ESSAY: For a gay country boy, Naomi Judd built a bridge 2022-04-30 23:24:40


Somewhere in Michigan in the early 1990s, a teenage farm boy stuck to a chain-link fence on the edge of the county fairgrounds. He’s looking for a distant, free glimpse of Naomi and Winona Judd.

They step forward for the show, slipping on high heels to the edge of the runway catwalk. From this distance, illuminated by a spotlight, it is a misty of shimmering sequins and red hair. Naomi, the duo’s mother and de facto manager, says something, but even amplifying it, her words float away on a hot August night.

Despite this, he was soon carried away by a gentle strumming and Winona’s hoarse voice: “I will whisper love so loudly, every heart can understand that only love can join the tribes of man.”

Then his mother calls him, “Jeff, get in the car! It’s time to go.”

I’m not sure what it was, but for me and for most people, the chemistry between Naomi and Winona and the feelings they evoked within the listener were almost tangible. My first (and only) vision of her is forever etched in my mind.

After the word Saturday Naomi’s death I now realize how much I went through with them.

When I was a pre-teen dealing with my sexuality and dealing with bullies, and The Judds sang “Mama He’s Crazy,” I understood the narrator’s concerns – why would anyone want me?

After my grandfather passed away, I I listened to “Grandfather” over and over again, I cry that he won’t be able to tell me about the old days, which he was already doing. (The song has since lost its luster a bit – the old days weren’t really good. But I still always think of my grandfather.)

And after my father passed away, I wanted to be at The breakfast table they sang about in “Love Is Alive” It sucks all the love that sat there.

those sounds. that hair. those gowns. For a lonely gay boy in the rural Midwest, this was a calling card and a lifeline of sorts.

Wynonna was clearly the duo’s biggest voice. But without Naomi’s tunes and stage presence, I doubt her daughter would have become a one-name star. And would she have made it in Hollywood without her mother’s support?

As I got older, the story of the Gods fascinated me, and I saw parts of it in my own life. Naomi’s single motherhood, a nurse trying to score a registration contract, pecked my newly widowed mom, another woman in the country, trying to hold her own while still raising the kids.

If Naomi can do it, she can. me too.

When cancer visited one of my leg bones after my senior year of high school, I thought about Naomi and her diagnosis of hepatitis. In the end I defeated him. me too.

I went to college, got married (okay, observant – gay marriage wasn’t legal yet in those days) and ended up in New York. Like Naomi, I had persevered and was able to make it happen.

There, I made a new circle of friends, many of them also from Michigan. One night a Judds song came out, I forgot which song, and one of my new friends started singing. Turns out we all loved the judges. I had to go to New York City to find my countrymen.

The pair quickly became inseparable, as we take camping trips together several times in the summer. When my husband and I moved to Philadelphia and stayed in New York, we continued our campfire reunion, and there was no camping trip without Gods singing around the fire, under the starlit Pennsylvania sky.

The couple have since separated, and I’ve remarried — making sure to impress Judd’s appreciation for my new husband — but we’re all still close and in touch. Reminds me that there is no animosity between us This line in “Love Can Build a Bridge”, Perhaps Naomi’s coronation as a songwriter: “Only love and love can join the tribes of man.”

I once sang that song in a piano bar, and a man in the audience approached me afterward, fascinated by the song (maybe not by my performance). It was beautiful and shrewd, I 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 man? The question wasn’t when Gods asked, “Don’t you think it’s time?” Naomi knew the answer the whole time.

___ Follow Jeff McMillan on Twitter at