Family, friends, and fans alike celebrated the life and music of Naomi Judd with a moving event at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Sunday, following a private memorial that took place last week. The full influence of the Judds’ recordings and Naomi’s life, in particular, were felt by the numerous stars who dropped in to perform or offer a remembrance of the singer and philanthropist, who took her own life April 30 at 76.
Hosted by Robin Roberts, “Naomi Judd: River of Time” was broadcast live on CMT without commercials and featured an introduction by Judd’s younger daughter Ashley. “We are here tonight,” she said, pausing as she choked up, “honoring an icon who left country music better than she found it.”
Performers included Emmylou Harris and Allison Russell singing “The Sweetest Gift,” Little Big Town singing “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Gold Old Days),” Carly Pearce singing “Why Not Me,” and Brad Paisley remembering his grandfather’s deep love of the Judds before he sang “Young Love (Strong Love).”
Speakers included Morgan Freeman, Bono, Reba McEntire, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey, who recalled the “purity of [Naomi’s] heart and the vulnerability she shared with the world. A life that so profoundly blessed us all with song.” Actor Salma Hayek likened her first encounter with Naomi to “meeting Scarlett O’Hara. She had so much talent in her blood and so much fire in her heart… one of a kind, a force of nature to be reckoned with.”
The night’s most astonishing performances came from Naomi’s daughter and longtime singing partner Wynonna, with whom she was preparing to enter the Country Music Hall of Fame and embark on a fall tour. At the top of the show, Wynonna sang “River of Time,” a song her mother co-wrote about finite existence and living in the present. In one particularly wrenching moment, she switched the line “My love is gone” to say “My momma is gone.”
Later in the show, Wynonna returned to the stage with Ashley and Naomi’s husband Larry Strickland, who recalled how she “would spend 20 to 30 minutes on the sidewalk talking to a complete stranger.” After Naomi’s death, a total stranger who’d sat next to her on an airplane reached out to Strickland to offer his condolences. “It’s a small comfort I’m sure, but my life is all the more rich for meeting your wife, however brief the encounter,” the person wrote in an email, noting that he hadn’t even really been aware of their music before their encounter.
Wynonna was quick to offer a little levity about their slightly more complicated mother-daughter dynamic as a performing duo. “Let’s talk about what a salty single mama she was. Let’s get real,” she said. “You share a bus with yours and let me know how it goes.”
Still, Wynonna’s final moments onstage at the memorial were serious and heavy with the weight of grief. With an introduction by friend Bette Midler, Wynonna was joined by Brandi Carlile to sing “The Rose,” even running back one moment near the end to power through the notes when she felt like she’d not attacked the section with enough gusto.
Wynonna also saved a bit of news for the end of the program, revealing that she still plans to undertake the tour that she and Naomi had mapped out and which was slated to be their last.
“Tonight is a celebration,” she said, choking up. “At the same time I can’t put into words how devasted I am. I miss her so much, but I will continue to sing.” Moments later, she added, “We’ll continue this spectacle. That’s what she would want, right?”
Wynonna’s final selection was “Love Can Build a Bridge,” a powerful song about reconciliation that Naomi co-wrote. Mid-song, the Ryman’s aisles were filled with choir members from the church Wynonna attends, filling the room with voices. Wynonna then quieted down the band for a final, a capella chorus. As the last voices rang out inside the Ryman, Wynonna tilted her head skyward and mouthed, “I love you.”