Guideposts Classics: Naomi Judd on Stepping Out in Faith

In this story from January 2003, musician and author Naomi Judd recalls how faith led her to a successful career and helped her cope with a hepatitis C diagnosis.

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Musician and author Naomi Judd; photo by Harry Langdon

Once liver disease forced me to retire from my country music career in 1991 I thought people wouldn’t be interested in my life anymore. Turns out they have more questions than ever.

Folks always ask: How did a girl from sleepy little Ashland, Kentucky, who’d nev­er sung a note in public, end up performing concerts all across America? How did a single mom who just wanted to find steady work become a country music star? How did I keep from losing my spirit when I lost the career I loved? How did I find healing from a devastating chronic illness?

The answers are really different verses of the same song. The song of faith, of believing, of seeing not with the eyes, but with the mind and heart and soul.

The first verse came to me in the spring of 1975, af­ter I’d moved back to Kentucky with my daughters, Wynonna, 10, and Ashley, 6. I needed to put the troubles of the last six years in Los Angeles be­hind me—a divorce from the girls’ dad (whose job had taken us to California), a string of dead-end jobs (all I could get without a college degree), a stint on welfare.

I wanted to give my girls the stable upbringing they deserved. Where better to do that than in the Kentucky hills where my roots were?

We stayed in a dirt-cheap rental cabin near Berea while I start­ed my nursing school classes. I promised Wy and Ashley, “This is just until we find a place of our own.” Except, six months lat­er we were still there.

Had I uprooted my girls for nothing? One day in May when they were at school, I turned on the radio, opened the window and sat down on a blan­ket right outside so I could listen to music while I studied. The Stanley Brothers’ achingly beautiful bluegrass tunes came on. I closed my eyes and drifted back to my childhood, back to the days when God was as real as our house at 2237 Montgomery Av­enue.

Lord, even if I can’t lay eyes on you, I still know you’re real, I prayed. So I’m going to believe the same with this home we’re searching for. I will hold on to this image in my heart—a cozy little house in the hills—and have faith that you’ll lead us to it.

The following evening the girls and I were driving through Berea when we saw an elderly woman slip and fall. We stopped to check on her. She’d twisted her ankle badly, and the aspiring nurse in me insisted we take her to the emergency room. We got to talking, and I confided my difficulty in finding a home.

The next day I found a note in my mailbox at nursing school from Mar­garet Allen, a friend of the woman we’d stopped to help. Mrs. Allen had a house she wanted to show me.

Her directions took us to the tiny town of Morrill. We turned off Big Hill Road and at the crest of a knoll stood a two-story house with a big front porch and apple trees dotting the yard. An elderly lady stepped out and introduced herself as Margaret Allen. “Welcome to Chanticleer,” she said. “Your new home.”

I was speechless. “It’s com­pletely furnished, linens, dish­es, silverware, everything. . . . ” she said. “Come, I’ll show you.”

Inside, the house was even loveli­er, like something out of a fairy tale, filled with antiques. “Mrs. Allen, we couldn’t possibly afford to rent this place!” I gasped.

“Could you afford one hundred dollars a month?” she asked. “I don’t need the money, just the right people to have it.”

We moved into Chanticleer in June, and it was there on that big front porch we discovered something that would change our lives. Some­one had given me an old guitar, and just for fun I brought it out. Wynonna took to the guitar like a bee to honeysuckle, returning to it again and again.

I bought Wy her own guitar, a used but nice instrument. I unearthed an old bluegrass album by Hazel and Al­ice in the used bin at a record store. Two women singing, their voices blending in a way that sent shivers up our spines. That was the sound of our Kentucky hills!

Wy and I taught ourselves every song on that record. Strange thing was, I’d never sung before, not even in church—I’d felt too shy to do more than mouth the hymns. But on the porch with Wyn­onna, a voice I never knew I had came out, harmonizing naturally with hers, a musical expression of our family bond. The first song we learned all the way through was “A Mother’s Smile.”

It wasn’t till four years later that I learned the second verse of my own song of faith. By then I knew music was Wy’s gift, her destiny. My job was to go with her and make sure it didn’t become her downfall too. I’d started writing songs for us to sing together, and we moved to Nashville—Music City, USA—on the condition that she finish high school.

I house-sat while we looked for a place in the countryside to rent. I had to wait for my Tennessee nursing certification to come in, so I took a low-paying job as an assis­tant to a booking agent on Music Row.

