At a packed Ryman Auditorium — the Nashville venue’s legendary wood stage festooned with 2,500 pink roses — Naomi’s daughters, Wynonna and Ashley, and her husband, Larry Strickland, were joined by 2,300 friends, family and fans. The celebration aired live on CMT.
The 76-year-old Naomi, who as half of The Judds with Wynonna scored 15 No. 1s and earned five Grammys, died by suicide on April 30, one day before the duo was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
Country music may have claimed Naomi as its own, but it was clear from the taped appreciations by celebrities from all walks of life that Judd’s reach expanded far beyond country’s borders: Bono recited lyrics to The Judds’ “Guardian Angel.” Actress Salma Hayek noted “the first time I met Naomi, I felt like I was meeting Scarlett O’Hara.” Reese Witherspoon praised Naomi as a fierce single mother, who raised “two amazing women.” Oprah Winfrey declared that Naomi left “a heart print on every life she touched.” Morgan Freeman, Reba McEntire and Bette Midler also sent taped greetings. Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts hosted the 80-minute service, and Martina McBride, who was slated to open for The Judds on their final tour this fall, recited “When Great Trees Fall,” a poem by Naomi’s friend, Maya Angelou.
The emphasis, however, was appropriately on the music — and, later, Wynonna and Naomi’s self-proclaimed dysfunctional dynamic. After welcoming the audience, Ashley introduced Wynonna, calling her “the greatest of all time.” From her first performance to her last, Wynonna lived up to the G.O.A.T. mantle, her voice emotional but lacking none of its remarkable trademark huskiness and growl.
Wynonna performed “River of Time,” the title track from The Judds’ 1989 album about the end of a relationship and time’s healing powers, but changed the lyric from “My love is gone, gone, gone” to, heartbreakingly, “My mother is gone, gone, gone.”
She was followed by Little Big Town singing “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days),” The Judds’ sixth No. 1, with both Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman fighting back tears as they sang.
Jamey Johnson, who was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry less than 24 hours prior, reached back even further, performing “John Deere Tractor” from the duo’s 1984 debut EP, Wynonna & Naomi.
Just as with “River of Time,” many of the performed songs took on a new resonance following Naomi’s death. As Emmylou Harris and Allison Russell performed an angelic, harmony-filled “The Sweetest Gift,” a song about a mother whose son is in prison, it was hard not to recast the line “She’s gone to heaven/ From heartaches free” in a new light.
It was unclear how much of the memorial service’s program came directly from instructions left by Naomi, but Ashley noted that her mother had wanted a service at the Ryman and had specifically requested that gospel greats The Gaithers perform a rousing rendition of “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be.”
The influence of The Judds, the most successful female duo in country music history, on the women artists that came after them could not be overstated, and that impact was evident on Ashley McBryde’s spirited version of “Love Is Alive” and Carly Pearce’s poignant “Why Not Me.” (“I have this mental image. I feel like Naomi’s flipping her skirt in heaven tonight,” Pearce said.)
Of all the performers, perhaps Brad Paisley went back the furthest with The Judds. Before performing “Young Love (Strong Love),” he noted that he opened for the duo on July 22, 1986 at the Wheeling (W. Va) Jamboree. “I wanted to cry. I was 13. I had a grandfather with cancer who wanted me to be a country music singer,” he said, noting his grandfather had been given three months to live. “He got to see me open for the greatest act in country music… It was a big deal for me to open for them then, but it’s a bigger deal to do this today.”
Ashley and Wynonna then returned to the stage joined by Strickland, who remarked that “Naomi never met a stranger… Much to my displeasure, she would start a conversation with anyone who made eye contact with her. We’d end up standing 10, 20, 30 minutes on the sidewalk while she talked to a complete stranger about their passions and their dog.”
Strickland revealed that Naomi had been with him in Europe while he was on tour, but then flew back alone from Vienna, Austria, on April 29 for The Judds’ May 1 Country Music Hall of Fame induction. He noted he was “scared to death about her flying alone all the way from Vienna back to Nashville because I knew how fragile she was.”
