“Naomi Judd: A River of Time Celebration” was broadcast live on CMT Sunday night two weeks and one day after the country music legend died. But it hadn’t been half that long in the planning. The show’s gestation really came just a week prior to air date, on — appropriately enough — Mother’s Day. That was when executive producer Jason Owen considered a wish that Naomi had put into her will several years back: that a memorial be held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The only date the storied venue had open on which cameras and crowds could come in was just seven days ago. So Owen and his producing partners at CMT did what Naomi would have done: They hustled.
The expedience with which the show was produced worked in its favor, as there was still plenty of raw emotion to go around to lend the show its share of raw emotion. Not that many country performers won’t still be fighting off breaking down if they figure to bust out a Judds cover a month or even a year or two hence. But in its urgency, the show had even artists with even marginal personal connections to the Judds getting tearful, never mind the raw and sometimes irreverent emotions of the always transparent Wynonna Judd, to make it more emotional than tributes with a bit more distance tend to be. For however slickly produced and outrightly entertaining the production was, it captured a river of Nashville grief still in its headwaters.
Owen and a fellow executive producer, CMT’s Margaret Comeaux, spoke with Variety Monday afternoon to share some of the behind-the-scenes ideas and execution that went into making “Naomi Judd: A River of Time Celebration” come off. One thing they did not have to worry about was any of the guest performers, who included Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley and Carly Pearce, or the featured speakers, from Bono to Oprah Winfrey, overshadowing several appearances on stage by Wynonna, who rose to the occasions and made sister Ashley’s praise of her as the GOAT seem like not much of an overstatement.
On the show, there were a couple of references to certain things being Naomi’s wishes — that this would take place at the Ryman, and that the gospel group the Gaither Vocal Band would sing. Did she leave documentation behind to that effect?
Owen: Yeah. There were a few big things in her funeral arrangements that she had planned a couple of years in the past,: She wanted it to be a celebration, versus a full-on funeral. She wanted it to be held at the Ryman. She wanted the Gaither Band. And she wanted the last song to be “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
Presumably there was a private funeral prior to this, where family had already had a chance to deal with some of these emotions, even though there were plenty still visible on stage?
Owen: That’s right. There was a private service the Saturday before Mother’s Day, with just family and a couple of really close friends.
There have been a number of memorial services for country greats at either the Ryman or the Opry House, but not that many really that have been televised, have there?
Comeaux: We did a Johnny Cash memorial, and then we did the George Jones funeral that was at the Opry House. With that, they had sort of a feed inside that they were sending out, so that was shared with a couple of different networks. But Cash is the only one that’s been exclusive on CMT until this.
You two spoke on Mother’s Day and then got a firm commitment to go ahead from Viacom on Monday. You already had some great lines of communication going in, having just produced the CMT Music Awards together [on which the Judds made their final appearance]. Was the first order of business on Monday to make sure you could book the artists you wanted to book?
Comeaux: That obviously was one of the first things, but my team made the call to Patty DiMaria, who was (another) executive producer on this and we started just firing off all the things that we needed to do, like making sure that the venue was locked and we knew exactly what director we wanted to use. We know the Ryman, and there were people on this project that had worked with the Judds for years; our lighting designer was on their lighting team for years on the road. And so it was a real labor of love. We got our ducks in a row and just started putting our production teams together, building schedules and coming up with our deadlines — the things that we do on every show , on a sped-up timeline.
Owen: My favorite and biggest performances have always been with CMT for my artists, mainly because they’re so collaborative and they just get it — there’s no bullshit. And then on the talent side, to your question, I had spent obviously a lot of time with the family and once we knew we were go, I sat down with Wy and Ashley and Larry (Strickland, Naomi’s husband) and said, “In a dream scenario, can you tell me who your mother would love to have perform, or you would love to have perform, and what songs?” There were a lot of people that were out of town, because it’s a weekend and obviously everyone’s in full touring mode, so there were a lot of people that flew in early in the morning or late at night on Saturday night in order to be there. [With the video testimonials] obviously Naomi and the Judds for that matter had had such a huge global reach, not only in country music, and we sort of connected all the dots with people they had relationships from Oprah to Bono, to Reese (Witherspoon), to obviously Bette Midler — all these people were important to the storytelling as well.
Whose idea was it for Bono to recite a Judds song (“Guardian Angel”)?
Owen: It was his idea. His was the first video we got.
Even before Naomi’s death, you had already had a chance to think a little bit about who would be great to cover Judds songs, when performances were being lined up for their Country Hall of Fame medallion ceremony [which ultimately took place the day after Naomi’s death]. Carly Pearce sang at that, and Brandi Carlile was supposed to sing at that, and those were two artists that carried over to this. Brandi finally got her wish to be a Judd for a night.
