Wynonna was the wild one. Naomi was the naughty one. The brains, spokesperson, and driving force behind the Kentucky mother-daughter duo who would become the celebrated country act known as the Judds.
Naomi was playful, quick with a smile and a wise word, always with a twinkle in her eye that suggested she couldn’t believe we made it joy or fun in the future.
How could you resist the Judds when they came out in 1984? Wynonna’s mature voice, beyond her age, Naomi’s charming and flirtatious ways, and a gently twanging folk song called “Mama He’s Crazy.” I had to meet the Judds the first time they came to Minneapolis.
Sitting in a downtown hotel room, Mom, with her chocolate eyes, ruby hair, and creamy skin, looked more like Wynonna’s older sister. Naomi was the one doing the talking, and Wynonna was the rebellious teen who rolled her eyes and didn’t say much.
Somehow, we came together for the love of pro wrestling. And here the Judds were about to perform at the Minneapolis Auditorium where, as a high school student, I conducted rasslin matches for Verne Gagne and Crusher.
When Naomi found out I had just written a book about Prince, she asked for a copy and made a wish: that I, or someone else, would write a book about the Judds one day. She was always a dreamer.
Those memories returned on Saturday when Naomi tragically died at age 76 of “mental illness,” according to an announcement by her daughters, Wynonna and Ashley, the actress.
It turned out that Naomi wrote Judds’ definitive book, 1993’s “Love Can Build a Bridge,” as well as eight subsequent books, including 2016’s “River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope.”
Over the years, I have written many stories about Naomi and Wynonna, based on interviews and concerts.
In joint interviews, Wy, the singing voice of the Judds, might be in the room, but Mom was the spokesperson. The “imagineer” is full of witty one-liners and her own brand of sayings that fall somewhere between the Bible and Hallmark.
Naomi was a caretaker and nurturer, with a generous spirit and maternal instinct.
When my son was born in 1989, she sent him a special porcelain candle. When she arrived in Minneapolis four years later, she wanted to meet him. We headed to her hotel in Bloomington. Andrew was in love with the plastic beads on his slippers. “Jewels,” he called them.
She felt compelled to give him a gift. With nothing at hand except her 546-page book, she grabbed the shovel from the hotel cooler. “It’s for your litter box,” she said with that twinkle in her eye.
Having retired from touring three years earlier due to hepatitis C, Naomi had come to Bloomington to speak at the annual Women in Business Seminar. Before arriving, she phoned to chat.
“When they called, I said, ‘Sorry. You got the wrong number. Business is not a word in my vocabulary. I have no business sense. I start to freak out a lot if I’m in an office for more than 10 minutes.’ They said, ‘We really want you to talk about how you’ve gone from working minimum wage jobs, from welfare to financial security.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can talk about that transition.’ And they said, ‘We want you to talk about being single mother, and from being a battered woman to finding this Prince Charming and this wonderful, solid marriage.’ I said, ‘Well, I can talk about that.’
“I warned them, ‘Don’t give me a podium. Give me a lavalier mic so I can go out and touch people and see the whites of their eyes. I pretend they’re sitting at my kitchen table. I’m very irreverent. I never know what what I’m gonna say. “
Sure enough, with his portable microphone, he swept through the hotel ballroom filled with several hundred women, spewing out his Judisms, punctuated with a smile.
At one point, he came to a table where three or four male guests were seated.
“This is Jon Bream,” he said, running his fingers through my curls. “He can tell you my story as well as I can.”
My face was as red as Judd’s hair.
[email protected] Twitter: @jonbream 612-673-1719