One Friday night that summer of 1979 Larry Strickland, an amazing bass singer whose band my boss managed, asked me out. Since I didn’t go to bars or clubs, I suggested we check out an old property I’d heard about in Franklin, just outside Nashville. We stood in the moonlight looking at the neglected house and just talked. Then he kissed me softly and that was it. I was head over heels.

Sunday after church I called Lar­ry on the road only to find he was out with another woman. My heart broke. That night the person I was house-sit­ting for told me he would be returning soon, and we’d have to move on. I felt so defeated. No partner, no real job, no place to call home. Had I dragged us right back into the mess I’d worked so hard to get us away from?

That’s when I remembered a verse from Hebrews I’d heard in church that morning: “Now faith is the sub­stance of things hoped for, the evi­dence of things not seen.”

God, I’m going to believe that all the dreams I have in my heart are as real as you are, I prayed. Our own home, with everything in it working. A car that didn’t clank, smoke or break down. A job that would leave me enough to buy my daughters Christmas pres­ents. And finally, the wildest dream of all, a career in country music.

I pictured the future I hoped for. I formed a clear image of it in my mind. Then I set about making it happen. I stepped out in faith and rented the run-down house in Franklin for three hundred and fifty dollars a month. The girls and I fixed it up, one thing at a time. And with a lot of talking and praying, Larry and I patched things up too.

My nursing certification came in that winter. I signed up with a nurs­es’ registry so I would have flexibili­ty in my work schedule to check out music-related opportunities. Like sweet-talking a local TV producer into letting Wynonna and me perform on the early morning Ralph Emery Show on February 11, 1980. We became reg­ulars on the show.

One of my patients, a teenager recovering from a car ac­cident, recognized me from TV. She introduced me to her dad, record producer Brent Maher. I mustered up the nerve to give him a demo tape Wyn­onna and I had made on our Kmart tape recorder. Right away Brent un­derstood our unique sound. He and manager Ken Stilts, Sr., landed us an unprecedent­ed live audition with RCA Re­cords.

On March 2, 1983, in the RCA board­room, Wy and I reached back to our roots, to the very first song we’d learned, “A Mother’s Smile.” Like the old days on our front porch, our voices came together in perfect harmony. Forty-five minutes later, we were officially RCA record­ing artists!

Seven years on top of the country music world—that’s what Wynonna and I were blessed with. Then in 1990 my body fell apart and I would have too, if I hadn’t discovered the third verse of my lifelong song. The symp­toms started with headaches and de­bilitating exhaustion. Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed.

Wy and I had to cancel one concert after anoth­er. Blood tests showed I had hepatitis C, a chronic and sometimes fatal liver disease that I’d most likely contracted from an accidental needle stick in my nursing days.

Treatment with the antiviral drug interferon didn’t work, and my weak­ened system couldn’t take the stress of touring. I had no choice. I would have to give up the career I loved. There would be no more making music. No more chasing dreams. What if you don’t live to see your daughters get married? The fears taunted me. What if you never know your grand­children?

I went right to a children’s store and started grabbing christening gowns and baby blankets for Wy and Ashley to save for their kids. Maybe it was touching those things, so con­crete and real, that made me remem­ber the song, the faith, that had saved me before. I called our church elders to set up a prayer healing.

That night they anointed me with oil, and I claimed my healing, just like I’d claimed all the other dreams God had put in my heart. Lord, from now on I will focus not on my illness but on the restoration of my health. On both Wynonna and me coming out of this whole.

Knowing God had the power to make all of that real, I went on our 1991 Farewell Tour. My liver function continued to be monitored, but no longer with any fear about the results. I took my final bows with Wynonna on December 4, feeling completely at peace.

And so I remain, living in harmo­ny with God’s ongoing vision for me. Which is as real as my 11-year-long remission from hepatitis C. As real as Wy’s success as a solo artist and Ash­ley’s as an actress. As real as the books I’ve written and the TV shows I’ve done since my “retirement.” As real as the Sunday dinners Larry and I have at home at Peaceful Valley, the farm we share with Ashley and her hus­band, Dario Franchitti, and Wynonna and her two kids, the grandchildren I once thought I would never live to see. As real as the vision that fills my mind, heart and soul—of a loving God with his arms wrapped around my life.

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