Owen: That’s exactly right. Obviously Brandi had had to bow out because of COVID, and she was devastated that she wasn’t able to participate in the Hall of Fame, and her love for the Judds runs really, really, really deep. She was one of our first calls, for sure. [Carlile has said that her first, second and third concerts were all Judds shows.] And then Carly had worked up “Why Not Me” for the Hall of Fame. And she had changed it at the last minute to do “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days),” on the request of the family and the Hall of Fame, a simple request that she graciously did. But I felt bad [that she’d had to abandon “Why Not Me?” – she’d rehearsed it and she really wanted to put that song somewhere, so that’s one of the reasons we reached out, and of course we wanted that song in the special.
What is the story behind Bette Midler introducing Wynonna and Brandi Carlile doing a duet on “The Rose”?
Comeaux: That was a Jason phone call of, “Hey, there was this amazing performance with Bette Midler in ‘96, on her ‘Wynonna: Revelations” special …
Owen: You worked on it!
Comeaux: I did work on it, back in the day; I was an assistant editor at the time, so I had the pleasure of being in the room the first time it happened, too, and it was incredible. So Jason brought it to Wy and it just sort of took on a life of its own.
Owen: I sent the clip to Wy, because I was going down a big Judds rabbit hole over the last couple weeks, as I was mourning Naomi, just looking at old stuff. I said, “Would you please, please do this song for me, if there’s a world where I can get Bette or someone amazing to sing it.” And the text back was, “Yes, for you, I’ll do it.” And so I went into full psychopath mode. We were working with Bette’s team — Rob Light was super helpful — and it just couldn’t work out logistically for her. Bette said “I would love to do a video,” and she sent this amazing text that said, “’The Rose’ will forever and always be Wynonna’s, should she ever want it.” it was very heartbreaking and wonderful. So then I called Brandi and asked her if she would do it. and without any hesitation, she said, “Absolutely.” I don’t even think she had seen the video. She had this funny thing where she sent me a text and said “Am I Bette, or am I Wynonna?” And I said, “What do you think?” And then we were rehearsing it Sunday, where I was literally just crazy about them doing the song, and when I get worked up about something, I just cannot let it go. So when they were rehearsing it on Sunday, Wy and Brandi made me leave the Ryman so I couldn’t hear it until the night of the performance.
Comeaux: They did. It was amazing. Wy had kind of started the song a little bit and the music started, and she stopped everything and said, “Jason, you need to leave.” It was great.
Well, speaking of stopping the song, it was a memorable moment on the telecast when she did stop it near the end because she was unhappy with something she’d done, and wanted to pick it up again. What were you thinking when that happened?
Owen: Well, I know her well enough to know that she always wants to give a hundred percent. And especially for that song, I think for lots of reasons, she was in that moment, in that part, and she got really emotional and it kind of stopped her, and she knew she wasn’t delivering it the right way she wanted to deliver it. So that’s why she stopped and said, “Now, go again.” And when she did, the whole place lost its mind. It was one of the best moments I’ve ever experienced in a television situation.
How much rehearsal was there?
Owen: There were no rehearsals prior to Sunday. We started rehearsals at 1:00, and we had doors at 4. That’s how fast everything went.
And everyone did get a run-through during those three hours?
Owen: Everyone rehearsed, except for Paisley [who did a solo acoustic performance).
How did the Emmylou Harris/Allison Russell duet come about?
Owen: That was definitely one of the family’s first asks, first wishes, was Emmylou doing “The Sweetest Gift,” because that was one of Naomi’s favorite songs. [It was introduced as the song Naomi and Wynonna first learned to sing together, for Naomi’s mother.] Emmylou immediately said yes, and it was Emmylou’s suggestion to bring Allison, which was incredible.
Was there anything else about the performances that felt unusual?
Owen: For me, I loved Jamey Johnson. As a diehard Judds fan, I was not familiar with that song [“John Deere Tractor,” an obscurity from an EP the Judds put out before they signed a major label deal], and now I can’t stop listening to it because of that.
What was the crowd like?
Owen: We had all fans in the balcony [versus music community invitees on the floor]. They were all wearing Judds merch or they were wearing red, which it’s a symbol, because people automatically think of the Judds with the hair. Also, a couple of things that people may not have been seen in the special that were a big part of what CMT helped us with tremendously were really igniting the whole town to celebrate Naomi. So the Bat building, the pedestrian bridge, the Bridgestone (Arena), all those were lit up in red that night. And then we had a motorcade for people to celebrate and to say goodbye to the Judds as they left the alley of the Ryman that started on First Ave., with thousands and thousands of people lining the streets, and people streaming out of the bars on Broadway. And Ali [Marszalkowski, who does publicity] had one of the most brilliant ideas and executed perfectly. She went to all the honky-tonks and asked all the house bands to play Judds music that afternoon.
