LOS ANGELES — 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 mother formed 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 Can 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, Reese Witherspoon and Morgan Freeman.
“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 2,500 roses.
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.”
With the audience cheering, Wynonna announced that "after a lot of thought, that I’m gonna have to honor her and do this tour” -- referring to 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.
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.”
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.”