Naomi Judd Remembered at Emotional ‘Celebration’ by Wynonna and Ashley, Brandi Carlile, Bono, Oprah, Emmylou Harris and Others

Naomi Judd Remembered at Emotional ‘Celebration’ by Wynonna and Ashley, Brandi Carlile, Bono, Oprah, Emmylou Harris and Others

Published May 16, 2022
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Performers included Brad Paisley, Carly Pearce, Little Big Town, Allison Russell and Jamey Johnson, along with Bono reciting a Judds song.

By Chris Willman

Senior Music Writer and Chief Music Critic

One of pop culture’s most famous mother figures got a sendoff from her community at the Mother Church of country music Sunday, as Wynonna and Ashley Judd welcomed country stars and other celebrities to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for “Naomi Judd: A River of Time Celebration,” a tribute that was broadcast live on CMT.

A frequently heaven-looking Wynonna, who with her late mother was half of the country duo the Judds, sang “River of Time” early in the ceremony, then closed it joined by her local Christ Church choir for what was the pair’s final hit, “Love Will Build a Bridge.” She also participated in a recreation of the mother/daughter harmonies by pairing up with Brandi Carlile for a duet of “The Rose,” preceded by a video testimonial by Bette Midler.

“It’s so strange to be here, but natural at the same time,” said Wynonna. “I’ve lived my life in public since I was 17, so it feels natural to be here with my family of choice.”

Among the others paying homage in song were Brad Paisley, Carly Pearce, Ashley McBryde, Little Big Town, Jamey Johnson and the pairing of Emmylou Harris and Allison Russell. “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts hosted the memorial, which also included Martina McBride reading a Maya Angelou passage and filmed testimonials from Bono, Oprah Winfrey, Reba McEntire, Salma Hayek, Reece Witherspoon and Morgan Freeman.

The memorial program will be re-broadcast on CMT at 10 p.m. ET/9 CT.

“We can pretend to care, but we can’t pretend to show up, so thank you for showing up for our mother,” Ashley Judd told the assembled crowd at the Ryman, the stage of which was festooned with 2500 roses.

During a spontaneous exchange late in the telecast, Wynonna and Ashley nearly got into a friendly, sisterly sparring session as they both shared memories of their mother — Ashley’s more reverent than Wynonna’s. “Let’s talk about what a sultry single mama she was,” interrupted Wynonna at one point. “Enough of this love stuff.” She started to get into a childhood story: “She could be evil. She put us in the back of a U-Haul… Why did we get pulled over? Are we telling that story or are we not telling that story?” Ultimately, that story got cut short, but with Ashley concentrating on their mother’s holier side, Wynonna cracked, “You didn’t share a bus with her. I did!”

For her part, Ashley allowed, “She was a little wacky but she loved us.” Concluded Wynonna: “I’ve loved you since I was 15. This isn’t easy… We’re showing the world what a dysfunctional family does. You show up for each other, right? That’s what we do.”

Naomi Judd died by suicide April 30 at home in Leipers Fork, Tenn. In an interview with “GMA” last week, Ashley Judd revealed that her mother shot herself to death.

Wynonna made an observation of her mother after her death: “Her eyebrows were still perfect.”

Naomi’s husband, Larry Strickland, joined the daughters on stage and said, “Naomi never met a stranger. Much to my displeasure, she would start a conversation with anybody who made eye contact with her.” He added that this would often lead to 20-to-30-minute conversations with fans “about their passions and their dog.”

Strickland noted how his wife had returned to Nashville not long before her death from a trip to Vienna, and admitted that he was worried about the trip because “I knew how fragile she was.” He said that he had received an email the day after her death from a stranger who had spent 90 minutes talking with Naomi on a leg of the flight, which “typifies what I said about her never meeting a stranger.” The emailer wrote that, “being a bit of a country and Western philistine, I had no knowledge of who she was,” but Naomi had given her Strickland’s card after the long conversation. “Rest assured she loved you and had no qualms about telling a stranger on a plane,” wrote the seatmate to Strickland, who said that “this email was such a relief and comfort for me.”

A beautiful start to a very special night ❤️ @AshleyJudd @wynonna

— CMT (@CMT) May 15, 2022

After singing “The Rose” with Carlile — which she said had been the latter singer’s choice — Wynonna left the stage, then returned. “I wanted to come off and come back on,” she said, quipping that she was her own opening act, before the climactic “Love Will Build a Bridge.”

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” said Wynonna. “I’m nor sure where or when but it’s gonna shine, with your help.” With the audience cheering, she said, “Oh, knock it off. So I made a decision I thought I’d share it on national television, that after a lot of thought, that I’m gonna have to honor her and do this tour” — meaning the short reunion/farewell tour the Judds had booked for this fall, after a decade-long absence. “I’m gonna have to,” because it’s what Naomi would want, she said.

The pairing of Wynonna Judd with Carlile was not the only duet of the night. Also in tribute to the mother-daughter harmonies was Emmylou Harris and rising Americana star Allison Russell trading verses and sharing choruses on the 1940s country classic “The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile),” which was introduced as the first song Naomi and Wynonna ever learned to sing together, for Naomi’s mother.

Pearce and McBryde both hit the top of the country charts this month with a hit duet, but performed separately at the memorial. Pearce sang the sassy “Why Not Me,” saying, “I have this mental image that I feel like Naomi’s flipping her skirt in heaven tonight.” McBryde performed the love song “Love is Alive,” and broke down in tears midway through the first verse, apologizing, “Sorry, y’all,” before continuing the song.

From one Kentucky girl to another. 💜 @carlypearce

— CMT (@CMT) May 15, 2022

The Gaither Vocal Band turned the Mother Church back into a proper church with “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be,” with Ashley saying “it was Mom’s request that they sing tonight.”

No words, just many claps for this brilliant performance of “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” 👏@Gaithermusic

— CMT (@CMT) May 15, 2022

Other musical numbers included a solo acoustic “Young Love” by Paisley, “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days” by Little Big Town and “John Deere Tractor” by Jamey Johnson.

U2’s Bono took the unusual tack of reciting the lyrics from the Judds song “Guardian Angel,” co-written by Naomi.

In a filmed testimonial, Winfrey talked of having the Judds as guests on her show 22 years ago, when they had just won an ACM Award for best duo. She said Naomi would be remembered “for every life she touched. I thank you Miss Naomi Judd for touching mine.”

Said Hayek, “I remember Naomi as one of a kind — a force of nature to be reckoned with that managed to have, at the time, a disarming sweetness that was almost hypnotic. She was always so kind to me, and yet she always managed to intimidate me. …I feel very, very privileged that she came into my life.”

“It’s so devastatingly beautiful, what happened here tonight,” said Wynonna near the memorial’s conclusion. “Life is so strange.”

We can all agree, love is alive at the @theryman tonight ❣️ @AshleyMcbryde

— CMT (@CMT) May 15, 2022