What would you say about the range of emotions Wynonna had on stage during the celebration? Fans have always been fascinated by the psychological dynamics of the Judds as a duo, and Wynonna did describe their relationship as dysfunctional. She kind of went through an A-to-Z array of feeling on stage, from being choked up at times to being completely jokey and kind of poking at Ashley for being too earnest and describing their mother as a saucy single mother.
Owen: I would say that those are exactly the emotions I have felt from her since the day Naomi passed away. They have had that range of everything you saw on that stage. And to me that was really interesting to watch in that hour, because it’s what I’ve experienced both of the last two weeks. And I think that’s normal. I think that that’s part of the grieving process. You’re obviously so sad; sometimes you kind of have to laugh through some of the crazy; sometimes you get mad. And I think it was really healthy for her. And, you know, God, whatever your spiritual [belief] and relation to it… she has this gift. And that gift is this voice.
Comeaux: Jason, on the day she arrived and we were getting into the final pieces of what it was all gonna look like, said to me at one point, “She’s just feeling it.” And that’s what was so beautiful about the whole thing is that we witnessed such a personal and private moment. But they share it, and I guess it gets obviously to the magic of who they are and who Wynonna is, to let the world in and experience that with her and grieve along with her. It’s an honor as a fan to be able to do that.
Wynonna got a little meta or self-aware in wondering aloud if she should be be that open on stage, but then added that she’s lived her life in public since 17, so why stop now.
Owen: [laughs] That’s the Judds.
The Judds performed for a final time on the CMT Music Awards April 11 — it was filmed a little earlier, and then they did the red carpet that night. Naturally, people are going to study that video clip for any happiness or unhappiness they perceive. How do you look back on that, now?
Comeaux: I’ve looked at that performance again a lot in this last little bit. It was by far the highlight for me, in a CMT Music Awards that was pretty epic. Standing in front of the Hall of Fame, it just felt so powerful and so big. It’s weird because this chokes me up, but it’s the moment where the song had kind of started and Wy had walked out and she stood next to Naomi and said, “We’re really doing this.” Watching the connection between the two of them, watching that sort of signature moment when Naomi stands close to Wy… I don’t want this to sound trite, but it really was magic. And I hope that it lives on in a great way for people, because it was really special.
Owen: She was really nervous. She hadn’t performed, God, in years. And that was the first performance (back), and you’re walking out, and you have this monster stage and hundreds of people outside, and fire and helicopter shots — it would have been overwhelming for Madonna, you know? But I’ll say that one of the moments I love the most was when they did the red carpet on the CMT Awards, and they were actually in the house watching the show. I had never seen her so happy and excited. Just the energy that people gave to the Judds, both of them, when they walked in, was indescribable. That’s the stuff she loved. You can look at everything in Naomi’s life, and she loved the show.
What’s it been like for you? You had been working on that tour for years, and then to have plans change so abruptly, and for this reason… and yet you had work to do on the medallion ceremony and then this, among other things.
Owen: I think, honestly, it’s been the toughest two weeks of my professional career. And last night was really the first time that I feel like I really broke down, after everything was done and I had the time to grieve. I was also really proud of the special and everything that everyone worked so hard to do, including Wynonna’s team and obviously CMT. You know my history with the Judds — it was the first show I ever saw, and that was why I wanted to bring them back together for this last tour. We’ve been working on it for three years and having all these meetings with Naomi, and in my office, I still kind of picture her being here, telling me what she wanted for certain things. [Laughs.] And it’s been really hard. But…
This is going to sound corny, but I had always felt like my connection to the Judds was really set forth to bring them back on this final tour and let Naomi have one more ride around the sun, really. She loved a show — which is what we wanted to give her on Sunday night. And she wanted to do that tour so bad, and to be with her fans one more time. We’ve had everything lined up perfectly, and what she was doing. And after everything that happened, I was really devastated. I went through all the stages of grief, and I still am a little bit. But I think at the end of the day — you know, I’m looking at this holistically — maybe I was put in their lives at this time for a certain reason. And not the reason I thought it was going to be. And I’m really thankful for that.
CMT is expected to announce several re-broadcasts of “Naomi Judd: A River of Time Celebration” in the coming days. News about the Judds’ planned tour, which will now go on as a Wynonna tour, will be coming this week as well.