It is perhaps inevitable that Naomi Judd’s passing in late April sparked a sentiment of sentimentality among country music audiences.
Family acts have long been central to the genre’s DNA, reinforcing the music’s unwavering sense of tradition while championing a degree of vocal harmony that feels forever unique to blood relations.
The Judds have certainly played through it all with a kind of effortless authority. The now famous story of mother Naomi raising her daughters Wynonna and Ashley as a single working mother was applicable to families everywhere, whether or not they were part of the country music demographic. The duo’s rise to popularity then was an example of modern working-class life beating the odds and more.
While the prevalence of family acts in country and bluegrass music camps has always been warm, dominant ensembles were typically built around siblings or patriarchally led bands.
But Naomi and Wynonna as a mother-daughter group? It was much newer. So did their resulting recordings, all of which put Wynonna’s vocal enthusiasm front and center with mother Naomi’s harmonious singing serving as the basis.
With just 17 years separating them, however, their music reflected the laid-back but frank intimacy of a sister act more than that of a cross-generational cooperative.
There were exceptions, of course. “Mama, He’s Crazy” is mother-daughter confessional at heart, but when Naomi steps in for the chorus, she’s hardly a matriarchal presence. Her vocals intertwine with Wynonna to create an effortless river of country wonderland.
The public understood everything too. The 1984 single became Judd’s first No. 1 hit as well as the first hit by a country duo since the Davis Sisters’ version of “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” more than three decades earlier.
The irony, however, is that the latter was not a family act. Despite the group’s name, vocalist Skeeter Davis (another Kentucky native) and Betty Jack Davis were not related. Mom, this is really crazy.
Between 1985 and 1992, The Judds would win the Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals five times. It wasn’t a simple display of the duo’s commercial value. The streak cemented a new traditionalist movement that swept through the ’80s and largely ended the “Urban Cowboy” leaning honky tonk pop that dominated the charts and radio airwaves for the first half of the decade.
This traditionalist uprising did not start with the Judds. Rather, it was part of a long scholarly charge of roots fueled by a trio of Kentucky-raised acts.
Shortly before the Judds’ newfound stardom, Ricky Skaggs—a Lawrence County native who cut his teeth in the bluegrass troupes of Ralph Stanley and fellow Kentucky JD Crowe—became a national sensation. He recorded a string of 10 No. 1 country hits between 1981 and 1986 as well as a trio of Grammys. His bluegrass roots, however, were never abandoned. Two of his Grammys were for a Crowe recording (“Fireball”) and a cover of a Bill Monroe classic (“Wheel Hoss”) while his version of Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” topped the country charts in 1984.
On the other side of the Judds’ reign was arguably the greatest national innovator of the 80s and early 90s – Dwight Yoakam.
From the moment the Pikeville-born singer hit the charts in 1986 with an update to Johnny Horton’s gem “Honky Tonk Man,” country radio has never been the same. An abundance of hits, Grammys and various accolades followed. More importantly, the creative doors that Skaggs and The Judds had opened remained open.
Yoakam would take country through overtones of mariachi, vintage southern soul and Elvis-inspired pop. But the traditionalist vein remained bright. Thanks to an early career in the embrace of country sounds that brewed in the West in Bakersfield, California, Yoakam became the modern torchbearer of the music pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
But here is the curious thing. Skaggs had his bluegrass roots. Yoakam had his Bakersfield connection. Wynonna and Naomi Judd had basically met.
There was no obvious plan for their music to fall back on. Instead, they spent most of the 80s and early 90s developing a sound that was both delicate and assertive. It could be a 1986 hit that turned the generation just as sentimental, “Grandpa (Tell Me ’bout the Good Old Days”), as overtly celebratory as 1985’s “Girls’ Night Out.” or as true to style as their 1987 cover of “Don’t Be Cruel.
Wynonna provided the vocal command, but Naomi led the engine room as the tireless cheerleader and stylistic skipper for The Judds, providing much of the band’s charm and performance charisma, on and off stage.
As always, tastes and commerce have changed. Country music was always looking for the next big thing. In late 1991, with Naomi’s hepatitis C diagnosis becoming public knowledge, the Judds played Rupp Arena on the final stages of what was promoted as a farewell tour. Their immensely outgoing opening act clearly signaled the more commercially dominant direction that would carry country music through the rest of the decade. His name was Garth Brooks.
It’s a testament, of course, to The Judds’ enduring musical legacy that following the 1991 tour, the duo staged several reunion outings – one of which was due to begin this fall.
There’s no avoiding the sadness surrounding Naomi’s passing, from her cause (on Twitter, Ashley Judd said, “We lost our beautiful mother to mental illness”) to her moment (on the eve of the enthronement of The Judds in the Country Music Hall of Fame). The first, in particular, deserves even more serious and open discussion than it is currently receiving. But we’ll leave that to another forum another day.
For now, though, let’s remember what The Judds gave country music – a crisp, sparkling slice of musical tradition steeped in family familiarity. It was Kentucky’s gift to a burgeoning genre as well as a reminder of where the music’s roots lay and how far they endure to this day.