For Naomi Judd’s family, touring offers time to grieve, reflect

Published 9:13 am Friday, September 30, 2022

Fans of Naomi Judd, the late matriarch of the Grammy-winning country duo The Judds, will have a chance to say goodbye and rejoice in their hits in a final tour helmed by daughter Wynonna and all-star musical partners.

The Judd family continues to grieve her sudden death during a year that should have been a celebration. The tour was announced only weeks before Naomi Judd, 76, took her life on April 30, the day before their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“It’s devastatingly beautiful to go back to the past and relive some of these memories,” said Wynonna Judd this week as she sat on a tour bus after rehearsals. “Yesterday I was in rehearsal and there’s a part in the show where they sync up Mom singing with me. And I turned around and I just lost it.”

The 11-city tour starts Friday night in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and will include stops in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Fort Worth, Texas, and Nashville before ending in their home state in Lexington, Kentucky. Special guests include Brandi Carlile, Ashley McBryde, Little Big Town, Kelsea Ballerini, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and tour opener Martina McBride.

Judd’s husband Larry Strickland, and her two daughters, Wynonna and Ashley, reflected on their mother’s legacy, not only in music, but as a caregiver and an advocate. The red-headed duo scored more than a dozen No. 1 hits, combining young Wynonna’s powerful vocals with Naomi’s family harmonies and stage charm. Reflecting their Appalachian roots with polished pop stylings, their hits included “Why Not Me,” “Mama He’s Crazy,” “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain,” and “Love Can Build a Bridge.”

Naomi’s husband of nearly 33 years said he hopes that fans feel uplifted to hear their hit songs performed again in arenas. But he knows he will struggle when he sees his wife on the big screens or hears her voice again.

“I’m having trouble now just seeing pictures of her. I don’t know how much I can handle,” Strickland said.

Strickland said his wife was excited to tour again with her daughter because she loved the connection with the fans. The storyline of the single mother supporting two daughters becoming one of the biggest duos in country music history, along with Naomi’s flashy wardrobe and bubbly approachability, made fans identify with her.

“She loved being on the stage and singing,” Strickland said. “She loved people. And she would do her twisting and twirling. She was the harmony singer. She was all about her hair and the little dresses that she would have made. And so that was her world.”

Her family has endless stories of Naomi Judd’s empathy and passion for helping, her love of animals, especially dogs, and her desire to learn. A nurse by trade before her music career, she was on the board of the American Humane Association and was a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Her daughter Ashley recalled how she walked around with $20 and $50 bills in her bra and would hand them out to people, especially women.

Wynonna Judd said that recently she visited the same hospital outside Nashville where her mom died. And she noticed that on one of the walls in the emergency room were pictures of volunteers who helped assist patients.

“And there’s a picture of my mother in the cutest little wig and she has her name tag, ‘Naomi Judd,’” she said.

Naomi Judd struggled most of her life with depression, which she shared openly in her book “River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged With Hope.” Her family said she was also being treated for bipolar disorder and PTSD.

“That’s the complexity of this issue, because my mother, even in her darkest hour, would put on her wig and go down to the emergency room and help other people during their emergencies,” Wynonna Judd said, her strong voice cracking. “So I find it pretty devastating that she got to a point where she was done helping herself.”

Strickland, too, noted how mental illness affected his wife. Despite feeling incredibly excited for the tour, her mental state was deteriorating, he said. Strickland said she was seeing a psychiatrist, but her depression was resistant to treatment, and they were trying different types of medication to help her.

“The lows that she would experience with her mental illness just seemed to get worse,” he said.

Since The Judds debuted in the 1980s, the family has lived under the public eye, headlining awards shows and appearing on magazine covers, in books and TV shows. But Naomi’s death has only intensified scrutiny, to the point where the family is dispelling rumors that there is a dispute over the estate. Strickland, who is Ashley and Wynonna’s stepfather, was named the executor of the estate.

Ashley Judd said it was “obviously natural, good, and proper that Mom’s estate would flow to Pop, her partner of 43 years and then upon his eventual passing, come to her daughters.”

The actor was with her mother when she died and has advocated for the family’s legal request to keep police investigative records relating to her mother’s death from being publicly released. After an appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court. Ashley Judd said that privacy should be afforded to any family dealing with suicide.

“We are an open family,” she said. “We’re committed to raising awareness about the walk with mental illness and reducing shame and stigma, guiding people towards resources, and helping families build resistance to and resilience from the devastation. And there’s also a certain dignity and decency that’s necessary around the actual day of the death.”

Wynonna Judd said since her mother’s death, people who have had similar experiences have reached out to her to ask that mental illness resources and information are provided to fans during the tour.

“This is very real to me. This is not just show business. This is an opportunity to help someone out there not end their life,” she said. “We must get rid of the stigma of the words mental illness because people will not reach out for help.”

Wynonna’s relationship with her mother was sometimes filled with drama, but it continues to this day, when she sits under a tree at her home in Tennessee and processes her grief. “I love my mother and she makes me crazy still. Your relationship with your mother never ends,” she said. “I still talk to her and it’s awesome and it’s hard.”

The family wants the fans to remember Naomi Judd as a beautiful, talented, smart and colorfully complex woman, who had highs and lows, and was honest about her journey.

“I want them to see that in adversity, in death, there is life,” said Wynonna Judd.