Naomi, Tell Us About The Good Old Days

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
5 min readMay 1, 2022

This morning I had “Grandpa” by the Judds in my head. I had no idea why. I was thinking about a conversation I had with one of my best friends about country music in the early 1990s: On teen shows like 90210, when there was someone who loved country music, they always played “Grandpa” or “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks. They’re great songs, but the early 90s had so many good country-western artists, especially women: Carlene Carter, Deanna Carter, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and Nanci Griffith. But I was humming “Grandpa” as I went for a walk and ran some errands. I came home to the news that Naomi Judd was dead at the age of 76. The announcement was written by daughter Ashley, who said her mother died of “the disease of mental illness.” I thought of a line by John Irving where the characters keep telling each other to “Keep passing the open windows.” Meaning: stay alive. You mean something to me.

Naomi Judd has short red hair cut in a shag. She is wearing a white blouse. She’s holding baby Ashley Judd.
Naomi (at the time going by her birth name Diana) with baby Ashley, 1968.

Diana Ellen Judd always dreamed big, bigger than her town of Ashland, Kentucky. What was she going to do, she wasn’t sure yet. But she was going to do something big. But at age seventeen, she found out she was pregnant. The father? Took off to parts unknown. She married Michael Ciminella and gave birth to a girl named Christina. They moved to California, and in 1968 she gave birth to Ashley. The marriage ended after that. What followed was several cross-country moves, including one to Sonoma County. She worked as a secretary on More American Graffiti. It was there Christina sang “Both Sides Now” at her middle school graduation. Diana knew Christina was a wonderful singer. Diana loved to sing. Maybe they could do it together.

They moved to Nashville. Diana became Naomi, inspired by the Naomi in the bible who gave wise advice to her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Diana became Wynonna after the lyric “Don’t forget Winona” in the “Route 66” song, changed the spelling. Together they became The Judds.

Wyonna’s hair is curly and wearing a dress. Ralph Emery has gray hair and a beard, wearing a suit and tie. Naomi has a retro 40s look about her and is also wearing a dress.
Wyonna, disc jockey/tv host Ralph Emery, and Naomi during one of The Judds’ first performances.

Naomi worked as a nurse while Wynonna went to school. Naomi tried to get someone to notice The Judds. She was sexually harassed several times, but she kept her spirits up. Finally, they got a contract with RCA and Curb. The first single “Mama, he’s Crazy” was a hit, and won them a Grammy in 1985. They were on their way.

Wynonna has red curly hair and is wearing a blue blouse with earrings. Naomi also has red hair and is wearing a yellow blouse.
The Judds’ first album cover

They toured constantly, bickered, sang, and toured again. They produced golden record after golden record. All the time Naomi always maintained they were doing well, living the dream. They were an Alger story: two women who used to get vintage dresses now had tour buses and a farm in Kentucky. Ashley sometimes joined them, with the girls reading Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. But mostly Ashley stayed with her grandmother and decided she too wanted to be in show business. Only she would be an actress. She got roles right away and got a recurring role on the show Sisters, playing a spoiled rich girl Reed Halsey. Her character eloped with a man named Kirby. Who played him? Paul Rudd.

Her mother though was going through the hardest time in her life: In 1990 she discovered she had Hepatitis C, possibly caused by a dirty needle while she was at work. The doctor flat-out told her if she wanted to live, she would have to stop touring. County singers had to tour. So she and Wynonna went on a farewell tour, singing “Love can Build a Bridge” as their final song.

Naomi wasn’t going into that good night. She wrote her memoirs which became a miniseries. She acted in a couple of TV movies. Wynonna had instant success as a solo star. In 1998, she declared she was free of Hepatitis C. She became a regular on talk shows, and also was a judge for Star Search. But Wynonna had problems with food, causing her to have weight issues. She finally checked into rehab in 2005. Ashley checked in as well; she was suffering from depression and codependency issues. Ashley revealed in her memoir she had been raped three times, she was a victim of incest (the family member has never been revealed), and that the constant moving wore on her soul. Wynonna divorced and married again to her former bodyguard. In 2009, he was arrested for attempting to sexually assault a minor. In 2017, Naomi admitted she had suffered from depression and had suicidal thoughts. Wyonna’s daughter Grace has had drug issues and has been in prison. Sometimes the American Dream doesn’t turn out the way you want it to.

Ashley, Naomi and Wyonna at a charity performance.

Naomi’s death has made me sad. I don’t know if she killed herself or not. Quite honestly, it’s none of my business. What I do know is this: even when your dreams come true, it’s not going to fix everything in your life. You want it to, but it’s simply not going to. That’s an inside job. If you’re lucky, you can get therapy. You can anti-depressants. You can exercise, you can go to 12-step groups, and you can keep trying. But oh God, sometimes you can try and do everything you can, but the darkness is still there. That is a hell no one deserves to be in. Along with “Grandpa” a quote Jane Pauley once said is in my head as well: there are no charmed lives. Only lives. And I wish Naomi kept passing the open windows.

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