An image of Wynonna Judd performing on stage.
Wynonna Judd performing during a tour stop on The Judds: the Final Tour. [Image courtesy of Paramount]

‘The Judds: Love is Alive — The Final Concert’ enshrines Judds’ impact

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – The Judds: Love is Alive — The Final Concert documents Wynonna Judd’s November 3, 2022 performance at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, TN. The concert special is loaded with meaning.

31 years ago, almost to the day, Wynonna and her late mother, Naomi, broke pay-per-view records with 1991’s “Farewell Concert,” hosted in exactly the same venue. The performance marked the end of the mother-daughter duo’s recording career.

2022 was marred by tragedy for the Judds and their fans. On April 30, 2022 – just one day before Wynonna and Naomi were set to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and only six months out from the kick off to their highly anticipated Final Tour, Naomi took her own life. Wynonna bravely forged on with the Final Tour, and several compassionate country music peers — including Martina McBride, Kelsea Ballerini, Little Big Town, Brandi Carlile, and Ashley McBryde — stepped up to fill the absence of Naomi.

All of this poignantly contextualizes The Judds: Love is Alive — The Final Concert. Although the special was filmed amidst the Final Tour dates, the production staged for The Final Concert television special looked (and felt) very different from the Final Tour performances with their mammoth video screens.

Not only does the stage design for The Final Concert bear a purposeful resemblance to the stage design used in the 1991 special; the production overall carries an air of starkness and simplicity that works to spotlight the quality of Naomi’s songwriting – three of her most touching compositions are included — and how The Judds’ classic repertoire will continue to live for long past their closure as a live act.

During a behind-the-scenes interview in the special, Wynonna pays homage to the legions of adoring fans gathered for the show.

“These fans are my family of choice. They’ve been with me for 39 years… and now they’re bringing their kids and their grandkids to the shows, and I literally see four generations sitting in the audience — going through their emotions and feelings because of the music,” she said. “They have their own stories.”

She then performs “Love is Alive.” The selection of this song, following that sound byte, moves me deeply.

When I spoke to Wynonna in the spring of 2022, she said that performing this song during the upcoming tour’s stop in her hometown of Ashland, KY would make her cry because most of her family elders have passed on since she recorded it.

The performance of the song documented for the special comes after losing her mother, and takes place while facing a sea of her “family of choice.” This family includes my godmother, who has been a fan since The Judds’ beginning, accompanied by somebody (yours truly) of the next generation — each of us having created our own stories associated with Wynonna.

An image of Ian Saint and Erin Bowden at the Judds Final Performance.
An image of Ian Saint and Erin Bowden at the Murfreesboro, TN Wynonna performance taped for The Judds: Love is Alive — The Final Concert. [Ian Saint I WOUB]
“Love is Alive” is also significant because Wynonna performs it in the concert special with Little Big Town. This is the track, Wynonna told WOUB in February, that is a highlight to watch Little Big Town accompany her and “bring the house down” with.

“I’m standing there, watching them; I’m looking in from outside, and yet I’m part of the song, and it’s just otherworldly…. It’s otherworldly,” she said. “I feel suspended while I’m standing there singing. I feel like I levitate.”

As someone who attended the Murfreesboro show, my only complaint about the concert special is that it doesn’t feature all the songs that Wynonna and friends performed that night!

There were a few other Judds songs performed, including two #1 songs that weren’t performed at the 1991 concert: “I Know Where I’m Going” and “Cry Myself to Sleep,” the latter of which gave me goosebumps, as Wynonna roared the refrain with the power of channeling lived experiences she’s accrued since recording it at age 21. Wynonna also performed several of her solo hits, including a couple with the guest stars (such as Ashley McBryde joining her for “Rock Bottom”).

