somewhere in Michigan In the early 1990s, a teenage farm boy clings to a chain link fence at the edge of the fair. He longs for a distant and unobstructed view of Naomi and Wynonna Judd.
They briefly come into view, gliding on high heels to the edge of the grandstand stage. From this distance, lit by a spotlight, they are a blur of sparkling sequins and red hair. Naomi, the duo’s mother and de facto emcee, says something, but even amplifies it, her words floating away on the hot August night.
Soon, however, a soft tinkle and Wynonna’s throaty voice carry to him, “I would whisper love so loud that every heart could understand that love and only love can join the tribes of men.”
Then his mother calls out to him, “Jeff, get in the car! It’s time to leave.”
I’m not sure what it was, but for me and for most people, the chemistry between Naomi and Wynonna and the feelings they evoked in the listener was almost palpable. My first (and only) sighting of them is forever etched in my memory.
After learning of Naomi’s passing on Saturday, I now realize how much I went through with them.
When I was a teenager starting to come to terms with my sexuality and dealing with bullies, and the Judds sang “Mama He’s Crazy,” I understood the narrator’s insecurities—why would anyone want me?
After my grandfather died, I kept hearing “Grandpa” and cried that he couldn’t tell me about the good old days, which he used to do. (The song has lost some of its luster for me now—the good old days weren’t exactly good. But I still think about my grandpa.)
And after my dad died, I wanted to be at that breakfast table that they sang about in “Love Is Alive” and soak up all the love that was sitting there.
Those voices. this hair. Those clothes. For a lonely gay boy in the country Middle Westthey were a calling card and a kind of lifeline.
Wynonna was clearly the larger voice of the duo. But I doubt her daughter would ever have become the one-name star she is without Naomi’s harmonies and stage presence. And if Ashley would have made it Hollywood without her mother’s support?
As I got older, the Judds’ story struck me and I saw bits of it in my own life. Naomi’s single motherhood, a nurse trying to get a record deal, matched my view of my newly widowed mother, another country woman trying to stick together while still raising children.
If Naomi could do it, so could she. And so could I.
After my senior year of high school, when cancer struck one of my leg bones, I thought about Naomi and her hepatitis diagnosis. Eventually she triumphed over it. I did that too.
I went to college, got married (well, firmly – same-sex marriage wasn’t legal back then), and ended up in college new York. Like Naomi, I had persevered and made it.
I made a new circle of friends there, many of them also from Michigan. One night a Judds song came on, I don’t remember which one, and one of my new friends started singing along. Turns out we all loved the Judds. I had to go all the way to New York City to find my countrymen.
Soon we two couples became inseparable and went on camping trips together several times during the summer. When my husband and I moved Philadelphia and they stayed in New York, we continued our camping meetings, and there was never a camping trip without Judds singing along by the fire under the starry Pennsylvania sky.
Both couples are now divorced and I’ve remarried – to show my new husband the Judds’ appreciation – but we all remain close and in touch. The lack of animosity between us reminds me of this line in “Love Can Build a Bridge”, perhaps Naomi’s crowning songwriter: “Love and only love can join the tribes of humanity.”
I once sang this song in a piano bar, and a man in the audience came up to me afterwards, impressed by the song (probably not by my performance). It was so beautiful and artistic that he thought it was a Broadway song. No, I said, just an old country song. He was shocked.
In this world, at this time, can love really join the tribes of men? It wasn’t a question when the Judds asked, “Don’t you think it’s about time?” Naomi knew the answer all along.
___ Follow Jeff McMillan on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeffmcmillanpa
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/ap-michigan-new-york-midwest-hollywood-b2069270.html ESSAY: Naomi Judd built a bridge for a gay country boy