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Q&A WITH NAOMI JUDD : 'The Stage Was My Home, My Church'

December 07, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

\o7 Naomi Judd is back on the road and on the bestseller list.

Almost two years to the day after illness forced her to say goodby to country music, the redheaded singer enters the Los Angeles Times book charts at No. 8 this week with her autobiography, "Love Can Build a Bridge."

And it's the promotion of that book--an account of the Kentucky native's struggles before and after pop-country stardom with daughter Wynonna in the Judds duo--that has led her back to public appearances.

Judd, 47, will sign copies of "Love" from 6:30 to 8:30 tonight at Brentano's in the Beverly Center, the fifth stop on a four-week book-signing tour that began in Lexington, Ky., where she attracted more than 1,600 fans.

The country music world was stunned in October of 1990 when Judd--whose younger daughter, Ashley, stars in the film "Ruby in Paradise"--announced she was retiring from performing because of chronic active hepatitis, a potentially life-threatening disease.

Rather than quit the road immediately, Judd went against doctors' orders and toured for another year, finally giving her farewell performance on Dec. 4, 1991. Though the disease is in remission, Judd has maintained a low profile, staying mostly at her home near Nashville with her second husband, manager-producer Larry Strickland.

Sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, she spoke about her illness, the years in country music and what it's like to walk away from stardom.

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Question: Almost no one ever walks away voluntarily from pop stardom--and even you took a year to do it. How much do you miss performing?

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Answer: I miss it desperately, but that wasn't why I went on the road for that extra year. I knew I needed to do those shows to physically survive. If you took me off the road just like that, I knew that I would wither up and die in record time. The stage was my home, my church, my workplace. I needed time to work through all that grief . . . to say goodby to all that.

Q: How did you feel when you learned your career was over?

A: It was more than thinking my career was over. After I got the diagnosis, I thought my life was coming to an end. Doctors said there was nothing they could do for me and that was devastating because I was a registered nurse and doctors were like gods to me. I always believed that they knew everything.

I had to change my whole way of thinking in that moment. I had to forget what the X-rays and the pathology reports told me, and I had to look for other answers. I realized God is the supernatural being and the universe really runs on spiritual laws and I decided that I was going to become co-creators with God in my own healing. I also studied a lot about the mind-body relationship.

Q: How did Wynonna handle the news?

A: I had to start taking her to a Christian therapist because she was a total basket case. We had this psychological umbilical cord that had never been cut even though she was 27. Her first reaction was that she would never sing another note. I think she was afraid her strong, proud mama--who she had never seen helpless--might collapse on stage or have to be hospitalized on the road.

Q: What was it like finally adjusting to life after show business?

A: I wanted to end it all with a big celebration, so I threw a big party for all our friends. But after that it was like after a funeral. . . . The out-of-town guests go home, the flowers die, the food has all been eaten. You feel very alone. But then I had to help Wy get started with her solo career. I went out on a few shows for support.

After that, it was home and a very reflective period for months. I read all the reviews of the farewell tour over and over again, basking in the afterglow. Mainly, I was concentrating on staying alive, staying in remission, reading books.

Q: What do you miss most about the shows?

A: What I like about entertaining is communication. I was never into the celebrity thing. In the book, I completely debunk that. We don't have a royal family in America so we make celebrities our own aristocracy. It's a very seductive lifestyle. You are literally always in the spotlight. People care about what you have for breakfast, the sense of self-importance is so out of proportion.

I think it is so heinous that so many entertainers behave the way they do. I was lucky. I was 37 years old before this ever happened to me and I like to think I already had my priorities in order.

Q: Can you imagine ever getting back on stage?

A: I want do, but I can't imagine it. To this point, Wynonna and I have never talked about singing together again. I'm also enormously proud of what she has done the last two years and I certainly wouldn't mess with that.

Q: In the book, you say part of your success was based on timing . . . that your fans felt a need for the family-spiritual values you espoused. What do you mean?

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