In an ultimate show-must-go-on moment in country music history, Wynonna Judd was not about to let the legacy of the Judds slip quietly into the sunset, rather than go out as spectacularly as intended, after her mother, Naomi Judd, died by suicide in April 2022. And so the Judds farewell tour that had been scheduled for last fall did proceed, against all probabilities, with a bevy of top stars trading places as Naomi’s stand-in each night. The emotional end of that road was captured for not just one but two new specials premiering on different Paramount platforms — “Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah,” a feature-length documentary that debuted Wednesday on Paramount+, and “The Judds: Love Is Alive — The Final Concert,” a two-hour performance special bowing tonight on CMT.
With the on-air premieres of the doc and concert special being spaced a few days apart, Judds fans don’t have to consume them both in one fell swoop, but the biggest devotees of the history-making mother/daughter duo may well make a “Girls Night Out” binge out of the two programs anyway.
No one will be punished for picking their own viewing order, but CMT’s Margaret Comeaux, one of the executive producers of the concert film, suggests starting with the doc and saving the live show for dessert. “I think that’s probably the preferred order,” Comeaux says, “because I think the story that the doc is telling of the whole year leads us to the final story we’re telling in the concert special, with the culmination in Murfreesboro.” That’s the Tennessee city where Judd and all the guest stars who appeared along last fall’s tour routing converged for a show that was meant to more or less recreate the Judds’ famous original farewell concert back in 1991, shot on the same stage.
Both projects will prove enticing not just to fans of the Judds but to followers of the performers who are seen joining Wynonna as co-frontwomen: Brandi Carlile, Kelsea Ballerini, Martina McBride, Ashley McBryde, Faith Hill and Little Big Town. (Make that co-frontwomen and -frontmen in the case of the latter co-ed vocal quartet.)
Carlile, who has characterized herself as one of the Judds’ all-time megafans since childhood, was particularly instrumental in being a sort of spiritual cheerleader for Wynonna, before and during the tour.
Says Jason Owen, the head of Nashville media powerhouse Sandbox Entertainment and an exec producer on both projects: “I’m being honest when I say I could not have done this tour without her. I mean, she was a confidante. She and I talked through a lot as we were talking through songs and making sure everyone was healthy and happy. And her energy is just infectious. From the very beginning, she felt very strongly that Wynonna should do the tour, and she was very vocal about that with all of us. And we all started building this idea of the tour with a guest (each night) off of Brandi, and that’s how it started. But throughout the process, she was there. It was very important for me that she be the first guest — and it was very important to me — because I knew that she cared so much about the music and cared so much about Wynonna. Not that all of them did not, because they did, but she was like a beacon, and wanted to make sure everything was really right and perfect for Wy, mostly musically.”
Even before Naomi died and plans changed in the biggest possible way, there had always been a plan to film a documentary about what had been booked as the Judds’ second farewell tour. Owens’ Sandbox had hooked up with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine — specifically Sara Rea, who runs unscripted — at about the time the Judds appeared on the 2022 CMT Music Awards to sing “Love Will Build a Bridge” and promote the coming reunion tour.
After Naomi died, virtually everything that had been planned went on — including the filming projects — albeit always with a check-in to Wynonna and her team to make sure they were on board, and with obvious constant acknowledgements of the void at the center of things, or at a half-center. Unforgettably, Wynonna showed up to accept the duo’s Country Music Hall of Fame medallion at a ceremony just two days after the death. At a musical memorial televised by CMT from the Ryman Auditorium, Wynonna announced the tour would go on, with Carlile — a key duet partner at the event — seen in the third row literally leaning forward in her seat with enthusiasm for the idea.
Wynonna may come off as the ultimate super trouper, but the documentary reveals chinks in that armor along the way, or at least moments where the singer plainly owns up to not yet having come to terms with her mother’s death. One of the first scenes has Wynonna entering a room in her mother’s house full of gold records and other career artifacts for the first time since Naomi died. Later, there’s a scene on a bus where she and sister Ashley Judd look at some old pictures, with the latter sibling admitting she hadn’t been able to look at family photos until then.
