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Here Come The Judds . . . Again! (1999)

The Judds talk with Country Weekly about their million-dollar millennium blowout and more.

Originally published in the Aug. 3, 1999 issue of Country Weekly featuring The Judds on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.

Big! Glitzy! Multi-million-dollar production! The Country Show of the Century! Those are some of the terms being tossed around as country’s most successful female duo in history, The Judds, prepare for their long-awaited, highly anticipated reunion concert event.

Set for New Year’s Eve at the America West Arena in Phoenix, the show promises to be one of the most talked about events ever in country music. Although plans are still being finalized, Country Weekly has learned some highlights to expect from the supershow:

  • Groundbreaking special effects
  • High-tech lighting with giant video screens
  • Multiple costume changes
  • Souvenir gift bags from The Judds
  • Spectacular fireworks to greet Year 2,000
  • All the Judd women—Naomi, Wynonna and Ashley—on one stage
  • Music, music, music—old classics, new songs, fiery Wynonna solos
  • And many more surprises!

“I’m a nerve-knot just thinking about it,” admits Naomi, ready to take the stage for a full concert with daughter Wynonna for the first time since 1991. That’s the year life-threatening chronic hepatitis forced her to retire.

“After all these years, thinking about it every day, and coming to terms with what I survived . . . There’s an enormous sense of pride and admiration I have for Wynonna and what she has come out of. And then to have my daughter Ashley and husband Larry there. It’s so incomprehensible right now. I’m so fired up about it, I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an emotional danger about it.”

Just what America’s most dramatic duo needs—more emotion. But it’s bound to reach new heights when mother and daughter walk again—together—into the spotlights. Their story reads like a soap-opera drama. Against all odds, the Kentucky mother/daughter duo soared to the top of the country music world with a string of No. 1’s, starting in 1984. But after winning nine CMA awards, eight Academy of Country Music Awards and five Grammys, The Judds’ saw their Cinderella tale turn tragic.

The Duo Perseveres

Stricken with a potentially deadly disease, Naomi was forced from the stage and the road. The Judds, as an act, were over. Wynonna, always protected by her mother, overcame solo stage fright to forge a successful career that eventually brought her an ACM award as 1993’s Female Vocalist of the Year.

Naomi and Wynonna’s professional worlds, split apart for six years, will come back together Dec. 31 in the 17,000-seat arena. Along with comebacks by the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Judds reunion has become one of the most talked-about events in musical history. “I try to make everybody focus on Dec. 31 because that, right now, is the next step,” insists Wynonna. “I want to enjoy this because so much of my life has been planned five years in advance. I promised Mom and myself that I was truly going to stay in the moment with this. When you stay in the present moment and are aware of that moment, you can truly live to the fullest.” The concert will reflect the high energies of the multi-talented Judd family, living life to the fullest once again. That includes Naomi’s actress daughter Ashley, who will emcee the show.

“This will be unlike any other performance by The Judds,” vows Larry Strickland, Naomi’s husband and Wynonna’s co-manager. He’s producing the event with Pam Matthews, Wynonna’s other manager. “There’ll be more special effects and tricks than ever before. We’re going to give the audience something to remember.”

“Naomi wants to be shot out of a cannon,” advises Matthews. “And we just might do that—or at least put her in a rocket ship built for two. We’re also getting the biggest order of lights in the history of the company that makes state-of-the-art stage illumination. And the pyrotechnics will be fantastic. There’ll be lots of costume changes by Wynonna, but you know that Naomi will win in that department,” laughs Matthews. “And, musically, it will be magic.”

Naomi already has ideas about the musical direction. “Of course we’ll do some of The Judds’ classics,” she comments. “Any artist that had a hit that really resonated with people, you can’t get off the stage without doing that. But I also want to celebrate Wynonna for the last eight years and let her have her own moment. She has become Xena with an electric guitar. And I want a moment where Larry and Ashley sing with us. That’s never happened before.”

Naomi has already written two new songs for the show. “One’s called ‘Radio and Juliet’ and the other is ‘The Big Bang Boogie.’ It’s a rocker about the millennium and creation,” she explains. Both Judd women feel the event would make for a good live album. “Everybody wants us to,” says Naomi. “I think we’d be right on target with that because we’ve never done a live album. It would be such a marvelous milestone. Talk about your ultimate souvenir!”

