Several years ago in the country hills of Ashland, Kentucky, it must have been sheer destiny that this self-proclaimed, spark-plug of a gal shot for the moon. Despite hard times and poverty in the air, Naomi Judd not only shot for it — she lassoed it, reeled it in and has been bouncing it around like a pretty plastic ball from the downtown dimestore ever since.
Although God-given, the thriving results from her “special gift” haven’t come so easily. The now 53-year-old “star next door,” whose credits include multiple Grammy awards, among countless other honors, multi-platinum-selling albums, sold-out concerts around the world and best-selling books, has worked unimaginably hard to get to where she is today. And where is this successful, star-studded celebrity today? She’s hanging out at her quaint Tennessee farm talking to folks just like you and me from all over the world about life’s everyday ups and downs, relationships, family values, and how we could all stand to slow things down a bit.
That’s the mission turning the wheels of Naomi’s latest venture, a four-hour radio show called Heart To Heart with Naomi Judd. Broadcast live every Sunday night from 8 p.m. until midnight ET, the Premiere Radio Networks-presented show has already touched the lives of people all over the country with its down-home charm, simplicity and no-frills production.
There’s no high-rise building with state-of-the-art studios. The show, believe it or not, comes to us directly from Naomi’s barn out behind the house. There are no corporate office cubicles — only nearby horse stables. There are neither fancy cars nor limousines parked outside — just the tractor. And don’t expect to hear the sound of hustling street traffic outside. About the only things stirring in the air here are chirping birds, the bullfrogs and crickets, occasional howling coyotes or maybe the not-so-sweet-smelling skunk just down the bank near the winding country road.
The host, herself, who remains in remission from her 1990 diagnosis of liver disease, looks nothing like the Cinderella character we’ve long seen on stage, in music videos or at the awards podium. Naomi, as gorgeous as ever, is still “Belle of the Ball” all right, but here at home she’s the wife, mom, aunt, sister, friend and farmer’s daughter to whom we can all relate. “There are two places on this planet that I refuse to wear makeup, just 100 percent cotton clothes and I won’t even brush my hair, and that’s the studio and on radio,” admits Naomi as she sits rocking on a porch stoop just outside the barn. “It just changes if you put on lipstick. It’s like there is an appearance factor and there’s some sort of hint of an image or whatever. With radio, you can be whatever you want to be, because it allows the stage of your mind to create the visual. One thing I get really upset with TV about right now — one of the many things — is that it is so blatant and it hits you over the head and everything is speeded up and you don’t have time to use your imagination.”
Featuring several top country hits, guests like Steve Wariner, Wynonna and Ashley Judd, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, book and movie reviews and entertainment news, Heart To Heart instead switches gears to hopefully slow down the pace.
“It’s just such a natural setting, and I want people who are maybe in a high rise or the projects or an apartment or wherever to somehow know that places like this exist. I want fans to feel like this is their club,” she says. “One of the reasons that we started this on Sunday night is because family is so scattered these days across America. People get transferred with jobs and we just don’t have that Sunday/family get together kinda thing as much as we did when I was growing up. I want the listeners to know that this is a community and we meet here every Sunday night, and they can allow it to be whatever emotionally, or mentally or spiritually they need. I picked Sunday night so it will hopefully give people a way to stop, take a deep cleansing breath, acknowledge the week they just had, think about something that happened this week, spend a few minutes seeing how it is affecting their mood, get them ready for the next week, and make them feel good about themselves,” she explains.
In addition to Heart To Heart’s family-style programming, another highlight is one that’s long been the reason behind Naomi’s extraordinary career success from the beginning — her unrivaled charisma with fans — both in front of an audience and, better yet, one on one. She keeps that fire alive by offering words of wisdom to listeners’ e-mails and letters and by actually taking live call-ins throughout the four-hour broadcast.
“It’s 1-877-Juddville,” says Naomi. “I’m telling you the calls just blow my mind, and we just talk about whatever they have in their hearts. That’s why I call the show Heart to Heart. I’ve had a couple of people tell me that they don’t go to church on Sunday anymore because they are dissatisfied with organized religion, but that they are listening to the show. I’m not sure how I feel about that,” she laughs. “I’m just the radio lady, not the church lady,” she laughs again modestly.
“Last week a girl named Christy called in from — I think it was Weatherford, Oklahoma — and she had driven like 120 miles to get to Oklahoma City where they carried the show because stations are just now finding out about it,” she continues. “A guy called in and said that he was going through a real struggle and it really helped him feel like he wasn’t so isolated and so alone. I asked him, ‘Are you in a rehab right now?’ and he was. He was in a drug rehab, and his wife had taken away their son, and you could tell that he was really trying to get on board.
