In September 1985, a New York Times article bemoaned the decline of the established stars of country music and the cliched “Nashville Sound”, but help was already on the way. Why Not Me, the 1984 debut album by mother and daughter duo the Judds, had topped the US country chart, was racking up multimillion sales, and had delivered three No 1 country singles, why not meGirls’ Night Out and love is alive.
With her daughter Wynonna, Naomi Judd, who has died aged 76 after suffering from depression and mental illness, was about to top the country chart again with the follow-up album, Rockin’ With the Rhythm. It would also generate three more chart-topping singles. To their amazement, the Judds found themselves nominated for best new artist at the 1985 Grammy awards, up against mainstream pop stars such as Cyndi Lauper and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The Judds were not alone either, because 1986 brought a swathe of debut albums by a posse of artists including Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam – “New Traditionalists” – who would galvanize a stagnant Nashville. But the Judds’ family bond gave them something special. Naomi and Wynonna had listened to country music’s famous sibling acts, including the Delmore Brothers and the Everly Brothers as well as the swing-era trio the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters.
The Judds’ own voices made a naturally organic mix. Wynonna’s was powerful and bluesy, and mixed with Naomi’s sweeter tone to form an unmistakable and commercially irresistible blend. With songs that melded elements of bluegrass, folk, early rock’n’roll and even a little bebop, and lyrics that often empathised with the lives of small-town, working-class women, the Judds became a natural addition to country’s lineage of forceful female stars such as Tammy Wynette or Patsy Cline.
However, their joint career was cut painfully short. In 1990 Naomi announced that she was suffering from hepatitis C, and the Judds gave up performing the following year (although they would reunite for some one-off shows, and mounted the Power to Change tour in 2000 and the Last Encore Tour in 2010-11). They had notched up 14 No 1 singles on the country chart, while their six albums had sold more than 20m copies, making them, at the time, history’s most successful country duo. They won five Grammy awards, nine Country Music Association awards and seven awards from the Academy of Country Music.
Naomi was born Diana Judd in Ashland, Kentucky, daughter of Charles Judd, a petrol station owner, and Pauline (nee Oliver), who was a cook on a Mississippi river boat. At the age of three, she was sexually abused by an uncle, an event she believed helped trigger her history of depression.
At 17 she became pregnant by Charles Jordan, but he abandoned her, and in January 1964 she married Michael Ciminella. Later that year Wynonna was born, the birth of her causing Naomi to miss her high school graduation ceremony. In 1965 her younger brother Brian died of Hodgkin’s disease, and her parents split up. Naomi’s second daughter, Ashley, was born in 1968, by which time she and her husband de ella had moved to Los Angeles, where Naomi began studying for a nursing degree. Ashley would become a successful film actor, with roles in Heat, Double Jeopardy and A Time To Kill, among others.
Naomi and Ciminella divorced in 1972, and she took a variety of jobs to support her daughters. A traumatic assault and rape by a drug-addicted ex-boyfriend prompted her to leave Los Angeles and move to a cottage in Morrill, Kentucky, where she struggled to pay the bills while Wynonna became absorbed in singing and learning to play the guitar.
They moved back to Marin County, California, where Naomi enrolled in nursing school. She was often frustrated by Wynonna’s obsession with music (“she’d even take grocery money to buy new guitar strings,” she recalled), until she discovered that she and her daughter de ella had a natural instinct for singing harmony together. Naomi recalled the influence of the coal-mining songs of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. “As these women harmonized together, it came to me: Wynonna and I couldn’t talk to each other, but, lo and behold, we could sing together.”
After Naomi completed her nursing studies, the family moved to Nashville in 1979. Three years later, Naomi was assigned to nurse the daughter of the record producer Brent Maher after she had been injured in a road accident. A grateful Maher agreed to listen to a demo tape Naomi and Wynonna had recorded, and when he had heard it he instantly agreed to become their producer.
He spent six months honoring their sound, and in 1983 they were signed to RCA following a live audition. In early 1984 they released the six-track EP Wynonna & Naomi, from which Mama He’s Crazy their first song to top the country chart. The song also appeared on their debut album later that year.
After Naomi gave up performing with the Judds, she founded the Naomi Judd Education and Research Fund to raise awareness about hepatitis C and became an advocate for the American Liver Foundation. She took occasional acting roles, hosted the Sunday morning talk show Naomi’s New Morning in 2005 and joined the reality-competition show Can You Duet as a judge in 2008. She had married Larry Strickland (a former backing singer for Elvis Presley) in 1989, and in 2017 the couple competed in the reality cooking series My Kitchen Rules.
She also published a string of books, including River of Time: My Descent Into Depression and How I Emerged With Hope (2016). In a 2017 interview she described how her mental state had declined dramatically after she stopped performing. “When I came off the tour I went into this deep, dark absolutely terrifying hole and I couldn’t get out. I spent two years on my couch.”
The Judds had been planning a concert tour for this autumn.
She is survived by her husband and daughters.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism