They came together at the Ryman Auditorium, the famous Mother Church of Country Music. And through tears, shared memories, and music, they paid tribute to the late Naomi Judd.
Hosted by her daughters, Wynonna and Ashley, and ABC’s Robin Roberts, the show was a celebration of life, highlighting Naomi’s contributions to country music.
Ashley set the tone from the beginning, noting, “Tonight we’re remembering an icon and a legend who left country music better than she found it.”
And they would do it, Ashley said, through song.
One by one, artists took to the stage to sing from The Judds vast music catalog. Wynonna started first with a song Naomi wrote called “The River of Time.”
Little Big Town would follow soon afterward with “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Ole Days,” Ashley Bride later with “Love Is Alive,” and Carly Pearce with “Why Not Me.”
Brad Paisley shared a personal story of how The Judds touched his life as a teenager, when he got the opportunity to open for the duo.
“I was 13 years old, I had a grandfather with cancer who wanted me to be country music singer,” he recalled. “He had three months left they told us. And he got to see me open for the greatest act in country music.”
Here, he paused as the crowd erupted into cheers and applause.
“They were so nice to me from then, and every single time I’ve ever run into Wynonna, Naomi, and met Ashley and after that, I just think about the contributions they’ve made. And it was a big deal to open for them then, but it is a bigger deal to do this today, for her.”
He then played “Young Love,” a song that was a No. 1 hit for The Judds in 1989.
There were other performances throughout the evening by Emmylou Harris and Allison Russell , Jamey Johnson, and The Gaithers. Martina McBride read a poem from Maya Angelou. And there were video tributes from Reba McEntire, Bono, Oprah, Morgan Freeman, Salma Hayek, Reese Witherspoon, and Bette Midler.
Naomi was remembered for her music, as well as her strength and determination as a young single mother in Kentucky, who would recognize the musical gifts of her oldest daughter and nursery them to help them all change their lives.
Her family described her as someone who never met a stranger and would stop and talk to anyone. Her husband, Larry Strickland, even shared an email from someone who wrote him after her death, to talk about meeting her on a plane, and the wonderful conversation they shared in the days before her death.
Toward the end of the night, Brandi Carlisle and Wynonna came together to sing a rousing rendition of “The Rose,” a request made by Bette Midler who earlier honored her friend Naomi via video.
Before Naomi’s death on April 30thThe Judds were scheduled to head out on tour later this year, with a series of shows featuring Martina McBride. As the tribute show drew to a close, Wynonna made a surprise announcement that she would continue the tour on her own.
“After a lot of thought, I’m gonna have to honor her and do this tour. I’m just gonna have to,” she said.
The evening wrapped up with Wynonna singing The Judd’s song “Love Can Build a Bridge.” She was joined by choir members who stood throughout the aisles, all dressed in white. And then she encouraged the entire crowd to sing along.
Throughout the song, those in the audience are seen waving fans they were given when they entered the Ryman. Those fans had a photo of a young Naomi Judd on one side, and lyrics to “Love Can Build A Bridge” on the other.
The power and energy that comes through music was definitely heard and felt throughout the Ryman this Sunday night. And as the show came to a close, there was something special about ending things on a song about “love building a bridge” that The Judds made famous so many years.