I lost a dear friend, Naomi Judd

I lost a dear friend, Naomi Judd

by Karen Cotton for Country Music News International

Over the weekend I lost a dear friend, Naomi Judd, who made a big impression on me when I was a new journalist. I am heartbroken and in shock.

According to Ashley Judd’s official Twitter account two days ago it stated, “Today we sisters experienced a tragedy. We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness. We are shattered. We are navigating profound grief and know that as we lover her, she was loved by her public. We are in unknown territory.”

May is also Mental Health Awareness month and Naomi’s death affects me so deeply, but more on that later.

I met Naomi Judd and Wynonna on July 21 of 2000 at Cheyenne Frontier Days in the Contract Acts building. I interviewed them earlier in June of 2000 over the phone for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s special section, the Frontier Edition.

The Frontier Edition covered everything related to Cheyenne Frontier Days. I was assigned to cover the Night Show acts because I had a lot of contacts in Nashville.

The Judds appreciated the fact that I wrote everything that they had told me in their interview verbatim, they liked how I treated them over the phone. They also said they wanted to meet me when they came to my town, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

When I met them Naomi was so kind, and so was Wynonna. Naomi was incredibly down to earth, and she just had a warm presence about her. I was very nervous to meet them, but they both put me at ease and it was just nice seeing them in person. I will never forget their beautiful red hair.

They both talked to me for a while backstage in the Contract Acts building. I brought them each a copy of the Frontier Edition that featured their article. They both read my article and they kept one copy and signed the other one and gave it to me. They also asked their assistant for a publicity photo and they signed it and handed it to me. They also handed me good tickets to their Cheyenne Frontier Days concert and they thanked me for being so good to them. I took a photo with them and they had to get to their fans and they were heading to perform soon after that.

That night they performed all of their hits and it was one of the favorite concerts of the many concerts I’ve gotten to experience over my 28-year-long career as an entertainment/arts reporter.

Later on Naomi wrote a cookbook/memoir and sent it to me, not to cover as a story for the newspaper, but as a gift. She also wrote her memoir “Love Can Build a Bridge” and I read it many times cover to cover.

All of these items that were very precious to me are now part of my Karen Cotton collection at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum. They are now out on display for everyone to enjoy. I had an appointment on Wednesday this week to meet with the curator of the museum, Mike Kassel, and we moved it up to today, because of Naomi’s untimely death. I wanted to see my photos and autographs and just grieve. Today I added more materials to my collection that I had found recently while I was unpacking my home office.

I am in the process of writing my memoir with the help of Jeff Arch, who wrote “Sleepless in Seattle” and he is a faculty member of this amazing writing school called the Story Summit that I discovered in 2020 when the world was hard to navigate.

I have struggled with bipolar 1 disorder, PTSD and anxiety for my entire life. I was diagnosed when I was 13 at Primary Children’s Hospital right after my parent’s divorce. A “friend’ at my middle school learned about my diagnosis because her aunt was a nurse at the hospital. That was long before Hippa, and patient privacy was even a thing. Everyone in school made fun of me and everyone treated me differently after they knew about my diagnosis and why I had just missed two weeks of school.

I can relate to what Naomi had been struggling with her entire life because the world at times can be so so incredibly unkind to people who have mental health issues.

Ever since I was ridiculed in middle school I have tried my best to keep that diagnosis hidden from the world. Even more recently as a music major at our local community college I didn’t tell anyone about my diagnosis because there still is such a lousy stigma attached to mental illness.

I struggled with my bipolar disorder this semester, as well as my Type II Diabetes and now a lot of my fellow students and faculty know this about me. And it is so incredibly embarrassing. I try so, so, so hard to be normal. To be perfect. I never cry in front of people, I try really hard to never get angry, I try to stay happy and to always have a smile on my face and be kind and pleasant to everyone. Because I want to be normal and treated normally.

