Naomi Judd of Grammy-Winning the Judds dies at 76

Naomi Judd, who as one half of the Judds mother-daughter duo topped country music charts in the 1980s with a mix of tight vocal harmonie...


Naomi Judd, who as one half of the Judds mother-daughter duo topped country music charts in the 1980s with a mix of tight vocal harmonies, traditional arrangements and modern pop aesthetics, has died Saturday outside Nashville. She was 76 years old.

Ashley Judd, the actress, confirmed the death of her mother on Twitter. She did not specify where she died or the cause, but said: “We lost our beautiful mother to mental illness.” Naomi Judd had lived for years on a farm in the hills above Franklin, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville.

Along with her other daughter, Wynonna, Ms. Judd rose to country stardom in 1983 with the single “Had a Dream (for the Heart)” and, a year later, with the duo’s debut album, “Why Not Me”.

More hits followed — including 14 No. 1 songs — and a long list of accolades, including nine Country Music Association Awards and five Grammys.

The Judds were a leading force in the New Traditionalist movement in country music, a reaction against the glitz and glamor of the Urban Cowboy sound and in favor of roots-focused instrumentation and vocals.

Although not at the forefront – musicians like George Strait and Ricky Skaggs had been performing for years when the Judds emerged – the duo stood out as a family band, an arrangement once common in country music that had fallen out of favor.

In their songs and particularly in the story of Naomi’s life as a struggling single mother, they have spoken to millions of working class women in the South and beyond, with songs about the grief of adults, the loneliness of family life and the breakdown of community in modern society.

In one of their many hits, “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” (1986), they sang:

Was it really a promise that people kept

Not just something they would say

Have the families really lowered their heads to pray?

Did dads really never leave?

Oh, grandpa, tell me about the good old days

They have released six albums, most loaded with hit songs. The Judds were the most successful country duo in history at the time, with over 20 million albums sold.

They did a convincing stage act. Naomi was more telegenic and engaged with crowds, while Wynonna was more reserved but a better singer. With bright red hair to match and only 17 years between them, they were often mistaken for sisters and showcased their likenesses on stage and at awards shows – they once arrived at a ceremony in Scarlett O’ Hara assorted.

But their run was brief: Naomi announced in 1990 that she had a life-threatening case of hepatitis C, and they played their last concert in 1991.

Doctors had given Naomi three years to live, but by 1995 her illness was in complete remission. By then Wynonna had embarked on a successful solo career and Naomi turned to activism, acting and writing.

The Judds have reunited for the occasional gig or brief tour, and recently announced another tour that will begin this fall. Last month at the CMT Music Awards, they performed together on television for the first time in years. They were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday night.

Diana Ellen Judd was born on January 11, 1946, in Ashland, a mining town in northeastern Kentucky along the Ohio River. Her father, Charles Glen Judd, owned a gas station and her mother, Pauline Ruth (Oliver) Judd, was a homemaker.

When she was 3, an uncle sexually abused her, an experience she later cited as the root of her struggles with anxiety and depression.

Naomi was an honors student and planned to go to college. But a brief romance with a high school football player left her pregnant at 17, and when the father left town, she married another suitor, Michael Ciminella. Wynonna was born the week Naomi graduated in 1964.

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1968, where Mr. Ciminella found work, and Ms. Judd studied for a nursing degree. Ashley was born the same year. But Ms Judd said the marriage never clicked and they divorced in 1972.

Single and raising two daughters, Ms Judd left school and worked as a model, waitress and secretary, including for the band Fifth Dimension. She dated occasionally, but when a casual boyfriend beat and raped her, she fled California and settled in Morrill, Kentucky, a town in the middle of the state with one road and 50 residents.

They lived simply, without television or telephone. Ms Judd studied nursing in the nearby town of Berea. To entertain herself, Wynonna took up singing and playing guitar. Occasionally Mrs. Judd would join them, and soon they were regularly making music together.

“I could only afford the used record bin, and there was a 33-1/3 album of Hazel and Alice – Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerard“, she confided to the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. “They were all coal songs. And as these women harmonized together, it occurred to me: Wynonna and I couldn’t talk to each other, but, surprise, we could sing together.

They decided to try their luck in Nashville and moved to Music City, USA in 1979, where Mrs. Judd got a job as a nurse. Again, the three of them got by, sharing a single motel bed and living on bologna sandwiches, recording demo tapes in their spare time and hoping for a break.

It finally happened in 1983, when one of Ms. Judd’s patients turned out to be the daughter of an RCA Records executive. They auditioned and on the same day they signed a contract. A few months later, “I had a dream (for the heart)” was released, climbing to No. 20 on the country charts.

“Suddenly we had a future,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “For the first time in my life, I felt alive.”

The Judds’ hits included ‘Mama He’s Crazy’, ‘Why Not Me’ (both 1984); “Girls’ Night Out” (1985); “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain” and “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days” (both 1986); “Turn It Loose” (1988); and “Love Can Build a Bridge” (1990) .

Besides her daughters, Ms. Judd is survived by her husband, Larry Strickland, who was a backup singer for Elvis Presley.

After the duo broke up and Ms. Judd recovered from hepatitis, she continued acting, with guest appearances on sitcoms like ‘Third Rock from the Sun’ and roles in made-for-TV movies like ‘Rio Diablo’. (1993), starring Kenny Rogers. She was a judge on “Star Search” in 2003 and 2004, and she hosted a talk show, “Naomi’s New Morning,” for two seasons in the mid-2000s. Later, she had a radio talk show on SiriusXM.

Ms Judd has also become increasingly vocal about her struggles with mental illness, particularly after a series of reunion shows in 2009 and 2010.

“I would come home and not leave the house for three weeks, get out of my pajamas, and practice normal hygiene,” she said on Good Morning America in 2016. was really bad.”

She recounted this struggle in her 2016 memoir, “River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope.”

She described “two and a half years of my life, during which I went through the hell of mental illness”, but also “to get up to be grateful for having taken my next breath, for the gift of a clear thinking, for snatching from a nightmare a way to find joy each day.

This newfound joy was evident in the planning of the duo’s next tour. In a press release this month, Ms Judd said she was looking forward to reconnecting with fans and singing with her daughter Wynonna.

Referring to Wynonna, Ms Judd said: ‘She asked me if I was still going to twist and twirl and joke around. I replied: ‘Heck yeah! I’m too old to grow now!”

Isabelle Grullwheren Paz contributed reporting.



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