Somewhere in Michigan in the early 1990s, a teenage farm boy clings to a chain-link fence at the edge of the county fairgrounds. He is fishing for a distant and free glimpse of Naomi and Winona Judd.
They watch briefly, gliding on their heels to the edge of the grandstand stage. From this distance, illuminated by a spotlight, they are twinkling sequins and a haze of red hair. Naomi, the mother of both and genuinely, says something, but even magnified, her words float on a hot August night.
Soon, however, a gentle tingle and the sound of Winona’s throat move her: “I will whisper love so loudly, every heart can understand that love and only love can join the tribes of man.”
Then, his mom calls him: “Jeff, get in the car! It’s time to go.”
I’m not sure what it was, but for me and for most people, the chemistry between Naomi and Winona and the feelings they stirred up inside the listener were almost tangible. My first (and only) viewing of them is etched in my mind forever.
Words of Naomi’s death the Saturday after, I am now realizing how much I have gone through with them.
When I was fifteen years old to deal with my sexuality and bullying, and Judds sang “Mama He’s Crazy”, I understand the narrator’s insecurities – why would anyone want me?
After My Grandfather Died, I Heard “Grandfather” Over and Over, crying that he would no longer be able to tell me about the good old days, which he really used to. (The song has since lost its luster for me—the good old days really weren’t that good. But I still always think of my grandfather.)
And after my father died, I wanted to be at the breakfast table he sang “Love Is Alive” about. Soaking up all the love sitting there.
Those voices. That hair That gown. For a lonely gay boy in the rural Midwest, they were a calling card and a lifeline of sorts.
Wynonna was clearly the bigger voice of the two. But without Naomi’s harmony and stage presence, I doubt her daughter would have ever become a namesake star. And would Ashley have made it to Hollywood without her mother’s support?
As I grew older, the story of the judges influenced me, and I saw parts of it in my own life. The single motherhood of Naomi, a nurse trying to secure a recording contract, clicked with my thoughts about my newly widowed mother, another country woman, trying to put it all together while raising children. was trying
If Naomi could do it, she could too. And I could too.
When cancer visited one of my leg bones after my senior year in high school, I thought about Naomi and her hepatitis diagnosis. Eventually he won over it. So I did.
I went to college, got married (well committed – same-sex marriage was not yet legal in those days) and ended up in New York. Like Naomi, I persevered and achieved this.
There, I cultivated a new group of friends, many of them also from Michigan. One night a Judds song came on, I forgot which one, and one of my new friends started singing. It turns out we all loved Judds. I had to go to New York City to find people from my country.
Soon the two of us were inseparable, taking camping trips together several times over the summer. When my husband and I moved to Philadelphia and they stayed in New York, we continued our campground reunion, and a camping trip never happened without Judd’s single around the fire, under the starlit Pennsylvania sky.
Both couples have since divorced, and I have remarried – ensuring the judges’ applause on my new husband – but we all stay close and in touch. The lack of animosity between us reminds me of that line from “Love Can Build a Bridge”. Perhaps Naomi’s major achievement as a songwriter: “Love and only love can join the clan of man.”
I once sang that song in a piano bar, and a person in the audience later approached me, impressed by the song (maybe not by my performance). It was so beautiful and artistic, she thought it was a Broadway song. No, I said, just an old country song. He was startled.
In this world, at this time, can love really join the tribes of man? It wasn’t a question when the judges asked, “Don’t you think it’s time?” Naomi always knew the answer.
___ Follow Jeff McMillan on Twitter https://twitter.com/jeffmcmillanpa