The country music community joined the Judd family at Ryman Auditorium on Sunday to honor Naomi Judd with "NAOMI JUDD: A RIVER OF TIME CELEBRATION," 15 days after the Country Music Hall of Fame member died unexpectedly in her home outside of Nashville.
CMT televised "NAOMI JUDD: A RIVER OF TIME CELEBRATION," which emotionally began with the audience hearing from her daughters, actress Ashley Judd and Naomi's duo partner Wynonna Judd.
Ashley tearfully told the audience of her mother's harrowing background, calling her an "icon and a legend who left country music better than she found it."
"She was every woman," Ashley said. "Perhaps that's why everyone felt they knew her. She was a nurse. She was a single mom who sometimes relied on public assistance. She was traumatized by early childhood abuse, intimate partner violence and rape. She was fired by a boss for refusing to go away with him for a weekend. She was Mamaw to her grandchildren. And she was totally extraordinary."
Wynonna composed herself and, surrounded by more than 1,200 roses on stage at The Ryman with her eyes on the sky, delivered a soulful "River of Time." Written by Naomi, the song's lyrics include: Flow on river of time| Heal my mind| Flow on river of time| Carry me away.
Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild said Judds music had been "the fabric of our lives," and it was a "great honor" to perform at the celebration of her life. Fairchild and the group's Kimberly Schlapman shared the lyrics on "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days) as Wynonna dabbed her eyes with a tissue in the audience.
Ashley McBryde started crying as she sang "Love is Alive," her voice breaking on the lyrics. Tears glistened in her eyes as she apologized and kept going.
Brad Paisley told the crowd about the time he was able to open for The Judds. A memorable occasion always, but for Paisley, it was even more special. His beloved grandfather was dying of cancer, and he desperately wanted his young grandson to be a country singer. While he never saw Paisley's career take off, the singer said the invitation from The Judds meant his grandfather got to watch him – then a teenager – open for "the greatest act in country music" before he died.
Paisley followed with a moving, acoustic version of "Young Love (Strong Love)."
At Naomi's request, the Gaither Vocal Band performed "How Beautiful Heaven Must Be," a sentimental appearance for the family because Ashley said they used to listen to Gaither music in their car together. Emmylou Harris and Allison Russell delivered "The Sweetest Gift," poignant because it was the first song that Naomi and Wynonna learned to sing together. New Grand Ole Opry Jamey Johnson sang "John Deere Tractor," and fellow Kentuckian Carly Pearce brought a lively "Why Not Me."
A host of Naomi's famous friends sent videos for the telecast, including Bono, Reese Witherspoon, Morgan Freeman, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, Oprah Winfrey and Salma Hayek.
Hayek said the first time she met Naomi, she felt like she met Scarlett O'Hara.
"She had a spirit ready to conquer anything in life, and she did," the actress said. "She was a woman who had to make difficult choices, but her dream gave her a lot of strength, and she managed to express herself through her voice and music in a time when it would have been almost impossible (because of) where she came from. I remember Naomi as one of a kind. She was a force of nature with a disarming sweetness that was almost hypnotic."
Winfrey said Naomi told her, "country music is real people, and it's real stories."
"I was just exactly like these people right here; it just so happens that what we do for a living is we sing," Winfrey remembers Naomi saying. "I found this so beautiful and so telling of the spirit of her because we were all so moved by her music, in part because of how she viewed her rooted connection to all of us."
Wynonna and Ashley, along with Naomi's husband, Larry Strickland, took the stage near the end of the evening to share memories of Naomi. Ashley talked about the care Naomi put into making sure that everyone felt like they had a place around her table in her home. Wynonna joked it was because her mom liked to be in control, while Ashley said she wanted to make memories.
Strickland was overcome with emotion as he talked about his wife. He laughed that she never met a stranger, sometimes much to his chagrin. He said she would speak to anyone who made eye contact with her for 20 minutes about their passions and their dog. He also shared an email he received from a stranger Naomi met as she left him on tour and flew home to join Wynonna for their Country Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Naomi didn't live to see the induction, but the man sent Strickland an email to tell him how easily Naomi shared her love for her husband.
Strickland read part of the email: "Obviously, I didn't know Naomi at all, but I can tell you that she spoke highly and warmly of you and the life you shared together," Strickland said, his voice breaking. "Rest assured she loved you and had no qualms about telling me, a stranger on a plane, that was so."
In the last minutes of the celebration, Wynonna and Brandi Carlile sang "The Rose," and Wynonna revealed she planned to continue with The Judds final tour this fall, even in her mother's absence.
"Tonight, as we close, I say the show must go on as hard as it may be, and you will carry me just as you did for 38 years," Wynonna told the audience. "It's so devastatingly beautiful what happened here tonight. So, we will continue this spectacle. That's what she would want."
The night ended with Wynonna singing "Love Can Build a Bridge" with the Christ Church choir, where she attends church.
Ashley stood watching, gripping Strickland's arm.
“NAOMI JUDD: A RIVER OF TIME CELEBRATION” is a co-production from CMT and Sandbox Live. Margaret Comeaux (CMT), Leslie Fram (CMT), Jason Owen (Sandbox) and Patrizia DiMaria (Ladypants Productions) are Executive Producers.
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