Shelley Levitt
May 22, 1995 12:00 PM

SOMEDAY, ELIJAH JUDD Kelley may try to make sense of the complex ties of love and rivalry that bind his mother, Wynonna, his aunt Ashley and his grandmother Naomi. If he wants to understand each woman’s role in the family, he might ask them to describe the scene in Nashville’s Baptist Hospital last Dec. 23, the day he was born by cesarean section. As his father, Arch Kelley III, a 43-year-old boat salesman, stood paralyzed with joy and panic at the side of Wynonna’s bed, Ashley (the self-reliant one) leaned over her sister (the center of attention, of course), squeezing her hand and whispering soothing words. Naomi, as usual, tried to run the show. “The whole time she was putting up the screen so nobody could see me,” recalls Wynonna, 30, “as if I care what people see! I said, ‘You will never quit, will you?’ ”

Not a chance. It was, after all, Naomi’s never-say-die determination that took her from pregnant teen bride to divorced welfare mother to driving force behind the wildly successful mother-daughter phenomenon known as the Judds. Together she and Wynonna won seven consecutive Country Music Association Awards as vocal group/duo of the year and six Grammy Awards. Their rise to stardom is being retold this week in the NBC miniseries Naomi & Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge, based on Naomi’s best-selling 1993 autobiography.

The movie ends in 1991, when the Judds split professionally after Naomi discovered she had chronic hepatitis and could no longer tolerate the stress of performing. In real life the Judd family drama is far from over. For the past four years they have struggled to forge separate identities and still stay close.

“It’s agony and ecstasy,” says Naomi, 49, as she sips a soda in a restaurant near Peaceful Valley, her 500-acre farm in Franklin, Tenn. “There’s no question that the mother-daughter relationship is the most complex on earth. It’s even more complicated than the man-woman thing.” Larry Strickland, 49, Naomi’s husband of six years, says he has “resigned” himself to taking a backseat to the Judd women. “When the three of them walk into a room,” he says, “they can soak up all the oxygen.”

Right now, all the Judds claim they’re singing three-part harmony. But just two weeks ago, well…don’t ask. Scheduled to appear on Oprah with her mother and sister to promote the miniseries, Wynonna backed out at the last minute. The show is rescheduled for May 15, but don’t hold your breath. Word is that Wynonna’s handlers are concerned about how the public will react to her unwed motherhood. Moreover, the singer, say her manager and publicist, is wary about appearing with her mother because she doesn’t want her fans to think there’s a Judds reunion in the works. As Wynonna says, “I’m trying to work on starting over and not living in the past.”

Although the three women describe themselves as an equilateral triangle, Naomi and Wynonna’s relationship has been the most troubled. Wynonna’s 500-acre farm adjoins her mother’s, but that still seems light years away compared to the mere few feet that separated the two during the eight years they spent on a Silver Eagle bus crossing the country—and each other. “They were at each other’s throats every minute of the day,” says their former manager Ken Stilts. “They performed many times with sunglasses so you couldn’t see they had been crying.”

Though the Judds fired Stilts in 1994 and are now involved in a legal dispute, they don’t contest him on this point. “We had the most tumultuous relationship possible,” says Naomi. They battled over Wynonna’s chronic lateness, her habit of forgetting her stage costumes and what Naomi considered her daughter’s questionable taste in men. “She called me a geek magnet,” Wynonna says. In turn her favorite nickname for her mother was “my beloved enemy.”

“I was arrogant and insecure,” Wynonna says of those battles, “just trying to find my own way.” Now that they are no longer professional partners, Naomi and Wynonna have negotiated a fragile truce. Wynonna says that lately she has begun to feel more confident around her mother. “I know she worries about my weight because of my health—I’m asthmatic—but I think she approves of me. I just have to learn how not to be offended when I ask for another piece of chocolate cake and she says, ‘Are you suuuuure you want to eat that?’ I have to say, ‘I appreciate your concern for my health,’ and then turn around, and eat it anyway.” At the same time, Naomi sometimes sends her daughter mixed messages about dieting—like serving what Wynonna calls “butt-extender meals—lots of casseroles with lots of real mayonnaise. Mmmmm.”

Despite such temptations, Wynonna says she has lost 60 pounds since Elijah’s birth by walking, following a diet regimen that includes herbal supplements and attending a five-day session at Deepak Chopra’s New Age clinic in Del Mar, Calif., where they preach a holistic lifestyle, including a healthful diet. Her days center around Elijah and Arch, whom she met in 1993 on a flight from L.A. “Arch Kelley is the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “We’ve been through a lot, not being married. The shame never goes away. But we’re in love, and we were in love when we conceived Elijah, and we do want to get married. We’ll do it when we’re ready.”

Reveling in motherhood, Wynonna says, “If I never sing another note again, I’ll be okay.” Still, she’s planning to tour next year—with Elijah and Kelley in tow. For all her initial fears, her solo career has been a resounding success. Her first effort, Wynonna, in 1992, was touted by Rolling Stone magazine as “the most important release by a country artist so far this decade…powerful, stirring, ennobling.”

The making of the miniseries was a turning point for all the Judds, helping them cope with what Naomi calls the “real hot-button issue of respecting each other’s professional boundaries.” As Naomi tells it, she was shocked when she discovered in 1992 that NBC was doing the show. She claims that Stilts had sold the rights to her autobiography without her knowledge—an allegation Stilts calls “a bold-faced lie.” To exert some influence over the project she took on the role of executive producer and kept a watchful eye over the shoot. Though her daughters were, she says, “absolutely mortified” at the prospect of seeing their lives unfold in front of millions of viewers, “I tried to tell them it was important to support me in the emotional struggles I was having.” Ultimately, Ashley, 27, in what she calls a “tip of my hat to Mom,” provided the movie’s narration, and Wynonna—then eight months pregnant—recorded portions of the soundtrack. Neither, however, set foot on the set. “This was,” says Naomi, “a real lonely period in my life.”

