The Untold Truth Of The Judds

On April 30, Naomi Judd of the country music duo the Judds passed away. She and her daughter, Wynonna, dominated the country music scene in the 1980s and early 1990s, amassing an impressive number of No.1 hits and accolades. People remember Naomi as the light, harmonizing voice who complemented Wynonna's mighty lungs. But more significantly, Naomi is remembered as the mother figure of the duo who became a sort of matriarch of all country music, per NPR. She was a hard-working single mother from Kentucky who once supported her family as a nurse. She would then come home to sing tunes with her eldest daughter on their back porch. Their traditional twist on modern country music appealed to many, and they sold more than 20 million records, per PBS.

Surprisingly, the Judds' peak only lasted eight years, cut off short in 1991 by Naomi's diagnosis of hepatitis C. Their short reign is hard to believe considering how dynamic their legacy in country music is, which includes five Grammys. Wynonna continued to sing in a solo career while Naomi became a spokesperson for mental health awareness, per USA Today. They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame only a day after Naomi passed away.

The Judds were first known as the 'Hillbilly Women'

Naomi Judd was pregnant with Wynonna when she was 17-years-old and living in her native Kentucky. She then married and had a second child, Ashley Judd. They moved to Los Angeles, where Naomi later divorced. While she studied for a nursing degree, she and Wynonna began singing and performing at local venues. In her memoir, "Coming Home to Myself," Wynonna recalls performing with a group called Susie McKee and the Cowpokes. They also performed at charity events and at their church. When she was 14-years-old, Wynonna changed her name to form a new identity. From Christina Claire Ciminella, she became Wynonna Ellen Judd, taking Ellen from her mother's middle name. It was around this time when she and mother became serious about music. Naomi presented Wynonna with matching leather jackets that had the words "Hillbilly Women" emblazoned on the back.

According to Britannica, the Judds presented themselves as the "Hillbilly Women" at performances in San Francisco. Wynonna recollects an anecdote in which music star Mickey Gilley appeared at the Howard Johnson hotel where Naomi worked as a waitress. Naomi introduced her and Wynonna's duo as "The Judds-Hillbilly Women." In 1979, they moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in order to bolster their music career.

Their first single was a hit

Naomi and Wynonna Judd experienced nearly immediate success when the family arrived in Nashville in 1979. By 1983, they were signed by RCA Victor Records, per Britannica. In the years between, Naomi worked as a nurse, and Wynonna went to school like any other teenager. The duo appeared in local radio and television gigs, including a regular appearance on "The Ralph Emery Early Morning Show," earning them $25 each time. In one appearance, they performed Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors." Parton would later become a friend and collaborator, per Rolling Stone.

Record producer Brent Maher had seen these performances when he met Naomi at the hospital, where she was treating his daughter. His daughter and Wynonna also knew each other from school. Naomi approached Maher with a tape recording and asked him to listen to it. This began a professional relationship that led to demo tapes and eventually, a contract with RCA. Their first single was "Had a Dream (for the Heart)," which reached No. 16 on Billboard's country music chart. Their next single, "Mama He's Crazy," reached No.1 and won the Judds a Grammy, according to Songwriter Universe.

They dominated the 1980s country music scene

The Judds became one of the biggest acts in country music throughout the 1980s. They won the CMA's Vocal Group of the Year award every year from 1985 to 1991, per Britannica. The Judds' second album became platinum thanks to its hit single "Why Not Me," which reached No. 1 on the charts. It also won song of the year at the ACM awards. The trend continued for the Judds' third album, which contained the No.1 hit "Rockin with the Rhythm of the Rain." Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Judds had 20 top 10 hits, and 14 of them reached No. 1. In total, they won five Grammys, nine CMA awards, and seven ACM awards, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The Judds' rise to fame from humble, working-class origins inspired many, and their sought-after New Traditionalist sound — in an era dominated by the modern Urban Cowboy trend (per The New York Times) — was a reflection of that. When the Judds produced their first album, producer Brent Maher wanted to use simple instrumentals, which he felt appealed to their vocals, per Songwriter Universe. Those rustic acoustics, along with the mother-daughter family band dynamic — which was once popular in the industry — was like a return to form in country music and appealed to many.

