Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. Every Monday and Thursday we explore family, health, work, and meaning, with the occasional dad joke and dose of inspiration. If you're new around here, read my introductory post, learn about me, or check out our archives. And if you enjoyed this article, please subscribe or share with a friend.
Naomi Judd, the matriarch of one of the most storied families in country music and one half of the super-duo The Judds, died on Saturday of what her family called “mental illness.” She was 76. Her daughters, country music superstar Wynonna and actress and activist Ashley, announced her passing in a statement.
For a period of two years in the mid-1990s, I was granted unprecedented access to the Judd family. At the time, I was researching a book, Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville. I traveled with Wynonna across the country, spoke with her mother and sister, and did countless on-the-record interviews, including uncovering previously unknown details about Naomi and Wynnona's early years. In honor of her passing, I’m sharing some of those details exclusively on The Nonlinear Life.
Naomi was a talented, complicated person who was both a visionary and a driving force. In recent years, she was open about her struggles with mental illness. In 2016, she published a book called River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope. She told GMA she would “not leave the house for three weeks, and not get out of my pajamas, and not practice normal hygiene.”
The duo has been in the midst of a dramatic comeback. After an emotional farewell tour in 2011, they performed together publicly for the first time last month and announced a “Final Tour” that was scheduled to begin in September. The duo was scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday night. The ceremony still happened, with Wynonna and Ashley making a surprise appearance. "Though my heart is broken I will continue to sing," Wynonna said.
The future Naomi Judd was born in Ashland, Kentucky, on January 11, 1946. Diana, as she was originally called, was a flirty, popular child, the oldest of four. Diana's father, Glen, a stoic, flinty man with few indulgences, ran a filling station in downtown Ashland, an Appalachian river town of 10,000 people in the northeast corner of the state. Her mother, Pauline, was a housewife and nursery superintendent at the First Baptist Church. Though Naomi would later romanticize her upbringing as quaint, quirky, and filled with country people with a “natural, endemic Appalachian wisdom,” even she admitted that the chilliness between her parents left her with a driving desire to escape.
As she said in her 1993 book, Love Can Build a Bridge, “I now know why I'm such a demonstrative person...I never had enough communication when I was a little girl. I walked around like a great big piñata, wishing someone would break me open so I could spill out my emotions, secrets, and feelings."
From her earliest days, Diana Judd invented romantic stories of her family. Because Mark, the younger of her two brothers, was so "beautiful," she said, "I told people he won lots of beauty contests." As for herself, Diana often imagined she was an Indian princess, the misplaced child of some Cherokee or Chippewa royalty. As Wynonna told me: "My mother is the kind of person that feels the need to develop her own reality to spare her from the heartache of the truth. For instance, her dad was an alcoholic. He would be sitting there at the kitchen table with the newspaper drinking a Coke and they would be walking out the door going to church. She thought it was because he was just so exhausted from working the night before. That was her reality."
In eighth grade, a neighbor of Diana threw a costume party. One girl came dressed in a leopard-skin leotard with a wig that covered her face. She sat in a corner and pounded rocks together, finally revealing herself at evening's end to be Diana. As one of her friends recalled: "You know, most kids who would do something like that, they might keep it up for a few minutes before they would yell, 'Hey, it's me, didn't I fool you?' But Diana just went on and on with it."
At age 16, Diana Judd's need for fantasy was amplified by two traumatic events. First, her brother Brian was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The illness ruptured her family. “That's when I realized," she wrote, "our home was not really the cozy Walton-esque existence I had constructed in my head." That image was further undermined when Diana discovered at the start of her senior year that she was pregnant. The father was Charlie Jordan, a senior at Ashland High School.
"All the daydreams and illusions I had created were stumbling over each other and mixing things up," she said. "It was a living nightmare. I was still in high school, I wasn't married. I got a $1.50 allowance per week. Brian was downstairs on the sofa throwing up...Mom's losing her mind and our family's falling apart.”
Instead, as she revealed in her book, she tried to take her own life—first with a knife in the bathroom, then by throwing herself off the water tower. When she lost her nerve on both occasions, she finally resolved to tell her parents. "Do you love him?" her father asked. "No," she said. Her parents insisted she marry anyway. She did, to a different man.