“Another lady named Shirley called from Edison, New Jersey, and her husband Walter had died and they had been in the Judd fan club forever and I sent her flowers and had her picture appear on the friends’ bulletin board, and it was just really bizarre because I had had her on my prayer list all week. He was almost 60 and you can imagine having a lifetime companion, so Shirley calls in and said that just having this radio show now made her still feel this sense of support.
“This one guy wrote in and said that he was from Wisconsin and he had moved to L.A. to get started in acting and that Sundays were the hardest days for him. He was running out of money and was having trouble making friends out there, and he missed his family, and he just happened to hear us in the car in San Bernardino. I almost started to cry,” continues Naomi. “I thought about that all week because the way I was raised, I went to the First Baptist Church on Winchester Avenue every Sunday of the week, no ifs, ands or buts, no questions. You came home early enough on Saturday night so that you got your butt out of the bed on Sunday. And Mama always made a big meal — often a pot roast or some kind of thing that she could bake so when we came in from church and changed our clothes there was this big meal ready. We stayed home on Sunday. I couldn’t even go to the skating rink,” she chuckles, “which actually caused a lot of fights. That’s what I am hearing from people, is that this gives them a sense of something back,” she further explains of the radio show. “It’s a 1999 version of that life, as idealized as we may paint it. Sometimes we tend to rewrite our personal histories, but then again, that’s the magic of radio. It’s the way that we can go wherever we want in our imagination. Sunday night used to be the happening night for radio with Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy and guys like that.”
Naomi, who’s now also busy with public speaking engagements, realizes how difficult it is to claim such quality family time. While grandbabies and both her daughters, belting songstress Wynonna and acting diva Ashley, live nearby, she admits that scheduling time together often becomes a battle.
“I’ve always struggled somehow to make time for that,” she admits, “and to make it a priority. One of the neat things about traveling so much is I get to see the family out on the road while they’re working, and I’ll soon get to see all my former classmates. We are having our high school reunion July 4th weekend, and I’m going back for it. There’s only one high school in our hometown, and I wouldn’t miss my high school reunion. I love these kids, and it is so important to stay plugged in. It’s important to do all that stuff.”
Before Naomi’s July 4th reunion, she and Ashley, who’s now supposedly dating a famous racecar driver, will attend a learning seminar together. Afterwards, she plans to spend some time with her younger brother Mark, who’s a Baptist preacher in Kentucky. Other times that Namoi looks forward to are when she and husband Larry can simply spend quality time around the farm and in the blanket of woods nearby.
“I am here by myself and go for days without ever seeing another human being,” confesses Naomi of her time at home. “If people really only knew,” she laughs. “I don’t think they have a clue because anytime anyone ever comes here, they’ll just see that little old house. It’s a small and modest two bedroom house and I take care of it. I have a lady that helps me, but she’s been off for five days. So this morning I scrubbed toilets, did two loads of laundry, dusted and mopped the downstairs.”
Another concern of Naomi’s that she hopes to better assess, via her new radio show, is the state of today’s country music. With close celebrity friends scheduled as weekly guests, the issue is bound to spark some interesting conversation and future insight.
“Country music is in a slump right now, and the backlash has already begun,” proclaims Naomi. “See, I think the fans are sort of like Ramona,” illustrates Naomi as she points to the now famous “Radio Dog.” “I mean that in the kindest, most flattering way, because you really can’t fool them. They know. Ramona can just sniff people out.”
Naomi explains that the reason behind today’s music industry slump is quite simple. “It’s called greed. Anytime something starts to make money, everybody better continually do hard reality checks. I frankly think that country music today came out of the era of George Strait and Randy Travis and Reba and the Judds. Garth was our opening act on the farewell tour, and all of a sudden we watched the record sales, the popularity go through the roof. I remember sitting on the bus one night and I told Wy — I said, ‘This is a good thing, and it can be a really bad thing.’ Low and behold, it was a self-performed prophecy because the record labels starting signing way too many acts that weren’t authentic that couldn’t deliver the goods. They didn’t have personality or charisma, and now it’s diluted. Vince (Gill) was telling me the other day that right now is the sort of the era of the superstars, because the fans don’t recognize the artists anymore. You can’t tell who’s who.”
The Judds were indeed a few years ago carrying the torch for today’s country music. Like fellow artists George Strait, Reba McEntire and Randy Travis, or even a handful of country’s leading pioneers — Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn — country’s most celebrated duo of all time unveiled the ideal complete package. They melted authenticity, real people quality and spell-binding charisma over natural God-given talent. The seal on the package, however, was the most important part — their unyielding vulnerability to the fans. Even today, both Naomi and Wynonna will be the first to admit that it wasn’t themselves that garnered stardom and success, but rather the fans who allowed them to have it.
Naomi Judd continues to use the same “for-the-people” approach with Heart To Heart. And although it’s her behind the microphone, she knows it’s still the fans who can turn the dial.