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Naomi Judd, of Grammy-Winning the Judds, Dies at 76


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Naomi Judd, who as one half of the mother-daughter duo the Judds dominated the country music charts within the Nineteen Eighties with a mix of tight vocal harmonies, traditional arrangements and modern pop aesthetics, died on Saturday outside Nashville. She was 76.

Ashley Judd, the actress, confirmed her mother’s death on Twitter. She didn’t specify where she died or the cause but said, “We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness.” Naomi Judd had lived for years on a farm within the hills above Franklin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville.

Along with her other daughter, Wynonna, Ms. Judd rocketed to country stardom in 1983 with the one “Had a Dream (for the Heart)” and, a yr later, with the duo’s chart-topping first album, “Why Not Me.”

More hits followed — including 14 No. 1 songs — and a protracted list of honors, including nine Country Music Association Awards and five Grammys.

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The Judds were a number one force within the Recent Traditionalist movement in country music, a response against the glitz and glamour of the Urban Cowboy sound and in favor of roots-oriented instrumentation and vocals.

Though they weren’t within the vanguard — musicians like George Strait and Ricky Skaggs had been performing for years when the Judds emerged — the duo stood out as a family band, a once-common arrangement in country music that had fallen out of favor.

Of their songs and particularly in Naomi’s life story as a struggling single mother, they spoke to thousands and thousands of working-class women within the South and beyond, with songs about adult heartbreak, the solitude of family life and the breakdown of community in modern society.

In certainly one of their many hits, “Grandpa (Tell Me ’Bout the Good Old Days)” (1986), they sang:

Was a promise really something people kept

Not only something they might say

Did families really bow their heads to hope?

Did daddies really never go away?

Oh, Grandpa, tell me ’bout the great old days

They released six albums, most of them laden with hit songs. The Judds were on the time probably the most successful country duo in history, with greater than 20 million albums sold.

They made for a compelling stage act. Naomi was more telegenic and fascinating with crowds, while Wynonna was more reserved but a greater singer. With matching brilliant red hair and just 17 years between them in age, they were often mistaken for sisters and played up their resemblance onstage and at awards shows — they once arrived at a ceremony in matching Scarlett O’Hara outfits.

But their run was temporary: Naomi announced in 1990 that she had a life-threatening case of hepatitis C, and so they played their last concert in 1991.

Doctors had given Naomi three years to live, but in 1995 her disease was in full remission. By then Wynonna had set off on a successful solo profession, and Naomi turned to activism, acting and writing.

The Judds reunited for the occasional concert or temporary tour, and recently announced one other tour to start out this fall. Last month, on the CMT Music Awards, they performed together on television for the primary time in years. They were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday night.

Diana Ellen Judd was born on Jan. 11, 1946, in Ashland, a coal-mining town in northeastern Kentucky, along the Ohio River. Her father, Charles Glen Judd, owned a gas station, and her mother, Pauline Ruth (Oliver) Judd, was a homemaker.

When she was 3, an uncle molested her, an experience she later cited as the foundation of her struggles with anxiety and depression.

Naomi was an honors student with plans for faculty. But a temporary romance with a highschool football player left her pregnant at 17, and when the daddy skipped town, she married one other suitor, Michael Ciminella. Wynonna was born the week Naomi graduated in 1964.

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1968, where Mr. Ciminella found work, and Ms. Judd studied for a nursing degree. Ashley was born that very same yr. But Ms. Judd said the wedding never clicked, and so they divorced in 1972.

Single and raising two daughters, Ms. Judd left school and worked as a model, waitress and secretary, including for the band Fifth Dimension. She dated occasionally, but when one casual boyfriend beat and raped her, she fled California, moving to Morrill, Ky., a town in the middle of the state with one road and 50 residents.

They lived simply, and not using a TV or phone. Ms. Judd studied nursing in nearby Berea. To entertain herself, Wynonna began singing and playing guitar. Occasionally, Ms. Judd would take part, and shortly they were often making music together.

“I could only afford the used record bin, and there was a 33-1/3 album of Hazel and Alice — Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard,” she told the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. “They were all coal-mining songs. And as these women harmonized together, it got here to me: Wynonna and I couldn’t refer to one another, but, lo and behold, we could sing together.”

They decided to present Nashville a shot, and so they moved to Music City, U.S.A., in 1979, where Ms. Judd found a job as a nurse. Again, the three of them scraped by, sharing a single motel bed and living on bologna sandwiches, recording demo tapes of their free time and hoping for a break.

It finally got here in 1983, when certainly one of Ms. Judd’s patients turned out to be the daughter of an executive at RCA Records. They got an audition, and, that very same day, they signed a contract. A couple of months later, “Had a Dream (for the Heart)” was released, climbing to No. 20 on the country charts.

“Suddenly, we had a future,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “For the primary time in my life, I felt alive.”

The Judds’ hits included “Mama He’s Crazy,” “Why Not Me,” (each in 1984); “Girls Night Out” (1985); “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain” and “Grandpa (Tell Me ’Bout the Good Old Days” (each in 1986); “Turn It Loose” (1988); and “Love Can Construct a Bridge” (1990).

Along together with her daughters, Ms. Judd is survived by her husband, Larry Strickland, who was a backup singer for Elvis Presley.

After the duo broke up and Ms. Judd recovered from her hepatitis, she pursued acting, with guest appearances on sitcoms like “Third Rock from the Sun” and roles in made-for-TV movies like “Rio Diablo” (1993), starring Kenny Rogers. She was a judge on “Star Search” in 2003 and 2004, and he or she hosted a chat show, “Naomi’s Recent Morning,” for 2 seasons within the mid-2000s. She later had a radio talk show on SiriusXM.

Ms. Judd also became increasingly vocal about her struggles with mental illness, especially after a series of reunion shows in 2009 and 2010.

“I’d come home and never leave the home for 3 weeks, and never get out of my pajamas, and never practice normal hygiene,” she said on Good Morning America in 2016. “It was really bad.”

She recounted that struggle in her 2016 memoir, “River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope.”

In it, she described “two and a half years of my life, during which I went through the hell of mental illness,” but in addition “rising again to be glad about taking my next breath, for the gift of a transparent thought, for wresting from a nightmare a method to find joy in every day.”

That newfound joy was evident within the planning for the duo’s upcoming tour. In a news release this month, Ms. Judd said she was looking forward to reconnecting with fans and singing together with her daughter Wynonna.

Referring to Wynonna, Ms. Judd said: “She asked me if I used to be still going to twist, twirl and crack jokes. I answered, ‘Heck yeah! I’m too old to grow up now!’”

Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reporting.

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