Michael Ciminella was an Italian Catholic, the son of a prominent businessman, and a smitten young man who had been in love with Diana for years. The two had met when she was fourteen. Michael drove up in a shiny Chrysler Imperial wearing his military school uniform and smelling of Old Spice, and Diana was hooked. He was the perfect match for her fantasies, she said, and a wonderful vehicle for her imagination. Also, he was wealthy. The country club was where "privileged and worldly people went about socializing on a plane that no Judd had ever reached." The two dated off and on while Michael was in college, but Diana rebuked his request for marriage. When she got pregnant by another man, he agreed to marry her.
"He loved her so much he married her anyway," Wynonna told me. The two tried to elope, but without their parents' permission, they were turned down by the sheriff. Finally, on January 3, 1964, Diana Judd, age 17, and Michael Ciminella, age 18, were married in the Baptist Church in the safely distant town of Pearisburg, Virginia. The couple spent their wedding night in Michael's bedroom at home. Almost exactly five months later, the future Wynonna, Christina Claire, "came into the world screaming on key and searching for harmony."
Within no time, Diana's and Michael's relationship became strained. Even after they moved to Lexington so he could continue college, the two teenagers bickered—over his lack of a job and her jealously of his fraternity lifestyle. The relationship did not improve after they moved to Southern California, where Diana gave birth to her second daughter in 1968. Ashley Taylor, Diana observed, was "very different looking from Chris and clearly in full possession of Ciminella genes."
Life in California started well. "That time was probably the most normal we ever were," Wynonna told me. "Dad wore a tie. My mother had a pixie cut. Sit down dinners. Get the bike for Christmas. Very Brady Bunch." But soon enough, Diana and Michael resumed their fighting. "They were both so intense," Wynonna said. "Plus, he really loved her, and she didn't love him back. They tried to stay together for the sake of the kids, but, of course, that never works."
Eventually, Diana decided to leave, moving with her daughters to West Hollywood. There Diana embraced the Babylonian spirit of the age. "I was young, eager, feeling very frisky and desperate for change." She experimented with various religions, diets, substances, and men. One such man, whom she described as James Dean look-a-like, battered, stalked, and raped her, she wrote in her book, until a policeman she befriended put a stop to it ("As an added bonus, the officer and I really enjoyed each other's company!").
Eventually, even Diana realized her lifestyle was destructive. In 1975, she enrolled in nursing school at Eastern Kentucky University and moved her daughters into a vacant cabin on the grounds of a friend's estate. Chanticleer, as the cabin was called, had no television and no telephone. "I remember it being so abrupt," Wynonna told me. "We were in shock. Here we were on top of this friggin' mountaintop with hundreds of acres around us. Now what do we do?" The answer: Entertain themselves. For Ashley, it was make-believe; for Christina, music.
"Music saved my life," Wynonna told me. "I was just an emotional hurricane, very weird. If it wasn't for music, I would have probably burned down the house." Once Christina showed an interest, Diana encouraged her: buying her a recorder; guitar lessons; and stacks of second-hand LPs—Hazel and Alice, the Delmore Brothers, the Boswell Sisters. For Diana, who sang along in harmony as Christina played, a new goal was emerging: She resolved to make her daughter into the next Brenda Lee—the teenage singing sensation from the 1950s—or, even better, Brenda Lee and her mother.
Christina, of course, loved the idea. Music was the one thing that prevented her from fighting with her mother. When she had neglected to clean her room or complete her homework, Christina would plop herself down in the kitchen with her guitar so her mother wouldn't scold her when she came home. "Mom would never get mad at me when we were singing."
The family made a brief move back to Los Angeles, so Diana could testify in divorce proceedings. Musically, the move proved providential. To her hillbilly mix of influences, Christina now poured an assortment of California flavorings: Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt. Diana, meanwhile, rustled up a few early singing gigs. She also changed her name. “I had never forgotten the little retarded girl named Naomi who stared at me in grade school," she said. Christina followed suit, taking her new name from a line in the 1940's song, "Route 66":
"Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Wynona" (The second n was added for looks)
After sending Ashley back to Kentucky to live with family and taking Wynonna out of school, Naomi Judd embarked on another cross-country journey, driving through Las Vegas and Texas before arriving in Nashville, Tennessee. The date was May 1, 1979. Within five years, the mother-and-daughter team would have their first #1 hit, “Mama, He’s Crazy.” The chorus goes as follows:
The two would go on to have 13 more #1 records, sell 20 million records, win 5 Grammys, and 9 Country Music Association awards. Speaking of the upcoming tour recently, Naomi said, Wynonna “asked me if I was still going to twist, twirl and crack jokes. I answered, ‘Heck yeah! I’m too old to grow up now!’”
You might enjoy reading these posts: