It is 11 o'clock on a cold November night, and Naomi Judd, in wet hair and flannel pajamas, is standing at the front gate of her 200-acre farm outside Nashville. Her tour bus, the Juddmobile, is ready to roll, and Naomi's lapdog and constant companion, Banjo, is clamoring for her to get a move on. Naomi gives her husband, Larry Strickland, a kiss, then climbs into a window seat and watches him wave as the bus pulls away. After eight years on the road, Naomi, 45, is used to saying goodbye. But this isn't like any other Judds tour: On this one, Naomi knows, all her other farewells will be final.
Before heading onto the interstate for the first concert site, in Lansing, Mich., the bus stops a few hundred yards down the road to pick up Naomi's daughter and singing partner, Wynonna, 27, at her neighboring farm. She hops aboard wearing her flannel pajamas and toting Tupperware containers full of homemade chicken vegetable soup for Mom, whom she has taken to mothering. "She is a broken doll," Wynonna says of Naomi, "and an absolute walking miracle."
Embarrassed to appear at airport gates in a wheelchair—a result of the chronic fatigue she now suffers—Naomi has been traveling in the Juddmobile whenever possible. Now, settling in for the long drive, the two women know there will not be many more moments like this. "I've got a vagabond heart," says Naomi as the bus rolls through the night. "I love being in a new city every day. I love meeting people. And I worry about what's going to happen to me when I'm at home every night."
Naomi has been dreading those nights for the past 20 months, ever since she learned she was suffering from incurable chronic active hepatitis, a severe, sometimes fatal liver ailment that had already begun to sap her once prodigious energies. A former nurse who understood that her prognosis for recovery was grim, Naomi announced at a tearful Nashville news conference in October 1990 that the Judds would call it quits as a concert team in 1991. The mother-daughter duo had, in eight years, amassed six gold records, 18 No. 1 country hits (among them, "Love Can Build a Bridge" and "Grandpa"), four Grammys and countless other awards. They had also become one of Nashville's most beloved acts. Now, Naomi, planning to rest and write her autobiography, would leave the stage she loved. Wynonna, it was agreed, would soldier on alone. But before the end, mother and daughter promised, there would be a long goodbye.
Finally the moment is at hand. The tour's end, a final performance in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Dec. 4, is only days away and will include a pay-for-view telecast, with part of the proceeds going to the American Liver foundation. For Wynonna, whose solo career will begin with an album and tour next year, accepting the end of the Judds' life on the road together has been a struggle. She and her mother are "twin souls," says Naomi. When Wynonna was invited to perform without Mom at the Country Music Association Awards in October, she refused.
"I'm trying real hard to see it not as a tombstone but as a stepping-stone," she says of their upcoming finale. "I know I may be able to do things I never dreamed I could do. I'm trying to think that way now, versus, 'Man, somebody's pulled the plug. Now what do I do?' "
For her part Naomi is savoring every last second. "When I hit that stage running, drinking that applause like water, a remarkable transformation comes," she says. "I no longer have illnesses, I no longer have problems, I no longer have fears about my future, I'm completely unencumbered. It's the closest to flying that a human being can come."
Naomi's faith in the healing powers of performance are not shared by everyone. Her doctors at the Mayo Clinic gave only a conditional blessing, advising her to limit her schedule to one performance a week. "And if that exhausted me, to take a couple of weeks off," she says. "But that's for average patients. They don't know Naomi Judd."
Instead, the Judds have been doing three or more shows per week. And the voyages between dates haven't been hayrides. The overnight drive to Lansing takes the Judds' caravan—two buses, two 18-wheel equipment trucks, a concession truck and a couple of carloads of Judds fans along for the ride—13 hours through treacherous storms.
The following night, the drive from Lansing to Evansville, Ind., is worse. Road conditions are so hazardous that the shoulders of the interstate are dotted with cars that have skidded out of control. In the Juddmobile, Naomi moves from her large bedroom in the rear to a lower bunk forward, where she feels safer.
At 5 A.M. the bus pulls into an Indiana truck stop, and Wynonna—wearing shades and a blanket coat over her pajamas—herds the crew and band members for breakfast, her treat. Finally, just after dawn, the bus reaches the Evansville Holiday Inn. Staying on board, Naomi is awakened around 11:30 by Banjo lapping at her cheek. Up front, the quarters are strewn with the opened cards, dying flowers and memorabilia from the night before, and Naomi is eager to get to her warm motel room a few feet away. From the window, though, she spots a couple of guys in cowboy hats in a pickup parked nearby. Feeling "tired and grouchy—I wish I could just put my coat on over my pajamas and dart into my room, rather than trying to look like a fashion statement," she nonetheless gets dressed for the quick, public dash. Before disappearing into her motel room, Naomi stands in the freezing air and signs autographs for the cowboys.
Once inside, Naomi calls room service for a pot of decaf coffee ("I've had to swear off all caffeine") and catches her breath. She has been making monthly visits to Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center for blood and ALT (liver-enzyme level) tests to monitor the often virulent virus that infects her. Convinced that disease can only gain the upper hand if she lets it, she has undergone six months of interferon therapy to stop the virus's spread, and her illness is now in remission. Although she takes no medication, she works intently at her own healing, spending midday in prayer and meditation, studying books on immunology and poring over her recovery bible, Charles Capp's Releasing the Ability of God Through Prayer.
At 2:30 P.M. she orders a chef's salad, soup and six bottles of mineral water from room service. "I cannot have fried foods and only indulge myself with red meat about once a month," she says. Besides large daily doses of vitamin C, Naomi ingests an extract of "thymus glands [taken from] 7-day-old calves" that, she says, "produce T cells to help fight infection and jump-start my body's own immune system."
While doctors neither condemn nor recommend Naomi's self-healing techniques, she entertains no illusions about her health. "I try to forget about it," she says, "but I have fatigue 24 hours a day, and I can't pretend that I feel normal."
In her motel room, she telephones her younger daughter, actress Ashley, 23, who has just joined the cast of NBC's Sisters. "I miss her desperately," she says. After the call Naomi uses an electric massager to soothe the pains in her back and legs. Just as she's about to curl up for a nap, Wynonna bursts through the door and lets out a whoop as her terrier, Loretta Lynn, bounds in and begins a mad scramble with Banjo. When Wynonna crosses the room to adjust the thermostat, Naomi says with mock reproach, "This is my room. She's always hot. I'm always cold." Wynonna starts jabbing at the television remote, and Naomi says, "I'm trying to watch Jeopardy. She wants to watch the Comedy Channel. A year ago I might have suggested that she go into her own room. But every moment with my dear little partner is precious."
Then Naomi props herself against the head of her bed to put on the first few layers of her "Judds face," as she calls it, while Wynonna sits at the foot applying her own. Though they will soon be onstage in front of a sellout crowd of 12,000, the two women are, for the moment, any ordinary mother and daughter, engaging in familiar ritual and gabbing about everything from business to holiday plans.
Returning to the bus for the short jaunt to the Evansville Coliseum, Naomi seats herself at a small desk before a row of warming hot rollers and begins autographing photos to be mailed to fans. Hoping to conserve her strength, she has long since forsaken preshow sound checks and postconcert "meet-and-greets" with fans. Mark Thompson, the Judds' bandleader, comes in to begin vocal warm-ups with mother and daughter. Naomi flashes a cocky smile and says, "I'm ready. Rock and run!"
At 9:30 Wynonna hits the stage first, singing the opening bars of "This Country's Rockin'." Close behind comes Naomi, singing harmony, and the crowd roar is deafening. While Wynonna stands rooted at the microphone, singing and picking her guitar, Naomi dances and whirls around the stage, teasing the crowd, flirting with male fans in the first rows. No mention is made of illness, but when the show is over, before exiting hand-in-hand with Wynonna, Naomi waves to the audience and says, "I believe in miracles and I believe there's always hope."
"Naomi," fans bellow from the balcony, "we love you!'
For fans, the shows, like the tour itself, are a beacon. In the past week, as always, they have showered the Judds with gifts: two homemade afghans, a bag of special Chinese herbs, three bottles of a get-well elixir, four jars of peach preserves, a dozen portraits of the singers, plus crosses and rosaries. "We also get homemade crafts," notes Naomi, "like a beaded belt buckle from an Indian girl, a pair of suspenders and a belt that says S—-HAPPENS—like I'm going to wear that!"
At an earlier concert stop in Pine Bluff, Ark., a young female fan suffering stomach cancer was ushered into the Juddmobile with a special request for Naomi. "As soon as she came on—looking frail with only sparse patches of hair, due to her radiation and chemo treatments—she asked if I would pray over her," Naomi says. "I tried to lift her up and encourage her and cover her with truths from the Lord."
Tonight, Naomi is surprised after the concert by a woman who asks her to autograph the Judds tattoo on her shoulder, then hands her a card with a baby picture. "She named her little boy Brian Judd Bailey, after my brother, Brian Judd, who died of Hodgkin's disease at 17," says Naomi, touched but incredulous.
Returning to her motel suite as Wynonna heads off to a local music club, Naomi settles down for a long soak in the bathtub by the light of scented candles.
At about 1 A.M. she climbs aboard the Juddmobile for the 10-hour night drive to Memphis. Feeling "totally exhausted, numb, I can barely talk," Naomi is turning down the sheets on her bed when Wynonna bounces in and plants a red kiss on Mom's forehead. Watching Wynonna pop her bubble gum and dig into a huge jar of cold cream, Naomi realizes "how desperately I will miss these precious moments. This is what I love, and I know the clock is ticking and time is running out on me."
Naomi's spirits lift when, at 2 A.M., just as the Juddmobile is preparing to roll out of Evansville, the Judds' 6'3" bass player, Mike Webber, climbs aboard to say goodnight. Despite eight years in the band, Webber has never ventured in here before. As he wraps tiny Naomi in his arms for a bear hug, she whispers, "We have nine shows left."
"I know," Webber says. "We're all counting too."
As he closes the bus door behind him, a puff of cold air fills the cabin. Banjo barks, the diesels start up, and the caravan begins lumbering down the road that will take it, in a matter of days, to the moment when Naomi Judd will walk offstage that one last time and the lights behind her will dim and die in salute.
JANE SANDERSON in Memphis
- Jane Sanderson.