Making Up For Lost Time

The Judds have their own souvenirs from their remarkable career. Exactly 15 years ago this week they enjoyed their first No. 1 single with “Mama He’s Crazy.” Now, with the new millennium approaching at warp speed, the dynamic duo remains a blur of frenzied action. With her hepatitis now officially in remission, Naomi’s making up for lost time. She’s busy with her new radio show, songwriting, books, movies and motivational speeches.

A big question: Will a successful reunion concert lead to a tour by The Judds? “I don’t know the answer to that,” answers Naomi. “I think it’s all predicated on material. Just speaking out of my personal desires, though, I would love to do a limited tour.” Adds Wynonna, cautiously, “We’ve talked about it a couple of times. It’s our turn to listen to the fans and let them tell us if they want it. We’ve got to be really careful about how far we push this miracle. ‘OK, God, you gave us a miracle, now can we go on tour?’”

If a tour happens, it’ll be a two-bus version. “I told her she has to get her own bus,” Wynonna notes, half serious. “She said, ‘I’m not getting on your bus anyway because it’s a day care center.’ ”

Motherly Advice

Turning serious, Wynonna praises her mother and former duet partner. “She’ll call me and say, ‘Hi, honey, it’s your biggest booster.’ When I was little, I needed a spanking. I’m now grown, so I guess I need a tour. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, she wants to be there to give me a push. She’ll always be in the background giving me pointers, telling me to stand up straight and not to be disrespectful. That’s just like a mama.”

Naomi’s advice is also helping her daughter through her recent divorce. And Wynonna seems to be adjusting well to life as a single mom, raising 4-year-old Elijah and 3-year-old Grace. “I understand now what people mean by taking it a day at a time,” she says. “I had my first suitor recently—the day after the article about the divorce was in the paper. I might as well have taken a want ad out. It’s like, She’s back! The next day I get a call and I can’t figure out whether to even give it a thought because I’m so into restoration now.”

That revival includes “getting rid of two-thirds of my clothes, repainting my house and planting seeds everywhere. This is a new beginning for me. I find myself starting over in a lot of areas of my life. I don’t have anything that I have to prove, but I have something very important that I want to still do—this album. It doesn’t have to be bigger than ever, just better than ever. I’m in a real place of healing.”

The healing process was helped by her 35th birthday present to herself, a week-long hiking adventure into the California wilderness. “I was out in the middle of nowhere and I had nobody to help me. I had a bottle of water and part of an apple. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life and I got down to the survival moment. When I got back, I was so fired up, I felt like a weapon. Okay, I dare you! Bring it on!”

New Music, New Jobs, New Books

That passion has been turned toward her new album project. “I still don’t know to this day if I’m going to be able to fit into the country radio format, but I’ve finally made peace with that. I’m a country girl, but I have so many different influences. I think I’m getting away with some things on this album that are finally being accepted. I’ve made peace with who I’m not and made peace with what I am, and therefore I’m able to sing the music I love.” Wynonna reveals that the album includes some “pedal steel, dobro, funky soulful fiddle—and you can hear the tradition.” She’s also booked rock’s legendary Tower of Power horn section. “I’m cutting a Joni Mitchell song and I’m definitely calling her to see if she can sing backup on it. Then I turn around and do a song that’s country.”

Meanwhile, Mama’s on a roll with her own projects. The Heart to Heart With Naomi Judd show on Premiere Radio Networks is at the top of her list. Sponsored by Big Kmart, the four- hour show has already hosted such stars as Rosie O’Donnell, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Steve Wariner, Sarah Evans, Andy Griggs and Ashley and Wynonna. Naomi also fields telephone calls from her listeners. “I want to do less songs on the show because I so love talking to people,” says Naomi. “They call in from all 50 states and I’m so completely engaged by their stories.”

