‘Love’ Fills the Mother Church During Naomi Judd Tribute at Ryman Auditorium

by Jim Casey

“Love” filled the Mother Church of Country Music on May 15 as family, friends, fans, artists, industry insiders, media, and more gathered at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to celebrate the life of Naomi Judd. A little more than two weeks after her death on April 30, Naomi was remembered as a loving mother, wife, friend, and artist during the tribute, dubbed “Naomi Judd: A River of Time Celebration,” which aired live on CMT.

Naomi’s husband, Larry Strickland, and daughters Wynonna and Ashley, shared loving sentiments from the stage, while songs like “Love Is Alive” (Ashley McBryde), “Young Love” (Brad Paisley), and “Love Can Build a Bridge” (Wynonna) filled the 130-year-old venue. The standing ovations were numerous—more than a dozen—and I lost count of the number of times fans, who filled the Ryman’s balcony, called out, “We love you, Naomi,” “We love you, Ashley,” or “We love you, Wynonna.”

There was a lot of love for Naomi, who, of course, was the matriarchal half of the mother-daughter duo The Judds, the most recent inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Remembering Naomi Judd

“Welcome to the Mother Church of Country Music,” said Ashley Judd, in part, as she delivered a heartfelt recollection of Naomi’s life. “This is where Mom wanted her public celebration to take place. And thank you for being in community and in fellowship with us. Because we can pretend to care, but we cannot pretend to show up. So thank you for showing up for our Mom.”

Ashley introduced her big sister, Wynnona, who, with a rendition of “River of Time,” was the first artist to remember Naomi in song. Of course, more musical tributes followed, including performances by Ashley McBryde, Little Big Town, Carly Pearce, Emmylou Harris and Allison Russell, Jamey Johnson, Gaither Vocal Band, Brad Paisley, and Bradi Carlile. In addition, many of Naomi’s famous friends shared video tributes, including Bono, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Bette Midler, and more.

The loving moments from inside the Ryman were abundant, as were the 2,500 pink roses and white flowers that decorated the stage. Ashley McBryde fought back tears as she delivered a beautiful version of “Love Is Alive.” Before his performance of “Young Love,” Brad Paisley shared the story of opening for The Judds as a 15-year-old, saying, “It was a big deal to open for them then, but a bigger deal to do this for them now.” And, of course, Wynnona brought the Ryman crowd to one final standing ovation by closing the tribute with “Love Can Build a Bridge.”

Finally, before Naomi’s passing, The Judds announced their first tour in more than a decade. Wynonna revealed from the Ryman stage that she will fulfill the 10-date tour in her mother’s honor this fall. And just so you know, Wynonna still has one of country music’s most soulfully stellar voices.

Full Performance List