Female role model and keeper of the real country flame.
The mainstream and social media are full of genuine shock, sadness, and sympathy following the surprise death of country music superstar Naomi Judd on 30th April 2022, just one day before her induction into the Country Music Hall Of Fame as a member of ‘80s sensation The Judds. Her daughters, fellow Judd Wynonna and actress, and activist Ashley released a statement saying simply their mother, “died due to the disease of mental illness”, and then asked for the family to be left alone to grieve. Those expressing their thoughts and condolences range from American State Governors and Presidential hopefuls to artists representing the whole of popular music, country, and americana, reflecting the respect and influence that Naomi Judd had earnt throughout her career. Naomi Judd’s influence was not just musical as she became an icon for working-class women generally, and particularly those in the American South, due to the personal challenges she had to surmount to achieve the success she eventually did.
Diana Ellen Judd was born on January 11th, 1946, in Ashland, Kentucky, and was a mother to Wynonna when she was just 18, becoming a single parent in California following the break-up of her marriage to Michael Ciminella who wasn’t Wynonna’s father. After a period on welfare, Naomi Judd returned to Tennessee to continue her nursing career determined to make a success of the musical teaming of herself and daughter Wynonna. According to her own accounts, Naomi had to endure sexual harassment and repeated rejection before landing a contract with Curb/RCA in 1983. The Judds quickly achieved success and became spokeswomen for a new generation of female country music fans. The Judds were distinct personalities with Naomi being their public face with her extrovert stage presence and sound business acumen, with Wynonna being the powerhouse vocalist and musical force. The Judds dominated the various industry awards of the ‘80s which included 5 Grammy Awards and 8 CMA awards, as well as selling 20 million records. The Judds music managed to combine the bluegrass and traditional country of Naomi’s native Kentucky with the pop and rock styles of the ‘80s with a repertoire that included mainly covers and the occasional Naomi and Wynonna written songs. The grounding of the Judds’ music in traditional country music was part of the reason the more modern aspects of their music didn’t distract from their overall core country audience despite including elements of the blues and country rock. Americana traces its roots from the West Coast sounds of The Byrds and the Burritos as well as the more rural sounds of real country, and the Judds were one of the acts that kept the more acoustic sounds of real country alive during the ‘80s. An example of the variety of songs The Judds felt comfortable covering is that they covered the UK’s own pub rock godfather Mickey Jupp’s ‘Tears For You’, and the ‘40s country boogie blues tune ‘Cow Cow Boogie’, as well as more contemporary songs. They had fourteen number one country singles starting with ‘Mama He’s Crazy’ in 1984.
Apart from various subsequent reunions, the Judds disbanded in 1991 following Naomi Judd’s diagnosis with hepatitis C. Naomi made a full recovery by which time Wynonna had established her successful solo career, and she took on various acting and media roles and wrote various self-help books maintaining her status as a female role model. The Judds toured again in 2000 for 30 date tour that saw them play to 300,000 fans which demonstrated the loyalty of their fanbase. Naomi Judd developed anxiety and depression which included suicidal thoughts and she shared her mental health problems with the public.
Real country music always had a strong connection with the rural working-class poor of the American South, and Naomi Judd continued this tradition as The Judds became one of the most successful duo artists of all time. However, Naomi Judd was much more than a simple musician in that through her own struggles throughout her life she became a real and relevant role model for working-class women, particularly those in the American South. She was also one of the few country artists who kept the flame of real country music alive during the ‘80s and which helped the development of the americana movement in the ‘90s. For readers of Americana UK, Chuck Prophet probably paid the best tribute to Naomi Judd with his heartfelt but simple “I love the Judds records. Feeling for sisters Ashely and Wynonna losing their mom. A lot of pain out there.”.