In fact, one of the most jaw-dropping moments of the Murfreesboro concert was “No One Else on Earth,” the rocking third consecutive single off Wynonna’s solo debut album to hit #1 on Billboard’s US Hot Country Songs — and the song that Wynonna performed in 1994’s Super Bowl Halftime Show before Naomi joined her for the first Judds musical reunion. Wynonna identifies this song as the one where she boldly asserted her own sound as a solo artist – insisting upon adding elements like the horns — and her pride in its success continued to radiate 30 years later. I’ll never forget how she sang the elongated final note of the chorus with such prowess, that her eyes rolled up in the back of her head.

Therefore, I would love to see a Part II of this concert special. When The Judds performed their farewell concert in December of 1991, Wynonna had already recorded her debut solo album; the first single, “She Is His Only Need,” was released in January of the new year — and she performed it at the Murphy Center, as well, three decades later. It was fascinating to watch Wynonna performing her solo material in the historic venue that’s widely associated with The Judds; and it would be wonderful to see it in film, accompanied by Wynonna sharing her perspective on that experience.

Promotional image for The Judds' final performance concert.
[Image courtesy of Paramount]
Although the final Judds broadcast concert’s set list varied from 1991’s farewell in some ways, they both ended with the same song co-authored by Naomi Judd: “Love Can Build a Bridge.” The significance of ending with a full circle of the two farewells is heightened by how “Love Can Build a Bridge” is also the final song that The Judds performed together, just 19 days before Naomi’s death; and that final performance at the 2022 CMT Music Awards was also the last time that Wynonna saw her mother alive. It was a magnificent swan song for Naomi Judd, and was included in my list of top 2022 music highlights.

Performing “Love Can Build a Bridge” at the Murphy Center without her mother’s presence must’ve been emotionally devastating for Wynonna; but there was not an absence of harmony. All of the country music stars that guested at this show returned to the stage to belt out Naomi Judd’s signature song. I’m reminded of Wynonna telling me, a year ago, that what she misses about 1992 – the year that she went solo – was the absence of a family spirit among country music recording artists of all statures.

“Back then, there was definitely the ‘good old days’ mentality of everybody was just one big community, family…. It was a family reunion. That’s a good way to explain it. And nowadays, it’s like everyone has their own hotel room [at big award shows like CMAs], and we hope that we can all somehow gather together…. So it’s a little bit lonely, I’ll be honest.”

Wynonna didn’t know, when she and I spoke, that she was days away from losing her mother and singing partner. It would’ve been perfectly understandable if she had decided to cancel their final tour; and it certainly would’ve been understandable if she’d decided that returning to the Murphy Center, where millions watched The Judds bid farewell to their recording career in 1991, would be especially heartbreaking. But she decided to show up; and her peers in country music also showed up, to ensure that she wouldn’t have to feel lonely.

Whereas many arena concerts end with oodles of spectacle – fireworks, confetti, fog, etc. – this show ends very simply. Wynonna stands at the end of a catwalk into the audience, and proclaims the coda to her mother’s final song performance: “love and only love.”

Mere presence is the grand finale. It speaks to what Wynonna recently told me about making very simple plans for Valentine’s Day with her daughter: “We’re talking about getting together on Valentine’s Day and making chocolate covered strawberries. Something very simple; and, yet, it’s a real blessing. It’s an honor to be able to be with her, physically, in the same room. And not taking that for granted, if that makes sense. You don’t take for granted once you’ve lost them. So we now have a renewed understanding of what it means to be together. And just in that moment of being together, that’s enough. We don’t have to have a special meal or anything exciting. Just being together is enough.”

Likewise, simply basking in the presence of loved ones was the most fitting way to curtain The Judds’ marquee for the very last time. The Judds’ performing act has come to a terminal end; however, the songs and the memories associated with them will continue to live, and pass on to future generations. Wynonna and crew brilliantly structured The Judds’ final concert broadcast in a way that best enables the songs to endure far beyond the forever farewell.

The Judds: Love is Alive — The Final Concert airs on CMT this Saturday, April 29 at 8 PM EST. It will also become available for streaming through video-on-demand platforms — including on Paramount+, which hosts the “Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah” documentary.