Probably the most talked-about scene comes mid-tour, when deepening anxiety about staging issues leads Wynonna to get on an emergency Zoom call with her therapist to deal with the real underlying issues. She says that every time she drives by her mother’s house, which is often, she flashes back to the day she was called over, and the traumatic imagery of being in the room with her dying mom. Her biggest regret, she says feistily, is that she didn’t punch the cop who held her back from kissing her mother before she passed, and that it was only after Naomi was declared dead that she was able to kiss her on the forehead.
“That was a hard day of filming,” says Patty Ivins Specht, the director of the “Between Hell and Hallelujah” doc. “It was a fascinating day, because that (therapy session) was not scheduled. She woke up that day and sincerely needed to have a session with David Kessler for her grief therapy because she was just feeling it so deeply. First of all, the entire crew is crying on some level, because it’s very emotional to listen to somebody relive their worst day of their life. And then it was another moment where she went into that very personal trauma of replaying the driving over (to the house), every time. She’s like, ‘I just can’t stop that loop in my brain.’ Sometimes when you’re making a movie like this, it is such a trust fall, and Wy just trusted that we were gonna capture the process and was free with how she felt, and I think everyone in the room filming it feels that responsibility when someone trusts you with their vulnerability.
“I look at that scene and she’s a woman who’s legitimately in a painful hour in time and she’s asking for help. And she’s kind of trying to ignore that these cameras are here. But watching somebody model processing their grief is also really empowering, because in our society, we don’t talk about death. You do the funeral, you move along, and then you still live with that grief for years. And so I think in a powerful way, her modeling how she’s processing this grief is really one of the gifts of this film.”
The anxiety for Judd comes about in a somewhat symbolic way, at first, starting with the very practical matter of the artist having difficulty with the opening gambit of the tour. She would be snuck out each night in a rolling equipment cabinet to start each concert on a “B stage,” apart from the band or any guests back on the main stage — and, in some kind of deeply Freudian way, separated from the union with her mother that the main stage represents. It doesn’t help that Judd is described by others as being more claustrophobic than anyone else they know even on an elevator.
“I really fought for that B stage and wanted this epic opening,” says Owen. “You know how I love a production. I wanted this really big kind of reveal at the beginning, and we sort of played with that idea through rehearsals, and she was really game for it. But ultimately it became, for the beginning of the tour, this thing of, is she going to be able to do this or not? I kept saying, ‘We can kill it, if it’s causing this much stress on whether or not the lift works, or worried about going up and down in the dark. Because it is scary, to her credit. Ultimately she realized that it was really working for the emotion she was finding with the fans by herself in that moment, before everything was on the main stage. But it was a constant battle, and I’m not a therapist, but I think a lot of the anxiety was really coming from a different place than just the B stage.”
As for capturing Wynonna’s first visit to her mother’s home after the tragedy, says Ivins Spect, “It illustrates this thing that happens with Wynonna, where I think she has this kind of unspoken contract with her fans that she just gives it up. Because even when she said yes to us, that we could go with her that day, I mean, we weren’t so sure she’d say yes, but no, she was all for it. … The sensitive thing is, leading with your intuition a little bit in those times, but really our job is to always ask. That actually is our job, to ask — in humility and kindness — to ask the uncomfortable questions all the time. There’s so much give and take, and she gives so much. There’s a moment (in the film) where she goes, ‘OK, I think I did it.’ Like, ‘That’s all I can do today.’ But she generally tries to say yes, and then she’ll find a boundary at some point.”
One reason Owen bonded so well with Carlile is that he, too, was a Judds megafan since childhood. He will allow that a VHS tape of the 1991 Judds farewell special was one of his most prized, if not worn-out, possessions. (Naomi Judd said that she was retiring at the time, after their run of ’80s smashes, because of her hepatitis-C diagnosis, although she participated in short or one-off reunions over the following three decades.) That farewell show had been filmed at Middle Tennessee State University, and it was Owen’s idea to recreate the show back at that original site — though it was not the original plan.
