At Stirring Tribute to Mom Naomi Judd, Wynonna Announces Tour Will Go On: 'That's What She Would Want'

Family, friends and fans fill Nashville's Ryman Auditorium to celebrate the life and career of The Judds matriarch

Friends, fans and family members packed the pews of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Sunday evening to mourn and celebrate the life of Naomi Judd, and for 75 minutes — in a nationally televised show — a string of country music's finest lifted heavy hearts still reeling from the death of The Judds' matriarch on April 30.

But it was up to Naomi's daughter and singing partner, Wynonna Judd, to deliver the most uplifting message of all when she announced onstage that she intended to fulfill the fall dates that the duo had been planning for their "Final Tour."

"I've made a decision, and I thought I'd share it on national television that, after a lot of thought, I'm gonna have to honor her and do this tour," Wynonna, tears streaming down her cheeks, told the crowd, as well as CMT viewers at home. "The show must go on, as hard as it may be, and we will show up together, and you will carry me as you've carried me for 38 years ... So we will continue this spectacle. That's what she would want, right?"

Her onstage announcement — answered with thunderous applause and cheers — arrived near the end of an evening that was, as Wynonna described it herself, "devastatingly beautiful." The event took listeners not only through many of The Judds' most timeless classics, but also deep into other music that had touched both women's hearts.

Wynonna's younger sister, actress Ashley Judd, opened the evening with a welcome to country music's hallowed Mother Church, explaining that "this is where Mom wanted her public celebration to take place."

Ashley, 54, went on to describe her mother as "everywoman. Perhaps this is why everyone felt they knew her." And yet, she added, "she was totally extraordinary: the five-time Grammy award winner, the multi-platinum artist, the Hall of Famer who was lauded by millions."

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Ashley Judd. Jason Kempin/Getty

Indeed, just two blocks from the Ryman, Naomi and Wynonna were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on May 1, only a day after Naomi, who suffered from severe depression, died by her own hand.

Following Ashley's introduction, Wynonna took the stage for the evening's first performance, "River of Time," a Judds song that Naomi co-wrote. This time, though, Wynonna, 57, changed "my love" to "my momma" in lyrics that were now so achingly appropriate: "I'm holding back a flood of tears / Just thinking 'bout those happy years / Like all the good times that are no more / My momma is gone, gone, gone forever more."

Though she offered the chorus ("Flow on, river of time / Wash away the pain and heal my mind") with conviction and defiance, her performance was, uncharacteristically, delivered seated, and at song's end, she had to motion for a member of the TV crew to help steady her as she departed the stage. Explaining later that she was experiencing dizziness, she remained planted in her front-row pew for most of the show, joined by her sister; her son and his wife, Elijah and Hailey Kelley; and Naomi's husband, Larry Strickland.

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Wynonna Judd. Mickey Bernal/Getty

Along with the rest of the audience, the family was lavished with vocal tributes, backed by The Judds' band, which included Wynonna's husband, drummer Cactus Moser.

Little Big Town delivered The Judds' 1986 No. 1, "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," with Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman taking the familiar harmony parts. Jamey Johnson, a day after his induction into the Grand Ole Opry, reached into The Judds' vault for "John Deere Tractor," a cut off the duo's debut EP in 1984. (Wynonna could be heard yelling a greeting to her fellow country rebel, "You are a bad ass!" and mouthed along with some of lyrics.)

Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris was joined by singer-songwriter Allison Russell to perform "The Sweetest Gift (A Mother's Smile)," which the show's emcee, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts introduced as the song that "Naomi and Wynonna first learned to truly harmonize together ... as a present for Naomi's mother."

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Robin Roberts. Jason Kempin/Getty

Southern gospel trio The Gaithers offered their own song, "How Beautiful Heaven Must Be." The group's inclusion, Ashley Judd said in her introduction, was at Naomi's "special request," and their a cappella voices filled the resonant hall with celestial harmonies.

Taking her turn on stage, Ashley McBryde drew one of The Judds' most life-affirming songs, "Love is Alive," but the artist, who lost her brother to suicide in 2018, choked up on the first verse. "I'm sorry, y'all," she apologized to the crowd — and their cheers and applause coaxed from McBryde an exquisitely bittersweet performance of the 1985 classic.

