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Reunited...for Now

The Judds are back together for a short tour, but it raises questions about the future that Wynonna and Naomi have yet to face.

March 02, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

PORTLAND, Ore. — Before starting their current reunion tour in February, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, the biggest-selling duo in the history of country music, were all hugs and kisses in high-profile media interviews.

That's nice.

But they're now halfway through their first tour in nine years, and you wonder if the old mother-daughter tensions--once legendary in Nashville--have resurfaced.

The group's former manager, Ken Stilts, once said young Wynonna "just revolted at every turn," and mother Naomi was hard-headed. "There were plenty nights when I was not sure the show was going to happen because they seemed to really lock up 30 minutes before a show. . . . I sent them on stage more than once with sunglasses from crying."

So what gives?

As it turned out, there were no sunglasses in sight as the Judds stepped on stage hand in hand to thunderous applause from an estimated 12,000 fans last weekend here at the Rose Garden arena.

For two hours, they celebrated their music and memories with a dozen favorite Judds tunes and a series of home movies, most of which included footage of the other famous Judd--Wynonna's sister, actress Ashley Judd.

It was a warm, endearing performance, and the word from crew members is that the same spirit continues offstage on the 20-city jaunt, which includes a stop tonight at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim.

But there's one lingering issue that remains delicate--and it has been haunting both women since the tour began, though they haven't formally spoken about it.

The future.

Isn't there a time when the celebration of doing shows together again will give way to the melancholy of realizing that these may be the last ones?

Sitting in her customized bus before the concert, Naomi, 54, was asked if there isn't a point where she'll begin counting off the dates . . . five more shows to go, four more shows, three. . . .

"Eleven . . ." she interrupts. "There are 11 more shows. I've already begun counting them down."

Naomi is reluctant to say more because she doesn't want to put pressure on Wynonna, who has worked hard to establish her solo identity in the nine years since a potentially life-threatening illness--chronic active hepatitis--forced Naomi to step away from the music business.

"The only time we came close to talking about [the future] was the second night of the tour," Naomi continues carefully. "We were in our hotel bathrooms and I said, 'OK, kiddo, tell Mama what's on your mind.'

"I could see that something was troubling her, but she couldn't bring herself to say it because of her loyalty, so I had to say what I knew she was thinking. I said, 'You are afraid you are going to get lost in this, aren't you?' And the tears started rolling down her cheeks."

It was out of respect for Wynonna's career that Naomi refrained from bringing up a reunion tour after she was pronounced cured of the illness two years ago. The impetus for these shows, she felt, had to come from her daughter.

New Year's Eve Response Prompts a Brief Tour

But she admits she was thrilled in the summer of 1998, when Wynonna proposed a reunion show. The idea was to just do a millennium New Year's Eve date, but there was so much fan response that the women decided to do this brief tour, which ends March 31 in Atlanta. The only other commitment is for a June 10 concert in Nashville. Wynonna's next solo tour includes a stop May 18 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks.

Even if Naomi prefers not to speak about future shows, it's clear that she would be open to it. Naomi once called the stage "my home, my church and my workplace." She has expanded her career into other areas since the Judds' 1991 farewell tour, including a best-selling autobiography and a weekly talk/music radio show. But nothing seems to match the thrill of being on stage.

So she leaves the decision about the future to Wynonna.

And what is the daughter's thinking?

"I'm very aware that there is an end and we're approaching it," says Wynonna, 35, sitting in her bus during a separate interview. "It's a very bittersweet experience, and I spend a lot of time on my bus with my flowers and my candles and my music because I want to savor every moment of this trip. I don't know where it's going to lead. . . .

"But I do know the shows have been remarkable because the roles have changed. I realized that at the New Year's Eve show. When I took Mom's hand at the start of the show, she was trembling. I remembered all the times when I needed her hand and she was the strong one. I leaned over and said, 'I'm here. Let me do the singing. You have the fun and enjoy. Don't worry about a thing.' "

*

Wynonna was always the voice of the Judds, a great singer whose feel for music is wide enough for her to excel in gospel, rock and blues. Although everyone in Nashville thought she couldn't miss on her own, Wynonna went through a severe bout of insecurity when it was time to leave the nest.

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