Since the passing of Naomi Judd on April 30, her daughter and musical partner Wynonna Judd has kept the music alive, honoring her mother on The Judds: The Final Tour. Judd has found the trek, on which she has welcomed a slate of fellow female artists as guest collaborators, to be a conduit of healing not only for herself, but for her fans.
“It’s beyond my expectations,” Judd tells Billboard, calling from her family farm in Nashville, recalling an emotional moment from the tour’s Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena stop in October.
“There was a moment where I literally took a step back physically because of the love and support coming at me,” the Country Music Hall of Famer says. “They were singing louder than my vocal and were taking over, and I was shocked by it. I knew that they would be great and that they would know the words, and I just didn’t expect the volume and the passion behind people singing.”
Tomorrow (Jan. 26), Wynonna will launch the 15-show second leg of The Judds: The Final Tour at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., with Kelsea Ballerini, Ashley McBryde, Brandi Carlile, Little Big Town and Tanya Tucker joining her on various dates. Martina McBride reprises her role as special guest on all shows. The tour, which began in September, was originally slated to feature Wynonna and Naomi before Naomi died by suicide in August.
The 2023 leg will run through Feb. 25 and Wynonna does not expect it to be extended again. “There are no plans for going past February,” she says. “It’s a chapter of finding meaning in the grieving process, so I think it is coming to a close.”
She adds, “This is something I don’t think I’ll ever see again. There will be tours and concerts, but this is something that is somewhere between a memorial and a celebration of life — and me, just kicking ass and giving every single note from my toenails.”
Speaking with Billboard, Wynonna discussed her bond with her tourmates, her relationship with her fans, a new album in the works, and collaborations with Carlile and Trisha Yearwood.
Watching the concerts on this tour, the camaraderie among you and the other artists is palpable. What was it like hearing that so many of these artists wanted to rally around you in this way?
I just said “yes” when they came to me with names of people that said, “Yes, we want to support Wynonna.” Brandi was the first person to respond when mom died, when we decided to do the memorial. She flew in to be there and sing with her guitar. Brandi was an obvious [choice], because we bonded during the time of the memorial in a way that was so personal. It wasn’t about tours or music business. Her first two concerts in her life were Judds concerts, and the third was me [solo]. So, there we went — we’re at the farm and sitting in her vehicle listening to Joni Mitchell sing in her living room, and I’m weeping because I’m just sitting there with Brandi and we’re bonded. That’s a sisterhood that happened very organically.
Then suddenly, Sandbox [Entertainment] came to me and said, “These artists really want to do this.” I said, “OK!” It’s amazing to me because this kind of stuff doesn’t really happen, not usually organically. A lot of times it’s a board room and it’s an office thing. This was not [that] — this was a “We love Wynonna” thing. Is it business after that? Sure, but the most important part was we have become really close.
What is that camaraderie like for you and the other artists on the tour?
I text Trisha Yearwood on an ongoing basis. Little Big Town has been out to the farm, and we sit around and talk and share and sing together. It’s been really intimate. I’m shocked by that, to be honest, because so many times, things are about, “This is what will look good on a TV show,” or be good for ratings. This has not been normal — this has been about a personal love for me and the music during a very difficult time.
[At Naomi Judd’s memorial at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in May], Ashley [McBryde] sang “Love Is Alive” and wept through the whole chorus and could barely sing the song at the memorial. So I went back into her dressing room and I told her, “Don’t you dare apologize for being that emotional. Everyone saw the cracks in your armor and that’s how the light gets out.” She looked at me like I had spoken something ancient, and we just bonded. We text each other all the time. I think it’s doing something to the other artists as well — I think they are seeing how much the fans are rallying and it’s impacting them as well.
What is the vibe like backstage?
One night, we played where a lot of Little Big Town’s families live and they all came — there were like 30 people in the dressing room, and it was like a family reunion and I walked into the middle of it and was surrounded by all these characters that are not anywhere near a showbiz vibe. There were aunts, uncles, kids, grandparents and I just stood there looking around like, “This is great.” Backstage can be very presumptuous sometimes and showbusiness-y, and that’s wonderful and I get that. But when you go backstage and there are 30 family members, it’s not about that at all.