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Ashley McBryde. Jason Kempin/Getty

Accompanying himself on guitar, Brad Paisley delivered an acoustic version of The Judds' No. 1 hit from 1989, "Young Long (Strong Love)." He prefaced the performance with a reminiscence of opening for The Judds when he was a teenager. His grandfather, he explained, was terminally ill at the time, "and he got to see me open for the greatest act in country music."

"It was a big deal to open for them then," Paisley added, "but it's a bigger deal today to do this for her [Naomi]."

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Brad Paisley. Katie Kauss/Getty

Reigning CMA and ACM female artist of the year Carly Pearce, who also appeared at The Judds' Hall of Fame induction, performed "Why Not Me," a Judds No. 1 from 1984. "I've loved the Judds my whole life," Pearce said, introducing the song, "and I have this mental image that I feel like Naomi is flipping her skirt in heaven tonight."

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Carly Pearce. Mickey Bernal/Getty

Throughout the evening, spoken tributes from famous friends — most videoed — were interspersed with the performances, and their diversity underscored Naomi's wide reach and influence. Martina McBride read a poem by Maya Angelou, whom she described as "one of Naomi's friends." Actress Salma Hayek recalled feeling like "I was meeting Scarlet O'Hara" when Ashley Judd introduced her to her mother. "She had so much talent in her blood," Hayek said, "and so much fire in her heart, and she moved with an air of grace." Other video tributes came from Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey, Reba McEntire, U2's Bono and Reese Witherspoon.

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Martina McBride. Jason Kempin/Getty

Near the show's close, Ashley and Wynonna, along with Larry Strickland, retook the stage to thank fans, and each offered personal reflections. Noting that "Naomi never met a stranger," Strickland read aloud a touching condolence he'd been emailed by a stranger — a passenger who'd shared a flight and a conversation with Naomi just the day before she died.

"It's a small comfort, I'm sure," wrote the emailer, whom Strickland identified by a first name only, "but my life seems a lot richer after meeting your wife, however briefly."

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Larry Strickland, Ashley Judd and Wynonna Judd. Mickey Bernal/Getty

Ashley lovingly recalled her mother's attentiveness to fans and support staff, while Wynonna — now with her high heels shed and steadier on her feet — was ready to dish on the woman who was also her favorite sparring partner.

"Let's talk about what a salty single momma she was — enough of this love stuff," she joked with her sister. "Let's get real. She could be evil!"

But just as Wynonna tried to bring up a certain childhood incident involving a U-Haul, Ashley interrupted: "Are we telling that story — or are we not telling that story?"

Wynonna mischievously retreated: "Let's talk about it another time."

"She was a little wacky," Ashley allowed about their mom, "but she loved us."

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Ashley Judd and Wynonna Judd. Mickey Bernal/Getty

"This isn't easy," Wynonna said, stating the painfully obvious. "I don't know why we're doing this in public. It sucks. But we're doing it, aren't we? We're showing the world what a dysfunctional family does. You show up for each other, right? That's what we do."

The banter finally halted when Ashley urged her country queen sister to do what she does best, and Wynonna took command of the remainder of the show with two thrilling performances. She first joined fellow Grammy winner Brandi Carlile to recreate a legendary duet of Bette Midler's signature song, "The Rose." Wynonna performed it with Midler on a 1996 TV special, and via video, Midler herself introduced the Sunday night performance.

With the crowd on its feet, the two singers were blazing their way through the torch song when Wynonna, ever the perfectionist, abruptly stopped in mid-verse and ordered the band to give her a second shot at a solo line she thought she'd bobbled. Whether she had or not, her do-over — "Just remember in the winter / Far beneath the bitter snows" — roared from her depths and electrified the audience.

Naomi Judd: 'A River Of Time' Celebration on May 15, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee
Brandi Carlile. Mickey Bernal/Getty

The country queen stood alone for the last song, The Judds' anthem "Love Can Build a Bridge," which was co-written by her mother. It also was the last song the duo performed together, for the CMT Awards show in Nashville on April 11.

Now firm on her feet, Wynonna triumphantly delivered the plea for love as the audience, still standing, sang along and wept. Soon the choir from Wynonna's Nashville church, fully robbed and filling the aisles, joined her soaring voice.

Then slowing the band and pointing heavenward, Wynonna said, "I want her to hear this." The audience and choir responded, taking the chorus two more times as she riffed the words.

At song's end, Wynonna looked up and mouthed, "I love you." And as she exited the stage, she offered a final assessment of the evening that surely had to speak, as well, to a lifetime of being Naomi Judd's daughter: "Did we have fun or what?"

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