Wynonna Judd had a successful solo career

In 1991, Naomi Judd was forced to retire after a hepatitis C diagnosis. A year later, Wynonna Judd debuted as a solo artist. Her first song, "Wynonna," sold millions. Wynonna had several top 10 hits, including six No. 1's, per PBS. Among those were singles released in 1992 — "She Is His Only Need," "I Saw the Light," and "No One Else on Earth." She honored her mother as she embarked on her solo career; CDs sent out to radio promoters included a personal message from Wynonna with a request to play the music, writing that she now needed the help to support her mother. Her first album sold 5 million copies (per The Boot), and she continued to have a successful independent career in the 2000s. Her 2016 album, "Wynonna & the Big Noise," reached No. 16 on Billboard's country music charts.

In 1995, Naomi's hepatitis was in full remission, per The New York Times. The year before, she and Wynonna appeared together at the halftime show of Super Bowl XXVIII. The Judds formally reunited in 1999 on New Years' Eve and went on tour in 2000, which they called "The Power to Change Tour."

The Judds had two farewell tours

In 1990, Naomi Judd was diagnosed with potentially fatal hepatitis C, which forced her to retire from show business. Her doctors gave her three months to live, but she would ultimately prevail, per The New York Times. The Judds' last single was "Love Can Build a Bridge," which was released in December 1990. They then embarked on a farewell tour, with their last show being televised. It received the largest pay-per-Vvew viewership in history, at the time, per PBS. That final show, which had special performances from Reba McEntire, Carl Perkins, and Larry Gatlin, featured an emotional moment from the Judds, in which Naomi gave her blessing for Wynonna's solo career, per Taste of Country.

But that wouldn't be the first time that the Judds had a farewell tour. In 2010, the Judds embarked on their "Last Encore Tour." Naomi was recovered from hepatitis, and since her initial diagnosis unceremoniously cut short their illustrious career, the duo decided to reunite a final time. However, they reunited again in 2015 for a Las Vegas residency called "Girls Night Out." In 2022, tickets went on sale for another that would've started in September, titled "The Final Tour," per CNN.

They were the subject of a TV miniseries

In 1995, the Judds were the subject of a made-for-TV miniseries titled "Naomi and Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge." Based on Naomi Judd's autobiography "Love Can Build a Bridge," the series chronicles much of her pre-fame struggles in Kentucky before it moves onto the group's rise in country music stardom. The show came after the Judds' break up in 1991, and Naomi's book was written in its aftermath, per SFGate. The entire series was four hours long and was aired on different days. Directed by Bobby Roth, the film starred Kathleen York as Naomi and Viveka Davis as Wynonna.

Reviews of the film criticized the amount of focus given to the Judds' early lives (via Entertainment Weekly), while others felt the film undersold Naomi's industry wit and portrayed Wynonna as too rebellious (per Variety). The film contained a cameo from Dolly Parton, who was close with the Judds. Upon news of Naomi's death, Parton posted a tribute on her Instagram, offering her condolences and calling the Judds her sisters. In 2001, Parton and the Judds performed the song "Stand By Your Man" together as a tribute to musician Tammy Wynette at the American Country Music Awards, per The Tennessean.

They had their own reality TV show

The Judds were the stars of their own 2011 reality show titled "The Judds," and it aired on Oprah Winfrey's newly launched OWN channel. The show documented the Judds' preparation for their farewell tour, which was their first tour in 10 years, per Reuters. Over the course of six episodes, cameras followed the private lives of the Judds and provided behind-the-scenes action as they toured and performed for their "Last Encore Tour," per Taste of Country and IMDb.

Wynonna Judd said the documentary provided a great opportunity to share her career and success with Naomi. Wynonna had undergone therapy since 2003 and felt she was in the midst of improving her relationship with her mother. She said she was in a great mental state and claimed the show helped her refine her breathing techniques, which she compared to "homework" (via Taste of Country). In an interview with Channel Guide Magazine, Wynonna said her favorite moments on the show were when she connected with fans, and her least favorite scenes were when Naomi was experiencing moments of pain, anger, and trauma, all of which were on display. However, she felt the documentary provided them an opportunity to perform on stage again.

Naomi and Wynonna grew estranged

In an interview with ABC News, Naomi Judd revealed that she and Wynonna were taking a break from each other. Naomi said they grew up together in the years they were alone, and she acknowledged her parenting mistakes when speaking with Wynonna, saying, "If I had known better, I would have done better." During the filming of their reality show "The Judds," which covered their 2010 "Last Encore Tour," their relationship became more strained than ever. When the reality show aired in 2011, it was being promoted as an inside look at the Judds' relationship and their work to strengthen and heal it. Prior to the show's debut, Wynonna told People that she and her mother had been going to therapy for five years (via Taste of Country). She felt their relationship was in a stronger place than before and was able to withstand the constant camera presence. She noted how their therapist marveled at the progress she and her mother had made, which included new communication techniques.