Fans calling 1-877-JUDDVILLE (1-877-583-3845) during airtime get the chace to speak directly to Naomi herself. Aired live Sunday nights from 8 p.m. ET to midnight, the program now reaches 36 markets from coast to coast. [This radio show has since gone off the air.—CW] “The radio show takes a lot of my time,” comments Naomi. “I write the script for it. My kitchen table and my hammock is my office, and it takes me sixty seconds to get from my back door to the little porch at the barn where we do the show. I can wear my house slippers, I don’t have to brush my hair, and I can wear 100 percent cotton clothes.”

Rather than discuss show-biz topics, Naomi instead likes to glean personal insights into her guests. “I never ask them about their projects because I’m just more interested in what shapes their realities. I had no idea that Bryan White was obsessed with The Three Stooges” Author of Naomi’s Home Companion, a book featuring Judd recipes and food for thought.

Naomi has now written a new book for children. It’s titled Love Can Build a Bridge, based on the 1990 hit she co-wrote. “It’s doing real well and I love doing the bookstores,” enthuses Naomi, who has already made several in-person promotional appearances. “The first thing I learned is not to wear fancy clothes because I have kids in my lap all day.”

She’s somehow found time to work on her book project, Guardian Angels, due out in spring of 2000. “It’s about teaching children how special they are and that they’re protected. It’s a way for me to converse about self-esteem issues.”

The multi-talented Naomi is also following the Hollywood footsteps of daughter Ashley. “I just finished filming a movie, Family Tree, where Robert Forrester played my husband. And I’m going to star in a made-for-TV movie titled Another White Christmas. I play a school music teacher in a tiny Kentucky town. She tries to inspire her students. Sounds like typecasting, doesn’t it?”

The Beginning and New Beginnings

While living in the present and looking to the future, Naomi takes a fond look back at how the duo’s second of 14 No. 1 hits, “Why Not Me,” was discovered. “I was still working at the hospital in Franklin, Tenn., and Wy was in high school. I’d take my precious day off, get dressed in my little vintage outfit and drive up in my ’57 Chevy and plead for somebody to listen to our little homemade tape. This guy Kenny O’Dell had written a song and somehow I had gotten the cassette. I was dating Larry at the time and he was coming in from the road with his band as we were sitting in Wynonna’s room listening to this tape. Larry heard the refrain and said, ‘What is that?’ I told him it was just a little ol’ song somebody wrote—it was a funky kind of demo. He sat on the bed next to Wy and I and said, ‘You don’t understand—that’s a classic.’”

“To this day he still has this golden ear. That song came off real quick in the studio. We do a song because somehow we can’t not do it.” Now Naomi’s looking forward to performing the song once again as a duet with Wynonna. She’s already gotten a taste of what it will be like, making a brief stage appearance during Wynonna’s show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last December. She waited in the wings as Wynonna prepared to bring her on.

“I was standing by myself in the pitch black,” Naomi recalls. “I felt a kind of chill, just being alone watching Wynonna under the bright golden lights that made her look sort of celestial. It became a metaphor for the fact that the previous eight years I had been alone in darkness and silence watching her on TV and in the videos. Then, all of a sudden she turned to me and mouthed the words, ‘Go towards the light.’ That’s the same thing I said to her at the end of our farewell concert. Now, at Wy’s concert, I literally and figuratively stepped back out into the light. The next thing I knew, I could feel the left side of her body as I stood there next to her, and I just laid right into the harmony. It was almost like a rebirth.”

Rebirth and remission. Two of the kindest words that Naomi has heard in recent years. “My health is fabulous now,” she says. “Every day I get down on my knees and thank God I’m back on my feet.” And Wynonna says she’s ready for the magic moments soon to come on stage. “Mom and I are in a really good state. We’re really clear about who we are—both on and off the stage.”

Ralph Marchetta, director of booking for America West Arena, reports that ticket sales are going briskly and a sellout is expected. All the $299 seats have been snapped up, but there are still some $199 and $99 tickets available.

“This could be the biggest New Years Eve event in our lifetime,” Marchetta predicts. “We’re absolutely thrilled to host an event of this magnitude. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get The Judds, their reunion and the millennium celebration all on the same night. For Phoenix to host the biggest reunion that any of us have ever seen is unbelievable.