As you have been on the road for The Judds: The Final Tour, you have been able to meet with fans and hear their stories about how the music has impacted them. What has that been like?
I have a soundcheck every day with about 200-300 people and there is a Q&A and it’s so intense. People will weep, people will dress up in rhinestones, boots, Judds T-shirts. I think people are healing and going through their own struggles and coming out of the pain-demic, and they know mom is gone and I’m still living and breathing through the music. The process of going forward without your mother — everybody deals with losing a parent. This is not about Wynonna Judd. Sure, there is the Country Music Hall of Fame induction stuff, but it’s about family.
How might this leg of the tour be different from last year’s tour dates?
Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I will say, I don’t feel the pressure I did with the first leg of the tour, and I am in a different place in my grieving process. I’m walking through different stages. Any given day, it’s a combination of different things. There are six stages, and I think I’m somewhere in between my sixth stage, and my third and fourth stages. I still get angry, because it’s like, “I can’t believe you’re not here so I can argue with you.” Then, finding meaning is the sixth stage of grief. It’s really heavy, but it’s sweet as well, because I’m finding meaning. I did rehearsal the other day and I found myself not crying as much.
The beginning of the tour, it just felt like, “I’m devastated and having a hard time focusing and forgetting words. I turn around and look at the screen and see her and break down.” The first part of the tour was a lot of shock, denial and accepting it. This leg of the tour is more about, “I miss her and love her.” And I feel that intensely.
Your sister Ashley joined you for the previous leg of the tour. Will she be out on this leg of the tour with you?
I don’t know. She’s getting ready to do a movie, so we don’t know yet. We are closer than we’ve ever been. We talk about, “Where are you today and is this something you want to do?”
During your November concert at MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where you recreated your and your mom’s 1991 Farewell Tour, you told the crowd that you felt it would be lonely once you got offstage. What helps you in those moments?
I look at pictures of my grandbaby. Kaliyah is my firstborn grandbaby. I look at her photo and I think about her being with me on the bus someday. She sings back to me already and I love her and am overwhelmed by her sweetness. I see the future when I look at her and that’s the greatest gift. I tend to get very emotional very quickly anytime someone comes up to me and says, “I’m sorry about your mom.” My son is also moving out right now and I’m having empty nest syndrome big time. My mother’s heart is just breaking, watching him load the U-Haul. My daughter just moved away, so it’s just lonesome sometimes — but the music, the music…
You have been working on new music.
We are working on a new record, hopefully for this year. I’m writing songs, and just finished one called “Broken and Blessed,” and it talks about being somewhere between hell and hallelujah. That’s where I’m at — I walk through it and deal with it and find meaning in it. Suicide is as deep as the ocean, as far as the depth of sadness and all these emotions, but the music continues to absolutely give me purpose. I’ve found a way to write from a very deep, personal space.
Brandi Carlile has been such a strong support for you. Will she be part of this record?
We are working on a song and we don’t know if it will be on the record or not yet. Feb. 3-5 is already blocked off, and we are in the studio and we are going in between shows.
Right now, Trisha [Yearwood] and I have talked about wanting to do something. There is a lot of talk and vibe about right now. Nobody has come out to the farm yet; we are starting to get that part on the schedule. It has been me and [husband] Cactus [Moser] writing. We are inseparable and are writing songs and will get with Sam [Beam] of Iron & Wine. Lots of people, lots of phone calls and texts. There is natural collaboration right now. I’m such an empath. I just had a show moment with Robert Weir and the Dead & Company guys and I looked at him like, ‘We’re going to do something together, right?’ It’s just palpable.
This is a really ripe season, when you are brokenhearted like this, there is something about a song that comes naturally and easily. It’s a sweet time to write songs, even though it is a desperately sad time.