Country Queen Naomi Judd Was a 'Powerhouse' Defined by Her Compassion and 'Witty' Humor, Say Friends

Judd's friends and collaborators — including Ann Wilson, Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely and Paul Overstreet — pay tribute to the music legend in this week's PEOPLE cover story

"A Steel Magnolia."

That's how the late Naomi Judd is described by friend Ann Wilson of Heart in this week's PEOPLE cover story. And after a lifetime of enduring struggles and finding triumph, it's a fitting characterization for the late country icon.

"Naomi embodied an honest woman," says Wilson. "She was an open book."

For decades, family, friends and fans found it easy to love Naomi, who died at age 76 on April 30, just a day before her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame with her daughter Wynonna.

Her Southern Cinderella story of sorts inspired a generation of working-class women. "She brought such a breath of fresh air with her uptown looks and down-home humor," says her longtime pal, singer Jeannie Seely.

Born Diana Ellen Judd on Jan. 11, 1946 to Charles, a gas station owner, and Pauline, a homemaker, in the coal-mining town of Ashland, Kentucky, Naomi was just 18 when she gave birth to Wynonna. By her early 20s, she was a single mother of two subsisting on food stamps and welfare.

RELATED GALLERY: Remembering Naomi Judd's Life in Photos

While working as a nurse, Naomi landed an audition at RCA with the help of one of her patients. Naomi and Wynonna — then only 18 — were quickly signed to the label and topped Billboard's country album chart in 1984 with their debut LP, Why Not Me.

Fourteen No. 1 songs, five Grammys and album sales of more than 20 million followed.

"Naomi was a truly talented writer and musician," says Paul Overstreet, who co-wrote the Judds' 1990 hit "Love Can Build a Bridge" with her. "She and Wynonna were a powerhouse in the country music world."

Naomi Judd Cover Rollout
Naomi Judd cover.

Her strength and resolve served her well when, in 1991, she was forced to retire from performing after being diagnosed with life-threatening hepatitis C.

It was a difficult time, and the mother-daughter duo struggled in their relationship. "I lost my purpose," Naomi, who went into remission in 1995, told PEOPLE in 2016.

Though she went on to find success as an actor on shows like Third Rock from the Sun and as a motivational speaker, her depression and anxiety was crippling.

By 2016, though, she had found some relief through behavioral therapy, acupuncture and exercise, and she shared her trauma publicly in hopes of helping others.

"Today we sisters experienced a tragedy. We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness. We are shattered. We are navigating profound grief and know that as we loved her, she was loved by her public. We are in unknown territory," Naomi's younger daughter, actress Ashley Judd, 54, said Saturday in an initial Twitter statement.

Despite her struggles, Naomi's loved ones say what they will remember most about the star is her big heart — and the way she made them laugh.

"Naomi was one of the most compassionate women I've ever known. Not only did she want to know more about the people close to her and their stories and struggles, but what always stuck out to me was how she truly wanted to hear from people she did not know," says KVW Management's Kathryn Woodard, who worked with Naomi until 2019. "She would always stop and truly listen and give her best advice."

Singer Bill Anderson recalls how "outgoing and friendly" his friend was. "She always had something witty to say or some sarcastic remark to make," he remembers. "She had a great sense of humor, and I loved that." Adds Seely: "Her comments were always fresh, unique and definitely her own."

As the Judds look to a future without their matriarch, the status of what was to have been their reunion and farewell tour — beginning on Sept. 30 — remains unclear.

"The family is meeting this week to see how and if it can proceed in an obviously different incarnation," says a source. "They want to be respectful of their legacy, but more importantly, as to what Naomi would have wanted."

Naomi Judd Cover Rollout
Naomi Judd. Harry Langdon/Getty

As she grieves her mother, Wynonna, 57, is holding on to Naomi's love for the stage.

"Though my heart's broken, I will continue to sing," she said at the Hall of Fame ceremony. "That's what we do." Wrote Ashley on Instagram Monday evening: "Be free, my beautiful mother. Be free."

For all the details on Naomi Judd's life and legacy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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