Deep in the woods, on her thousand-acre farm in Tennessee she calls Peaceful Valley, there’s a place where Naomi Judd steals away to meditate. “I go there to be alone and surrender my burdens. It’s a sacred spot,” she says from her bedroom south of Nashville.
For someone who calls herself “the goofiest woman in country music.” Judd, 49, is arguably one of the most level-headed. Five years ago, at the peak of her career, she was forced to retire when she was diagnosed with potentially life-threatening liver disease. But this former registered nurse refused to accept the doctor’s prognosis that she would live only three more years: she launched her own health regimen to boost her immune system through the mind-body-spirit connection. Today, physicians are amazed at her remission level. As spokesperson for the American Liver Foundation, Judd is busy hop scotching the country lecturing on wellness.
For eight years, Naomi and daughter Wynonna were country music superstars. “The Judds,” with a string of #1 hits. platinum albums and six Grammy Awards. When Naomi had to give up concert tours. she penned what turned out to be a best- selling autobiography. “Love Can Build A Bridge.” Then she co- executive produced a TV miniseries based on the book. The docudrama aired this past Mother’s Day, five months after Wynonna, unmarried, gave birth to a son. “She is the most instinctual mother.” says Grandma Judd, who often baby-sits little Elijah. “I’ve got him tonight. And it’s the strangest thing.” adds the self-proclaimed goofiest woman in country music, “His poop don’t stink!”
Judd, raised in a small Kentucky town, was unwed when she became pregnant with Wynonna at age 18. Hers is a rags-to-rich- es story of how a struggling, divorced working mother of two guided her rebellious teenage daughter into an immensely successful show business career.
These days Judd looks for quiet time alone, listening to relaxation tapes and watching the deer that come up to her big kitchen picture window. But the next moment she’s at work writing songs for Wynonna, who hasn’t missed a beat in launching a smash solo career. She’s got a new album coming out this fall, and Naomi sings back-up on it.
Despite her Cinderella story, Judd likes to say she’s nothing special: “I’m B-flat normal.” She does however, confess to being a clothes horse and loves to indulge herself by buying designer duds. “Wynonna really ribs me hard about the fact that I always match,” she says, noting that today she has on lavender pants with a top in exactly the same shade. “Even when I’m lounging, I care about the way I look. I don’t own a pair of sweat pants or blue jeans,” she declares, proudly.
At home, she goes without make-up and sweeps her hair up in a simple ponytail. And, she stresses, she doesn’t wear cowgirl boots! ‘Matter of fact, she prefers going barefoot. Says she: “I keep my shoes by the door. They’re only for when I step out.”
ABILITY‘s Jane Wollman Rusoff caught up with this dynamo one afternoon last spring not long after she’d received some startling medical news.
Jane Rusoff: Are you really as calm and serene as you appear?
Naomi Judd: I am. Because of the sense that my mom gave me that I was a child of this most high God- I’ve always had a certain ability to live outside my surroundings. I’ve lived on the edge-I was a paycheck away from the streets all the time with a minimum-wage job. I was a battered woman. I had a psycho stalking me. I was traipsing around with two young children, alone. That film of desperation coats everything when you have no emotional sup- port.
JR: How did you cope? ‘Distance yourself from all that?
NJ: No, the exact opposite. I learned how to practice imagery. Basically, it’s hope. No matter how grim the reality. No matter if I’m 17 and unmarried and pregnant, and I’ve got the family doctor telling me the test was positive. That was in 1963-small-town America, big shame thing going on. Or if I’m sit- ting in front of another doctor 30 years later who’s telling me I may have just a couple of years to live. I’ve learned that when you step out and hope, it propels you beyond your self-doubts…
JR: How did you do it?
NJ: I would imagine how I wanted things to be. If I had the sheriff at the door with an eviction notice because I was behind in my rent, I would imagine that someday I was going to own my own home and my own land that no one could ever take away and that I’d have security. And when Wynonna and I were really battling a very turbulent relationship when she was a teenager I kept hoping and imagining that someday she would be my best friend and that she would choose to be with me no matter what was going on…And that came to pass.
JR: What was it that triggered a meeting of the minds between you two?
NJ: It happened because of country music, because of the fans. There was never any great epiphany for us to say, “Okay, I get it, I understand your reality you weren’t trying to destroy my life.” It was just a gradual evolution; and when you share a dressing room, a stage, a hotel room and you sleep six feet away from each other on the Silver Eagle Bus, you will either work it out, or you’ll kill each other.
