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Wynonna, Ashley Judd mourn mother Naomi during emotional tribute show

Wynonna Judd during a celebration of life for Naomi Judd, matriarch of the country music duo the Judds, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on May 15. (Harrison McClary/Reuters)
4 min

During CMT’s tribute concert for the late Naomi Judd on Sunday evening, sisters Ashley and Wynonna Judd stood onstage and told the audience how much they missed their mother. At one point, Wynonna interrupted Ashley, and they briefly started faux bickering, but in the way that siblings do, rooted in a lifetime of both exasperation and love.

It was a moment that, for most families, would not be broadcast on national television. “This isn’t easy. I don’t know why we’re doing this in public. It sucks,” Wynonna said, on the verge of tears. “But we’re doing it, aren’t we? We’re showing the world what a dysfunctional family does. We show up for each other.” The audience in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville cheered as the sisters hugged.

This is the third time that the famous siblings have mourned in public since Naomi Judd, the 76-year-old legendary country singer, died April 30. A day later, Ashley and Wynonna showed up at the Country Music Hall of Fame ceremony where Naomi (along with her duo partner, Wynonna) was scheduled to be inducted. Last week, Ashley appeared on “Good Morning America” to confirm that their mother died by suicide, which she said she revealed to take control of the story before the tabloids did.

At the end of Sunday’s televised tribute (“Naomi Judd: A River of Time Celebration”), Wynonna took the stage solo and spoke about the surreal nature of the past two weeks, after being part of the Judds duo for four decades. “I’ve lived my life publicly since I was 17. So it feels natural to be with my family of choice. And tonight is a celebration,” she said. “And at the same time, I can’t put into words how devastated I am.”

She also told the crowd that she had decided to continue with the 10 concerts that she and Naomi had planned for later this year, called the Final Tour, in honor of her mother.

“The show must go on, as hard as it may be,” Wynonna said. “It’s so devastatingly beautiful what happened here tonight, so we will continue this spectacle. That’s what she would want, right?”

The hour-plus show included several prerecorded tributes to Naomi from celebrities, including country music stars Martina McBride and Reba McEntire, along with Reese Witherspoon, Salma Hayek, Morgan Freeman, Bono, Bette Midler and Oprah Winfrey.

“Whenever we hear her voice, we will be forever reminded of her purity of her heart and the vulnerability she bravely shared with the world,” said Winfrey, adding that she talked to Naomi many times over the years. “Her body is gone, but her sweet spirit and legacy remains as a heart print on every life she touched. And I thank you, Miss Naomi Judd, for touching mine.”

Multiple acts got choked up as they performed some of the Judds’ greatest hits. “Sorry, y’all,” Ashley McBryde said after she got teary at the beginning of “Love Is Alive”; when Little Big Town sang “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days),” Kimberly Schlapman also had to compose herself. Other performances included Jamey Johnson singing “John Deere Tractor,” Emmylou Harris and Allison Russell with “The Sweetest Gift,” Carly Pearce taking on “Why Not Me,” and Brad Paisley with “Young Love (Strong Love).”

Wynonna sang “River of Time” at the beginning of the evening, closed the show with Midler’s “The Rose” alongside Brandi Carlile, and went solo with “Love Is a Bridge,” accompanied by the choir from her church.

In another emotional moment, Naomi’s husband, Larry Strickland, took the microphone and shared how his wife loved talking to people she just met. To illustrate this point, he read an email he received from a man who had sat next to Naomi on a flight to Nashville a few days before she died; for reasons unknown, Naomi had given this man Strickland’s card with his contact information.

The man said he didn’t know much about country music but was delighted to meet Naomi, and they talked throughout the 90-minute flight. After he found out she had died, the man said, he wanted to reach out to Strickland: “She spoke highly and warmly of you and the life you shared together. Rest assured she loved you, and had no qualms about telling me, a stranger on the plane, that was so.”