Naomi Judd faced demons and angels in the glare of celebrity | Terry Mattingly
Naomi Judd thought she understood the ties that bind country music stars and their audience — then one aggressive fan went and joined the Pentecostal church the Judd family called home.
“It really burdened me,” said Judd, after signing hundreds of copies of her “Love Can Build a Bridge” memoir back in 1993. “I just don’t sign autographs at church. The best way I can explain it to children … is to say, ‘Honey, Jesus is the star.'”
After a year of this tense standoff, Judd became concerned and wrote a fan. “I said, ‘I want you to really get away by yourself and read this letter and answer this question honestly: Do you come to church to see The Judds or do you come to church to see God?’ She never came back to church. But she was in the autograph line today.”
Through it all, Judd and her daughter Wynonna have talked openly about their triumphs and their struggles. Many fans identified with their failures just as much as the messages about faith and family.
At the time of that 1993 interview, Naomi Judd had battled through waves of anxiety attacks to address some dark realities — such as rape, crisis pregnancy and her battle with hepatitis C that retired The Judds.
What she hadn’t discussed was the sexual abuse in her childhood that led to treatment-resistant depression. Judd’s April 30 death, at age 76, focused new attention on blunt passages in her 2016 book, “River of Time,” in which she said she had been tempted by suicide. “I wanted to be completely honest that if someone took out a gun and killed me on stage, they would be doing me a favor,” she wrote.
The Judds were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame the day after Naomi’s death, and her shaken daughter Ashley Judd told the crowd, “I’m sorry that she couldn’t hang on until today.” Writing in USA Today, the actress expressed gratitude for her mother’s legacy, but added: “Perhaps it’s indecorous to say, but my heart is filled with something else, too. Incandescent rage. Because my mother was stolen from me by the disease of mental illness, by the wounds she carried from a lifetime of injustices that started when she was a girl.”
In her Hall of Fame remarks, Wynonna said a circle of family members had gathered around Naomi’s body and recited Psalm 23. Leading the crowd through those familiar verses, Wynonna ended with her voice cracking but firm: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” — with the final word pronounced “FOR-EV-ER.” And all the people said, “Amen.”
During that 1993 interview, Naomi Judd stressed that anyone who wants to grasp the appeal of country music has to understand that its artists are supposed to sing about all of life, good and bad, “about Sunday morning, as well as Friday and Saturday nights,” she said.
“People know that Wynonna was conceived when I was 17 and unmarried. They’ve got to know that — living all over America like I did, with the two kids, during the U-Haul-it years — some pretty hairy things went down.”
Serious country music fans don’t expect perfection, she added. But there are millions of fans who view artists through a celebrity lens — period.
“We don’t have a royal family in America, so we’ve made celebrities our aristocracy. We worship celebrities instead of God,” she said. “People sit on the edges of their seats waiting to find out what we had for breakfast, and they always ask, ‘What do YOU think about THIS?'”
Meanwhile, the stars are expected — in a spotlight — to face their own angels and demons. This expectation is a two-edged sword.
“I’ve always said that if I had to go to a detox center for drugs or alcohol or whatever, I’d want a counselor who once was worse off than me. Don’t give me somebody who just talks that talk. Give me someone who has lived it,” she said.
But this process can cause anxiety and stress, she admitted. “We all want to be loved and accepted and it’s scary to show that part of you that is the not-so-smart, not-so-together side.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.