JR: What about the fans?
NJ: A very interesting thing began to change when we’d be on stage. I would look out at the sea of smiling faces and sense that they were really scrutinizing Wy and me, and that put us on our best behavior. There was a real symbiotic relationship taking place at that time. Fans would come to us for advice.
NJ: Women would come up to me in the coffee shop of the Holiday Inn and say, “My God in heaven, how are you able to put up with this irresponsible kid in these high-pressure situations like being on The Tonight Show and wanting to pull her hair out?” Meanwhile, a teenage girl would come up to Wy outside, in the parking lot, and say “Holy-moly, how can you stand to let your mom be the boss out there?” Wy wasn’t around people her own age. I pretty much ran the show.
JR: How much freedom did she have?
NJ: She didn’t have her own checking account. She had handlers who told her where to be at what time. So we were working out our mother daughter relationship and at the same time, ironically, we were equal business partners. We were complete equals because we knew nothing about show business and were learning at exactly the same moment. That became an equalizer.
JR: When you became pregnant out of wedlock, your mother reacted harshly. You must have had a different response when Wy told you she was expecting.
NJ: Yes, and it was only because I’d been through a similar experience. Life gives us the test first, and the lessons come later, I’d already had this test…I saw it coming because she had called me from her mobile phone on her bus, sounding like she was five years old. She said, “Mommy, I’m coming home for a day. I need some doting.”
JR: What did you do?
NJ: I fixed her favorite meal. When she came in, I put her laundry in the washing machine. We were sitting on the back porch having supper, watching the sun go down-I was just waiting. I knew she was getting ready to drop some kind of bomb. And she looked right into my eyes and said those words that change your life-like “The President’s been shot” or “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have lift-off.” She said, “Mommy, I’m pregnant.”
JR: What was your reaction?
NJ: The first thing I felt, honestly, was an immense sadness because I believe so strongly that you are supposed to be married first-have your deal down with your partner before you ever think of planning to bring a child into the situation. But there was major deja vu going on. Even though I was 17 and, in another era, when getting pregnant was the biggest scandal and I got a buck-fifty cents a week allowance, couldn’t drive a car, played the piano in church, while Wynonna was sitting there a Triple Platinum-selling artist who owns her own farm, it was all the same: she was unmarried and carrying a child.
JR: How did you think Wynonna was going to cope, being someone in the public eye?
NJ: Wynonna Judd’s core issue is feeling judged. I told her that I think her talent is inversely proportional to her self-esteem. It’s crazy: she’s the greatest singer there is, and she doesn’t have a clue. She has no self-confidence. I looked at her and I thought, fasten your seatbelt. Sweetheart you’re fixing to be hit by a hurricane of public criticism. And there was not a stinking’ thing I could do about it.
JR: What were your thoughts about the baby?
NJ: As soon as I released that fear, I felt an almost giddy joy at the realization that we had a life coming into our family, this first grandchild. We were quiet for about 3-to-5 minutes; her words were hanging in the air while we were deep in our thoughts-Larry (Naomi’s husband, Larry Strickland) had reached out and taken my hand, and I took Wynonna’s and she took (her sister) Ashley’s.
JR: What did you say?
NJ: The first thing I told Wynonna was that we stand together. We are a family. We want to welcome this child into our midst and promise that we will give it unconditional love.
JR: There didn’t seem to be a firestorm of criticism?
NJ: Wynonna is the type of personality that can read a hundred fabulous reviews and then there’s one person who didn’t like what she was wearing, and she goes into a major depression. So although she completely understands the moral consequences of what she’s done and is still struggling with it, I was so proud of the way she handled it.
JR: In what way?
NJ: We stayed up all that night and talked and she said, “I want to call a press conference. I want to do it myself. I feel like I have a responsibility to my fans to finish out my tour.” I had never seen Wy that way before. She always left it to me to go behind and clean up the messes. There was a real maturation in her.
JR: Let’s talk just a little about your illness. I understand it’s in remission now.
NJ: I have what is called spontaneous remission. In fact. I went to UCLA (Medical Center) and had a battery of tests and the strangest thing happened. I was asleep in my hotel room when the phone rang. I thought it was the test results, but it was Wy calling me from Nashville telling me that our bodyguard had passed away during the night of liver disease. Then. when we hung up from that sad con versation and the phone rang again, my doctor announced himself. My hand was shaking a little bit because we had lost our bus driver last year to liver disease and our lighting director’s mother died of Hepatitis C, which is what I have.