The day after her death, Strickland received an email from Naomi’s seatmate from Chicago to Nashville on the second leg of her flight home from Austria, whom Naomi had inexplicably given Strickland’s card to, “and it typifies what I just said about her never meeting a stranger,” Strickland said. The note from someone named David detailed his experience sitting next to the legend, whom he did not recognize, “being a bit of a country and western Philistine.” But, he noted, “the next 90 minutes we spent in each other’s company was not only entertaining, fascinating and enlightening, but also for me, at least, very enjoyable. It’s a small comfort, I’m sure, but my life seems a lot richer after meeting your wife… I can tell you she spoke highly and warmly of you and the life you shared together. Rest assured she loved you and had no qualms of telling me, a stranger on a plane, that was so.”
Both Naomi and Wynonna made no secret that their relationship, while one of great love, was often fractious, and that divisiveness came to the fore during the memorial service. In a 2016 interview with Roberts following the release of her book, River of Time: My Descent Into Depression and How I Emerged With Hope,” Naomi said that the two were estranged at the time, so it rang true that Wynonna then brought some blunt truth to the event. After Ashley recalled some of Naomi’s touching experiences with fans, Wynonna said, “Enough of this love stuff. Let’s get real. She could be evil.”
After Wynonna and Ashley bantered back and forth about whether to tell a story about being pulled over in a U-Haul when they were little — “Are we telling that story?” Ashley questioned — Wynonna went on to note that a woman, who had been in the fan club since 1983 and had been in the audience the first time the mother and daughter sang on stage together, was in the audience. She credited her and the fans with “chang[ing] our relationship because we had to get along for those two hours on stage. You share a bus with yours and you let me know how it goes…”
After Ashley tried to rein Wynonna back in by recounting how Naomi always had the family members sit in the same seat every time they came over because she wanted to “create memories,” Wynonna hilariously added, “[Ashley’s] up here being so nice because, you know, she didn’t share a bus with her. I did. Everything you say is so beautiful. I love you, sorry, but this is my house.”
Wynonna then said one of the truest lines of the evening: “This isn’t easy. I don’t know why we’re doing this in public. It sucks. But we’re doing it, aren’t we? We’re showing the world what a dysfunctional family does. You show up for each other. That’s what we do.” The moment would have been awkward if the duo hadn’t discussed their knotty relationship publicly over the decades, but as they had, it simply felt on-brand and honest.
Ashley attempted to get the evening back on track by adding, “I would love to hear you sing now, if that’s OK?”
That led to a video from Midler talking about a highlight of her career singing “The Rose” with Wynonna in Nashville. “Please sing it tonight, knowing I’m right behind you,” she requested of Wynonna before adding, “And to my friend, Naomi, rest — finally — in peace.”
Wynonna was then joined by Brandi Carlile for a tear-jerking, passionate version of “The Rose.” Carlile, who had to pull out of performing at the CMA Hall of Fame service after contracting COVID-19, has noted that The Judds were her “first, second and third” concerts. (Is it too much to hope that Carlile produces Wynonna’s next album?)
Overcome with emotion and ever the perfectionist, Wynonna stopped the band to perform the final lines, “Just remember in the winter/ Far beneath the bitter snows/ Lies the seed that with the sun’s love/ In the spring becomes the rose,” again.
After Carlile left the stage, Wynonna commented on telling her mother goodbye on April 30 — “Her eyebrows were still perfect” — before adding that she had made the decision to honor The Judds’ fall tour dates. “I’m going to have to because that’s what you would want,” she said to the fans, though she could have been speaking to Naomi as well.
With that, she closed the service, as was inevitable, with The Judds’ signature song, “Love Can Build a Bridge,” accompanied by the Christ Church Choir and the audience, who sang the chorus a capella back to Wynonna.
Wynonna then looked at the audience at the close of the celebration that focused on the joy of her mother’s life and music, instead of the tragedy of her death, and said, “Did we have fun or what?” before walking off stage after delivering one of her finest performances ever.