But they were together again in April when the three of them, along with Strickland, piled onto Naomi’s bed to watch a tape of Bridge. “Some pretty unusual noises were made,” says Naomi. “Everything from squeals of embarrassment to laughter to ‘Pass the Kleenex.’ ” The verdict? “Good,” says Wynonna.

“Entertaining,” agrees Ashley, the family actress, who left the NBC series Sisters (she played Swoosie Kurtz’s daughter) after three seasons last year to pursue a career in movies. Next month she’ll appear in Smoke, an ensemble drama with Harvey Keitel and Stockard Channing, and she has just finished filming the thriller Heat in Los Angeles with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Val Kilmer. She’s just a little upset that the TV movie portrays her as a Judd also-ran. “I’m not a snotty-nosed brat,” she says, “who keeps tugging at my mom’s sleeve asking, ‘Whhyyy?’ ”

Naomi’s mother, Polly Judd Rideout, 67, previewed the tape at the office of Naomi’s Christian therapist. “I wanted her to watch it in a safe haven,” Naomi says, explaining that the series depicts many painful scenes from Rideout’s life, including the death of her son Brian from Hodgkin’s disease at 17. Waiting nervously at home, Naomi says, “I thought I’d get a call saying I needed to come to my therapist’s office to duke it out.” Instead, Polly returned to her daughter’s farm, stayed three days and, says Naomi, “never once talked about the series.” Two weeks before the broadcast, Polly didn’t know if she would tune in. “I’ll probably watch,” she said, “though Masterpiece Theatre is on Sunday nights. They’re doing Dickens’s Hard Times.”

With the miniseries behind her, Naomi spends most of her time in Franklin, where her life moves to a quiet rhythm. She says she has thrown out her alarm clock and wakes up when her body tells her she has had enough rest. Then she drinks decaf coffee “from my favorite little cup and saucer” and spends hours listening to meditation tapes, reading about alternative medicine and taking walks with Strickland, a former back-up singer with Elvis who now manages Christian and pop artists. She lectures about self-healing several times a month to women’s groups and medical conventions. Her message: “When things like hepatitis or cancer or AIDS happen to you, you can’t look outward for help. You have to look inside. Medicine and people will let you down. God will not.”

That message has taken on a special urgency recently. Last winter Naomi learned that the type of chronic active hepatitis she suffers from is hepatitis C. The new diagnosis means she is at a somewhat greater risk of developing a potentially fatal form of liver cancer. Naomi suspects she contracted the virus through contact with infected blood in the early ’80s when she was a nurse in Franklin. But, she says cheerfully, “I’m in remission. I’m pumping like an oil well. I feel great, and I’ve always been the type of person to wring the joy out of every second.”

And though she says, “I desperately miss the stage,” she finds real pleasure in being a grandmother. “It makes me feel normal,” she says. “On my bedside table this morning there were Pampers, Similac and a pacifier.” Another mainstay of her life is “the Mom Line,” a separate telephone line to which only Wynonna and Ashley have the number. A couple of years ago, Naomi was on the phone with then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey, a fan and family friend, when, she recalls, “the Mom Line started flashing. I said, ‘Sorry, Director Woolsey. I gotta go. Oh, you’re on Air Force One with the President? Well just hang on a second….’ That’s how important it is for me to be in touch with my kids.”

There will probably always be spats between the three strong-willed Judd women. “But even when we’re clashing,” says Naomi, “we know there’s going to be a resolution. It takes the scary edge off our conflicts.” A few years ago, Ashley and Wynonna went six months without talking. (“I was in my own little world,” Wynonna says.) The sisters now try to speak every couple of days, and Ashley is restoring a 175-year-old brick house, a gift from Wynonna, on her sister’s property.

But there are still remnants of sibling rivalry from childhood. Back then, while Wynonna hit the road with Naomi, Ashley spent months at a time living with their father, Michael Ciminella, now a marketing specialist in the horse-racing industry, and developing her independence. Actress Viveka Davis, who plays Wynonna in Bridge and got to know her well, recalls her real-life counterpart telling her, “Ashley is the part of my mom that [my mom] likes best. She’s intellectual, organized, such a hostess.” When Wynonna committed the well-intentioned faux pas of asking someone how his father was, forgetting that he had recently died, she wailed to Davis afterward, “Ashley would never do something like that!”

Ironically, Ashley seems to envy her sister’s ability to confess to just such feelings of insecurity. “It’s miraculous to watch the breadth of her openness,” she says. Ashley’s ties to her mother and sister are by far the most important relationships in her life. She’s not dating anyone, and, she says, “It’s hard picturing another life force in my life.” When she broke her ankle horseback riding on her mother’s farm last winter, she stayed with her sister for 2½ months to recuperate. “We slept in the same bed,” she says. “When we were growing up, we did the same. We’d fall asleep holding onto each other’s hair.”

When Ashley returns to Peaceful Valley for a visit sometime in late summer, the three will, as always, chatter away, quieting down only to listen to Elijah’s attempts to speak his first words. But though Naomi frets about Ashley’s perfectionism (“she’s so hard on herself”) and Wynonna’s penchant for “feeling judged by me,” motherhood has been mostly ecstasy of late. Take one recent night when the Judd women gathered on Naomi’s turquoise kitchen couch. “Wynonna had her head on my right shoulder, and Ashley had her head on my left,” Naomi recalls. “I just felt this moment of exquisite completion. They are truly my other halves, the flesh of my flesh, the bone of my bone.”


KATE KLISE in Franklin and JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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