JR: You were shaking when you heard it was your doctor?
NJ: Back when I was seriously ill. every time I would call the hospital to get my lab results or my X-ray report or my CAT scan or liver biopsy, my hand would be shaking as if these people had the authority and the power to tell me whether I was going to live or die. But I came to the truth that security is not in a lab report. I used to tell Wy that security is not in a number one record-security comes from God… But I still have these little attacks of doubt or fear.
JR: You mentioned those three people in your life that died of liver dis ease. Isn’t that a terrible coincidence?
NJ: It’s not a coincidence. Liver dis ease is the fourth (leading) killer in America. And nobody has a clue because there’s no money. Nobody’s funding it. My doctor told me that six to eight people die on him every day waiting for liver transplants because the American public isn’t savvy enough to sign their donor cards.
JR: Is there a contagious factor? NJ: Not for my type. Mine is the least contagious of all… In 1990. when I was in a wheelchair and not doing well at all, it was as if I’d had the world’s worst case of flu for about six solid months. You go to bed every night and you know you’re going to feel that way when you wake up. And according to what that first doctor said, it would be that way till the bitter end. I was given the first Hepatitis C test and I was negative for it, so they told me I didn’t have C… But I accepted my diagnosis back then, that I did have liver disease, that it’s incurable, that the virus is in me. But I denied the prognosis.
JR: Which was?
NJ: That first doctor told me I had a couple of years to live. I said I appreciate modern medicine, but you can’t help me. The answers are not on the outside, so I’m going within.
JR: They told you that you didn’t have C, but earlier you said that you do have Hepatitis C. Can you explain?
NJ: I was sitting in my Winnebago on the set watching the dailies of the TV miniseries (based on her life), and I had just watched the scene where the actor playing my doctor tells me and my family that I have liver disease and that it doesn’t look good. Just then my cellular phone rang. It was the new doctor I had started going to, who had drawn some blood the previous week. He said, “I regret to inform you that you have tested positive for the Hepatitis C virus with this new sensitive test.”
JR: How did you react?
NJ: I was just stunned. I said, “Do you mean to tell me that all along I have had Hepatitis C?” And he said, “Exactly.”
JR: Tell me the significance. NJ: There are over 100 types of liver disease. “A” is like mononucleosis. You feel crummy for a couple of months and it goes away; that’s it. Bingo! Nothing else. “B” is more serious. “B” can go chronic. In those cases where it does, it can advance to cirrhosis or possibly liver cancer, which is fatal. “C” we know the least about. “C” is only blood-borne transmission wise. I wish I didn’t have it, but I do (laughs a bit).
JR: It’s not fatal?
NJ: They can all be fatal.
JR: It’s more severe than “A”?
JR: But less severe than “B”?
JR: It’s worse than “B”?
NJ: It depends on the individual system and on the (virus). I will just say that my doctor is astonished- he’s so pleased with my remission level. It’s not normal, but I worked every day at it (excuses herself to answer another phone line). I’m sorry, Jane. I have what I call a “Mom Line,” and it’s only for Wynonna and Ashley to call any time, 24 hours-a day. That was Ashley. She’s on the set of Heat, which she’s making with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Val Kilmer. She said, “I just took a break from doing my scene with DeNiro. Thought I’d call and tell you I love you.’
JR: Naomi, How are you sharing with others the method of self-healing that’s helped you?
NJ: I’m on the lecture circuit. I get out and talk to people. I call it The Exquisite Reality…I try to tell them about the spirit-mind-body connection.
JR: What else have you been up to? NJ: I’ve been meeting with the most brilliant minds in America in this field…I met with the head of UCLA’s Psychoneuroimmunology Program formed by Norman Cousins-he’s a close personal friend-Dr. Deepak Chopra, the main doctor in the mind-body field now, or at least the most visible. So I’m hanging out with all these people who are so in tune with the fact that wellness is not a materialistic pursuit; it’s a spiritual pursuit.
JR: What’s the goal?
NJ: Peace of mind. If a boy comes up to me in the grocery store and says, “I’ve got AIDS,” or if a woman comes up to me in the airport and says, “I’ve got metastatic breast cancer.” or some other person who has liver disease like I do, I wish that I could bring them home and sit them at my kitchen table and say, “Tell me your whole story.” But I don’t have that luxury, so what I try to say to them, in 30 seconds, is that peace isn’t just the absence of a disease or a conflict. Peace is the ability to deal with it…I constantly find myself alone and starting over again. And when I can’t change the way things are, I’ve learned how to change the way I feel about them.
