dysfunctional upbringing, his subsequent depression, past suicide attempts and drug abuse, his failed marriages, his early struggles to make it in the music business and his mother's current battle with Alzheimer's. Yet instead of being depressing, the post was uplifting, spiritual and packed with gratitude.
But his retirement doesn't mean he won't still be in the spotlight. Judd plans to continue hosting his morning show on country station WTCR Huntington, W.Va., where he has worked since 2012 after a successful stint in mornings at WQYK Tampa, Fla. He'll also still come to Nashville -- where he remains signed to Warner/Chappell and management firm AmpliFLY Entertainment -- for songwriting sessions. But rather than performing, he now plans to embark on a new career as a motivational speaker and, he says, serve a higher purpose than the pursuit of "money, fame and chicks."
"When I was at my lowest point in life and with no one around, God had his hand on my shoulder the entire time," Judd writes in his post. "He was leading me. He was guiding me, he was watching over me through it all and now it is my turn to return the favor."
He's being supported in his decision by industry friends like Rascal Flatts' Gary LeVox, Caitlyn's godfather, who sent Judd a text so uplifting Judd can't read it out loud without tearing up.
Judd is also in the midst of writing his autobiography in which he plans to share all the highs and lows and of his life, as well as stories about his fellow country stars, some involving extraordinary acts of kindness from celebrity friends like Toby Keith and Vince Gill. His experiences with drugs won't be off limits in the book. After a period of time when he says he couldn't even go out to a golf game without a pocketful of cocaine, Judd says he has now been clean for nearly 11 years.
The decision to stop performing music has been difficult, he admits, but he says, "I'm completely at peace with it, and I didn't think that I ever would be.
"The music business is such a drug. It pushes your ego and gives you a feeling of self-importance, [and] I love it with a passion," he continues. "I love the people in it. I love the friendships I've made. The Rolodex in my phone I wouldn't trade it for $10 million … But I can't dabble in something that's so important … It's unfair to take a spot if you halfway do it."
Ultimately, Judd says, "I just lost the desire to go stand on the back of a hay truck and sing 'If Shania Was Mine' at 50."
While Judd is best-known for his parody songs, he's also had numerous cuts as a songwriter of more serious fare, including an expected song on Tyler Farr's next album, as well as cuts by Rascal Flatts, the Crabb Family, Craig Morgan and Brian McKnight. "The music business, they have me pigeonholed," he says. "But there's a much bigger side to me than just standing up singing 'How Do You Milk A Cow?' I want to be able to share that with people. Mainly I just want to motivate people."
He got a taste of that when CMT aired his episode of Inside Fame in 2004. "I got a letter from a woman who had moved from Seattle to Nashville and that weekend had called her parents to come drive her home because she couldn't make it [in the music business]," he recalls. "While she was packing her clothes she watched my Inside Fame. Her parents were already seven hours away from Seattle and she called them and said 'go home.' That's the impact that I want to have on people's lives."
His own story is similar. He was flat broke and crashing at singer Daron Norwood's house in Nashville when he decided in 1993 to give up on his dream. He's already called his mother and asked her to meet him at the Greyhound station because he was coming home to Georgia. "Forty-five minutes later I heard Tim McGraw's 'Indian Outlaw' on the radio. I wrote 'Indian In-Laws' in about 15 minutes and the rest is history."
Judd went on to essentially become the "Weird Al" Yankovic of country music, writing such well-know parodies as "My Cellmate Thinks I'm Sexy," "I Love NASCAR," "Man of Constant Borrow" and "It's A Great Day To Be A Guy." In many cases, he convinced major Nashville stars to perform on the songs and appear in the videos with him, something he still marvels at. "I've sang with just about 90 percent of that town: Vince, Toby, Wynonna, Darryl Worley. I have no clue how that happened. None. I can't sing a lick."
Looking back, he says, "If I had quit, I never would have known what it as like to play the Grand Ole Opry and stand up there in that circle of wood. I never would have known what it was like to tour."
The man who goes by Barry Poole in his civilian life says inventing the character of Cledus T. Judd "saved my life. … I was a lost soul.
"I never really won a lot of awards, but you'll never meet a man more happy to have had a seat," he says. "You'll never meet someone that's more appreciative."
These days, the once restless Judd says, "I'm probably about as normal and peaceful as I've ever been... I searched for happiness my whole life in million-dollar houses and $100,000 cars, and I finally found it inside a $5 Bible. I got baptized about six months ago and I left about 49 years of misery in 3 feet of water."
Now, he wants the next phase of his career to have "a purpose. If I'm going to leave my daughter, and my radio station and my mother and my basketball coaching and my golf game, it's going to be to make a difference. … I want my daughter to look at me and go 'My dad is trying to make a difference in other people's lives.' That's that I'm going to do if people will have me... Even if it never happens, I did it for the right reasons."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Music Update newsletter. Subscribe here.