“I remember Margaret and I having a phone conversation as we were trying to plan this concert special,” Owen recalls, “and the original plan was that we were going to do it in Lexington, Kentucky,” where the last show was to take place on the original fall 2022 tour routing. “Kentucky made sense because they were obviously from Kentucky, and that was where we were going to wrap the tour. We had blocked off seating for it, we had done camera holds, we did everything. Long story short, Wynonna wanted to continue the tour and continue to do another run of dates,” which would extend the actual finale to months down the line. “And then, with Margaret and I brainstorming on the phone, I said, ‘What if we do it there, at MTSU?’ Within eight hours, we had that.. … At the college, there was tons of faculty and people that worked there for a long period of time that were all there when they shot that special, believe it or not. And when we pitched them on this idea, they went through every hoop imaginable to make sure it happened.
“And then Wynonna, it had been a long time since she had seen that special. I said, ‘I really need you to go back and watch that special. Please.’ She was like, ‘It’s gonna be really hard, but I will.’ She said later to me that she was really grateful that she did that, because when she walked in those hallways, and especially backstage in those corridors, it brought back so many memories. And when she saw the Judds sign in lights (a la 1991), I think that was really emotional for her, too.”
It wasn’t just Carlile among the guests who was able to have an emotional impact on Judd. Comeaux remembers a spontaneous moment in rehearsal, captured in the doc, when Faith Hill began serenading Judd on stage with an a cappella version of “You Are Not Alone,” with the band eventually joining in. The documentary crew was on the opposite side of the venue, filming an interview with Tim McGraw, but they had made contingency plans to leave one camera near the star at all times, and a producer was able to pick it up and capture the moment. “Wy, at the beginning of every show, is very much in a zone of ‘I want to service all the fans who are coming,’ and as anyone is, you’re in game mode — you’ve gotta see the vision of the end. And so when Faith begins this beautiful rendition, I mean, everybody on stage had a lump in their throat, and Wynonna pulls out a funny and says, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ But it’s a beautiful moment in the movie.”
But it’s hard to overstate Carlile’s impact, even on the tour dates that came after her initial appearance at the first ones. Says Ivins Spect, “At the kickoff concert, it was one day of load-in, a little bit of rehearsal that late afternoon into the evening, and then the next day was another rehearsal, and then the first show was that Friday night. So it’s Thursday, 4 or 5 o’clock, and it’s a big freaking day — stressful, everything’s getting built, and things aren’t coming together as quickly as possible, as with every production you ever work on.” Owen concurs, “That first weekend of shows was very stressful. Things go wrong. We have to change things; I’m yelling at some lighting guy. It’s tough.”
And then, says the director, “I can tell you, the moment Team Brandi rolled in, Wy was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna be good.’ Like, ‘I have Brandi on stage. She’s as invested in this being a success for me, as an individual woman, as she is for all the fans who love the Judds so much.’ And I think the planning of Brandi being first is kind of an unspoken tribute to why this is such a success. It transcended being about all the anxiety around what Wynonna was about to do, and it went back to the place of celebration and joy, and Brandi helped Wy access that peace in herself. That’s what I witnessed.” Adds Owen, “She helped me too, honestly, because I was very emotional through it, because I cared so much and it was such a rollercoaster of a year. Again, I really would say wholeheartedly, I could not have done this without her.”
The Judds-celebrating tour stuck mostly to the middle of the country, even with the added dates, missing the coasts. Could there be any rectifying that?
“I have a petition to get her to the Greek” in Los Angeles, says Comeaux. “I want to see Wynonna at the Greek.”
Maybe that will happen eventually, but not under this banner. “There’s nothing (further) scheduled for that,” Owen says. “I think that that was the end of the Judds tour. Unfortunately for all of us.”