JR: What went through your mind when the doctor told you that they were wrong, that you do have Hepatitis C?
NJ: I remember jumping to my feet and pacing the Winnebago thinking. Should I run out on the set right now and tell the director we have to re shoot that scene? And I said, “No. That’s the way it was for five years I thought I didn’t have ‘C. You can’t re-write history.”
JR: Is there anything special you do to stay so beautiful?
NJ: The only thing I can tell you is that I’ve never smoked a cigarette. and I’ve never drunk a beer. I laugh all the time. I have inner peace…there’s nothing different about me. There is absolutely nothing special about Naomi Judd…I am not a magical being.
JR: Were you present at the birth of Wynonna’s baby, Elijah?
NJ: It was so strange, because I had just finished watching the daily where the girl who plays me as a teenager in the miniseries gives birth to Wynonna and I tell her, “I’ll take care of you forever,” when I got a call on my cellular from Nashville saying it was time for Wynonna to deliver. So I bolt to LAX. The next thing I know I’m standing in the O.R….in Tennessee and Wy is having a C-section (Cesarean birth). They allowed me in because I’m an RN. I’m talking to her head since she’s completely conscious, but on the other side of the drape…there’s a team of doctors cutting her open. It was like science fiction.
JR: What were you feeling?
NJ: I watched them pull this baby out, and as they were clamping the cord, I looked at him he was only a foot-and-a half from my face-and I said, “I’ve seen this child before.” He looked exactly like Wynonna.
JR: You’ve been called “Cinderella.” Do you feel like her?
NJ: Yup, they nailed me. I was booked on the head by this fairy godmother, who I consider the fans. They accepted me and changed my life forever. And when I would get on that stage, I wanted to live that fantasy I had longed for. I was so tired of buying my clothes at the flea market and having to take my kids to the United Way Thrift Store when school started. I felt so guilty, so incompetent as a mom.
JR: But it wasn’t as if you didn’t try to earn money. You were working as a nurse, secretary, waitress…
NJ: Oh, I worked my butt off. But you can’t get very far without an education. That’s why, when I hit my 30’s, I was always petrified of winding up on the street. I was liv ing just a paycheck away from the street every stupid week. No medical insurance. No savings account. No credit card. I barely had enough gas in my car to get me to work and back that day. I never had any child support. My mother and I weren’t speaking to each other. My father was dying of kidney failure. “I have nobody in the world, but by God,” I vowed, “I’m going to put myself though college.”
JR: Where did you go?
NJ: I went to nursing school, the College of Marin, in California. I actually wanted to be an MD… I was going to use my RN degree to support myself and put myself though med school. I had this romantic notion of working with people in Appalachia, my people.
JR: What happened?
NJ: When and I started singing together-she so desperately needed to have a new direction in life-it quickly became obvious that that was what we were meant to do.
JR: Did you ever feel that you were sacrificing your dream of becoming a physician?
NJ: No, because I loved being an RN. It taught me so much about humanness. I learned that we are all exactly the same. We wear different masks, and we may have slightly different personal histories, but we are all exactly the same. And I learned about medicine. So that now, here I am a victim of a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness, I have this ability to discern as I open myself up to alternative therapy. I can distinguish between hogwash and legitimate, valid resources.
JR: Give me an example of your alternative therapy.
NJ: Meditation, changing my diet, reducing stress, connecting with nature…having an open belief system.
JR: You’re on a low-fat diet?
NJ: Yes. I cut out caffeine and red meat, and I try to keep the sugar down.
JR: A support system is important, isn’t it?
NJ: Yes, and I knew, from nursing, that on a clinical level, there were certain personality types that did bet ter. If you were my patient and laughed at my stupid jokes, if your husband visited often and obviously adored you, if you had a belief system and if you asked me before you swallowed the pill I hand ed you what it was, I would have such a good sense about the outcome. Now I’ve got scientific data behind that anecdotal stuff.
JR: Have the doctors given you a new, better prognosis?
NJ: I don’t even want to talk about that because, as I’ve said, I acknowledge the diagnosis and completely accept it; but I deny the prognosis. So it doesn’t really matter what they say. I just know that I’m going to continue to realize that the body is a miracle and that the spirit and mind and body are all one. And that I’m co-creator in my healing process.