And no matter what kind of medicine you take or you are prescribed, or how much counseling you get, it’s up to you to make sure you stay healthy. And sometimes all a person really needs is just someone to listen to you.

I know Naomi was a spiritual person and so am I. I listen to KLOVE radio and the pastors there and the prayer team members have been so, so helpful to me as I have grieved the loss of so many people in my life, but especially my mother, who I lost three years ago, March 4 of 2019.

I always struggle in the Spring, with the anniversary of my mom’s death, March 4, her birthday April 3 and Mother’s Day, which is coming up quick.

So Wynonna and Ashley, I know what this feels like, and the pastors at KLOVE are there for you and they are so amazing when it comes to helping a person with grief. The songs are uplifting and so helpful.

And I’m here for you, too.

Wynonna, I left you a message on your website contact page and I’m here for you.

Right now I can’t listen to country radio, I can’t be on social media, because Naomi’s death is being talked about everywhere.

One of my dear friends is Shirley King and she is the daughter of blues legend B.B. King, who I also interviewed and met in person. And Wynonna and Ashley, Shirley could possibly help you navigate this profound loss.

I’ve been a journalist for 28 years and I’ve interviewed so many people. But Naomi was just special. She was kind, and understanding and I can’t believe she isn’t here anymore.

I’m writing a song right now called “Watch Me Shine.” My song writing coach and mentor, Brandon Gibbs, is helping me. It’s about my struggle with mental illness and how my friends and family have really helped me through all of the highs and lows of life and everything in between.

And recently Jimmie Allen wrote a song about his struggle with mental illness.

Mental illness is something that needs to be talked about more and people shouldn’t feel ashamed about it.

Mental health is a real medical condition. For me with my bipolar disorder I have a chemical imbalance in my brain and I’m missing a dopamine receptor. And I was born that way. My mother and my grandmother both had bipolar disorder. It’s a genetic condition.

And seriously people who are struggling with mental health issues just need someone to listen to them.

It shouldn’t be something that’s shameful to talk about or to be labeled with.

Anxiety and panic attacks feel like a heart attack. I recently saw my doctor and thought I was having a heart attack, yet my heart rate was normal, everything was normal about me and I am in perfect health, but my sides hurt, my back hurt, my head hurt, I was dizzy and all it was, was anxiety.

Depression hurts, too. But I always talk to people when I’m struggling and get help, too. I have too much to live for and goals to achieve, but I just wish people would treat me like I was normal. Because something I have learned is everyone is battling something and none of us are perfect.

And I’ve interviewed thousands of people from all walks of life. One thing that I have learned is it doesn’t matter how famous you are, or how much money you have. All that matters is that you know that you are loved, you are accepted, and that God loves you and created you just the way you are for a reason. And everyone has something special to offer the world. And readers of Country Music News International, Naomi was special and she is so missed, already.

Wynonna and Ashley, I don’t know what else to say, know I know your pain, that grief isn’t easy, it doesn’t ever really go away, but one thing I do know is that making music helps me so much, which is why it comes easily to me. That singing is free, that it makes you feel happy, that playing instruments and performing with other people also make you happy. That the gift of music is beautiful and with great pain and suffering comes joy, peace and happiness. And I am sure you’re going to be making one hell of a good tribute album for your mother in the days and years to come. And we will all be here for you and we can’t wait to hear it.

I wish I could give you both a hug. I will always remember the hug both you, Wynonna and your mom gave me when I was having some struggles of my own back in 2000 with my bipolar disorder.  It wasn’t up until now that I even felt comfortable telling people about my struggles with mental health issues and I just turned 46 on April 5. And I don’t know what else to say, except I’m here for you both and I wish people could be more kind to people who struggle with mental health because that’s half of the struggle right there. It’s a hard struggle. But the things that help me are beautiful sunsets, my animals, my family, my daughter, nature, sports, art, photography, but the biggest thing that has always helped me is music. Music is the one universal language that is out there and “Love can build a bridge …”

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