(May 5, 2022). In the post-Thriller, post-Second British Invasion, MTV-driven world of the mid-1980s, there wasn’t much room for country music on pop radio. The late-‘70s/early-‘80s heyday of country acts like Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson, Eddie Rabbitt, Alabama, Dolly Parton, Oak Ridge Boys, and so many others getting top-20 pop hits had ended by the middle of the decade.
That may explain why the super country singing duo The Judds never had a Hot 100 pop hit, despite topping the Billboard Country singles charts 14 times between 1984-89, including a string of eight consecutive No. 1s from their first, 1984’s “Mama He’s Crazy,” to their eighth, “Cry Myself To Sleep,” in ‘86.
When the news broke that Naomi Judd passed away suddenly on Saturday, April 30, at age 76, the memories of their rise to fame and their unique status as country’s most dynamic duo in the genre’s least forgiving half-decade came flooding back. The Judds were seemingly inescapable, a presence at every awards show—usually behind the winners’ podium—with one great album and single release after another.
It was their second chart-topper, the title track from their huge debut album “Why Not Me,” which first grabbed this pop kid’s attention at the end of 1984. It was simple and sweet with a charm and melodic appeal that could easily have made it a pop hit had it been released a few years earlier (or even a decade later during the Garth Brooks/ Shania Twain megastar era).
I liked “Why Not Me” from the first listen and found myself being one of those pop guys who was not-so-secretly digging the Judds when country wasn’t considered so cool.
It wasn’t much of a stretch for me to take a liking to The Judds. My country music palette had already been expanded by all the country-pop crossover acts I mentioned earlier and, before them, Glen Campbell, John Denver, and pre-Grease Olivia Newton-John, among others.
And when those leaner country crossover years began in 1984, I was still able to keep a pulse on that music via my freshman-year college roommate Scott M, who was an avid country fan. Scott, who hailed from the heart of Virginia in the little town of Shipman, more than made up for what I lacked in exposure to the country genre after its apparent expulsion from pop radio playlists.
The Judds were intriguing in their own right…two women who sounded great and who were hitting a collective nerve in America with simple tunes about love, life and family. And in an industry where one’s looks were becoming just as important to an artist’s success as the music itself, it didn’t hurt that mama and daughter Judd were also very attractive. So strikingly youthful in appearance was Naomi, in fact, that I could hardly tell who was the mother and who was the daughter (and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that department).
The Judds followed “Why Not Me” with their next two No. 1s: “Girls Night Out” and my personal fave “Love Is Alive” (not a remake of the old 1976 Gary Wright pop tune). Who could forget that chorus the ladies harmonized: “love is alive and at our breakfast table every day of the week…”?
That hook hooked me, and from then on I found myself rooting for The Judds at every awards show that year and for several years afterwards. “Love is Alive” was followed by more hits, including “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days),” “Cry Myself to Sleep” and one of their last big hits together, “Love Can Build A Bridge.”
When you think about it, The Judds really were the biggest thing in country during what were perhaps its leanest years—at least in terms of the genre’s ability to crossover to the pop mainstream. You’d be hard-pressed to find any country song that reached the pop top 40 between 1985 and 1990. That I, a guy who didn’t normally bat an eye unless it was pop or R&B, even noticed the Judds was a minor miracle.
By the time country music regained its stride (and reached its commercial peak in the 1990s) with the likes of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Brooks and Dunn and many others, Naomi and daughter Wynonna had already seen their last No. 1 hit and were already navigating their initial breakup.
Wynonna went on to have a successful solo career while her mother became an advocate for people with mental illness, which she disclosed about herself several years later.
It was Wynonna and her famous sister Ashley Judd who broke the news of their mother’s sudden death last weekend, an ending they attributed in a joint statement to mental illness. A few days later, sources confirmed that it was Naomi who took her own life—an outcome not totally surprising given her well documented struggles with severe depression, but an unexpected outcome nonetheless.
Naomi’s death sent a shockwave throughout the music industry. It again raised awareness of the toll that mental illness can have on people suffering from it as well as on those close to them.
For this one-time fan, it was an instant reminder of Naomi’s harmony vocals and the great music The Judds gave us, as well as the bridge they built… from country’s greatest crossover era of the early 1980s to its greatest commercial era a decade later.
R.I.P. to Naomi Judd (January 11, 1946 – April 30, 2022).
Anyone suffering from thoughts of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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