In an interview for Oprah Winfrey's "Where Are They Now?" series, Naomi revealed that Wynonna resented her candor about their relationship. Naomi's comments in both interviews came in 2016, a year after their reunion residency in Las Vegas, per the New York Post.

Ashley Judd has performed with the Judds before

The youngest of the Judd clan, Ashley Judd ventured off into a world of success on her own. She usually lived alone when Naomi and Wynonna went touring, staying with her father in Louisville, Kentucky, but sometimes joined them. In her memoir "Coming Home to Myself," Wynonna remembered Naomi feeling guilty about leaving Ashley behind but comforted by the fact that she was with her grandparents. Wynonna assumed that Ashley felt disregarded by the duo and their ambitions for success — of which Ashley was not part of. Wynonna now goes out of her way to support her sister and even makes sure to walk a step behind her at her award shows. Ashley graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1990, per Britannica. Ashley has become a successful actress, starring in films such as "Heat," "Double Jeopardy," the "Divergent" franchise, and the "Star Trek: Next Generation" TV series, per her IMDb.

However, Ashley has occasionally joined her mother and sister on stage while showing off her own underused vocals. She made her debut at a charity auction her family held after taking singing lessons, per Today's Country. Ashley also joined the Judds at their Las Vegas residency for a performance of "Love Can Build a Bridge." Wynonna's husband, Cactus Moser, joined in.

They both became activists for personal issues

Once the Judds went their separate ways, they began pursuing individual interests and projects. After her daughter was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2018 after violating the terms of her drug-related probation, Wynonna Judd became an activist for criminal justice reform. She began working with Hope for Prisoners, an organization that rehabilitates prisoners in order to reduce their chances of recidivism. In 2019, she was invited to the White House for an undisclosed criminal justice project and was excited for the policy changes it might bring. She also spoke at an event for the White House's National Day of Prayer, in which she said her advocacy was done for the sake of prisoners who felt disregarded by society, per Politico.

Meanwhile, Naomi Judd became a champion for mental health awareness. She opened up about her struggles with depression in her 2016 memoir "Rivers of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged With Hope," per USA Today. In an interview with ABC News, she said that her depression was treatment-resistant and revealed that she experienced a hand tremor because of the amount of medication she took. She delved into the sticky area of mental health diagnoses, noting that the vast number of disorders can make a patient's issues hard to pinpoint. In an Instagram post, Naomi stressed the importance of publicizing her struggle since she believed it would help others (via The Tennessean).

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

The Judds were meant to have one final tour

Prior to Naomi Judd's passing, the Judds planned a concert tour titled "The Final Tour" that would have begun on September 30, 2022, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It would have had a total of 10 shows, with the last stop taking place in Nashville. Wynonna Judd previously expressed excitement in forming the tour for fans. Tickets went on sale on April 15, and singer Martina McBride would have joined as a guest, per Rolling Stone. The dates were all nearly sold out, per People.

This was their first tour since their farewell tour in 2011, per CNN. In anticipation of their upcoming shows in the fall, the Judds performed at the CMT awards on April 11, the first time they ever performed for the award show, per Yahoo News. The week following Naomi's death, her family convened to discuss how to proceed with the tour. They intend to honor Naomi's legacy in their decisions but are also taking into consideration Naomi's wishes and her love for the fans. According to The Dallas Morning News, management for Dickies Arena in Fort Worth haven't heard of changes to tour plans. The Judd's final tour would've included all of the fan-favorite hits, such as "Love Can Build a Bridge,” "Mama He's Crazy," and "Why Not Me."

Naomi Judd died a day before the Judds' Hall of Fame induction

On August 16, 2021, the Country Music Association named the Judds as part of the Class of 2021 Hall of Fame inductees. The Judds expressed their gratitude, although Wynonna said their 20 years of waiting for the honor was a long time coming, per iHeart. Their induction was scheduled for May, but Naomi died the day before. The Judd family requested that the ceremony go on as planned, but the Country Music Hall of Fame organization decided to cancel the red carpet show in honor of Naomi, according to Today.

Ashley and Wynonna accepted the honor in heartfelt speeches (via the Hall of Fame ceremony). Ashley was there to remember her mother and support her sister. She recalled childhood memories of Wynonna and her mother singing tunes around their home. Wynonna described herself as both "broken" and "blessed" and said the ceremony was her first outing since saying farewell to her late mother. She vowed to continue singing. The two sisters ended there with an emotional recitation of Psalm 23. Other inductees included Ray Charles, Eddie Bayers, and Pete Drake, per NPR.