OH, DADDY!

Funnyman Cledus T. Judd gets serious for a new role - fatherhood!

Cledus T. Judd makes people laugh with wacky sendups like "How Do You Milk a Cow" and "If Shania Was Mine." But as a first-time father at age 40 - newborn daughter Caitlyn arrived in Sept. - he's serious about being a parent.

I'm working hard at it every day," he says. "It's harder than I might have imagined - but it's also great."

Cledus talks to his daughter in a drawn-out, affected Southern accent as he places her in a little chair, a gift from good friend Toby Keith. Caitlyn also has presents from her godparents, Rascal Flatts lead singer Gary Levox and his wife, Tara.

Cledus settles himself into a couch to keep a watchful eye on his daughter. "You know, I call her everything but Caitlyn - there's Cater, Caty and the one that drives my mom crazy, Caty Bug," he says softly. "She probably won't know her real name 'til she's three!"

Caitlyn Rose - her full, real name - was born to Cledus and former wife, singer Julie Reeves, last Sept. 11. Cledus and Julie married in March of 2003 and divorced five months later, but continued to see each other. Their child was conceived after the divorce.

The family now lives together in Cledus' home as he and Julie attempt to reconcile.

"We think it's in Caitlyn's best interests to try and make this work," Cledus explains. "The experts will tell you that an intact family is better for a child.

"What we are trying to focus on is being great parents. That's the most important thing."

Now career is taking on more importance with Caitlyn's birth.

"I am much more motivated now to get out there and work even harder," Cledus vows. "I toured a lot this past year, mostly with Rascal Flatts and a few concert dates with Toby. We'll be doing that again this year."

Smiling towards Julie, he adds, "I still enjoy playing golf, but now I'm content to just be at home when I'm off the road. And I know Julie needs a break, because she's with Caitlyn most of the time."

That's a far cry from Cledus' younger days when the comedian was far more likely to carouse on a day off.

"I'm glad I waited 'til now to have a child," says Cledus. "I don't know how well I would have done in the early part of my career. For one, Caitlyn wouldn't have been able to do things like eat, because I didn't have much money. And I wasn't very mature or responsible."

He's still a kid at heart, though. Cledus gets a kick out of putting a pacifier that looks like a set of false teeth in Caitlyn's mouth, quickly explaining, "My dentist gave me that." Then he and Julie get into the act, posing for a family snapshot with their own sets of joke-shop false teeth.

"I'll show Caitlyn that picture when she's much older," Cledus laughs. "I don't want to traumatize her early in life."

If Caitlyn's anything like Dad, though, she'll see the humor.

"People already say that she favors me - poor thing," he jokes. "Personality-wise, she's quiet most of the time. She likes to just lie there and stare at the ceiling ... which is what I do most of the time, come to think of it."

Julie chimes in, "But she's got a set of lungs on her, so maybe she gets that from me. She is starting to sleep a little more. Cledus is the one who can't sleep - he's up with every little cry."

Cledus declares, "Hey, I'm just training for her teenage years. I know I'll be sitting up at night, waiting for her to come home from her dates.

"Of course ... " he adds with a laugh, "she won't be allowed to date until she's 30!"

The laughter is interrupted by Caitlyn's small wet "accident," and it's time for a wardrobe change. Cledus and Julie dress Caitlyn in a shirt and slightly-too-big overalls, which have to be pulled up a bit.

"You know who she looks like with those pants?" Cledus says. "Fred Mertz, you know, from I Love Lucy. I even call her that sometimes. Julie doesn't especially like that one, though."

But it's clear that Cledus and family are truly loving life.

"My career is going good right now," he says. "We really love the house and the neighborhood we're in.

And, of course, godfather Gary has really been good to us. He and Tara call all the time to check up on us, or see if Julie needs anything." Without a doubt, Cledus has everything he needs right in front of him. "I could lie there with Caitlyn for hours, where before I could never sit still for that long," he says.

"I'm more content than I've ever been in my life."

- BOB PAXMAN

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