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It’s home to a former single mother who became a country music legend; her older daughter, a successful solo singer; and her younger one, Hollywood’s hottest new star. Could there be something in the water?

As daylight fades to early evening, the crisp, lung-tingling Tennessee air cools quickly. Split-rail fences cut like giant black zippers across an emerald plushness that rolls to the horizon. Ashley Judd, whose latest movie shoot has taken her to a half-dozen locations in the past week, has come home for her fix. Flushed, invigorated, the 29-year-old actress bounds into the kitchen of her mother Naomi’s house in Peaceful Valley, the 1,000-acre family homestead an hour from Nashville. Naomi, 51, and Ashley’s half-sister, Wynonna, 33–country’s beloved former duo the Judds–are already setting out their KFC chicken and mashed potatoes on the round dining table, command central curing Judd reunions. “Biggest magnet in the world,” says Naomi with a proud nod as she knocks on the table.

Ashley’s homecoming coincides with the release of her box office blockbuster hit Kiss the Girls, and her career is the subject of serious buzz. “It seems my life is going to be dispersed and peripatetic,” she says, matching her sister’s flair for big-hair outrageousness with big-word loquaciousness. “It’s good to be far from the movie business.”

Not that she’s the only star at the table: Wynonna has a new single and CD, The Other Side, scaling the charts; and Naomi’s Home Companion, a folksy mix of comfort-food recipes and alternative-healing wisdom, is hitting the bookstores. “This is Judd Awareness Month,” Naomi jokes.

And no one is more Judd-aware than Naomi, who clearly rules her roost. These days, the exotic film world that Ashley inhabits–unlike Wy’s familiar gig–has her mother’s intuition working overtime. “I’ve seen her pace quicken to a worrisome degree,” says the youthful, drawling matriarch. “They hate to hear this, but I can read these two. The minute they walk in the door, I know. I’m concerned Ashley is living in an insular fantasy world. So first I had to have my time alone with her, and I asked, `Are you happy?’ And she said, `Absolutely.’” Wynonna cuts in with a well-timed wisecrack: “No, Mom, you asked, `Are you wearing a bra?’”

Peaceful Valley is the ultimate reality check for the Judd women. Naomi and her second husband, Larry Strickland, live on a 500 acre tract that adjoins an equally enormous spread owned by Wynonna, although Wy chooses to live on a farm several miles up the road with her husband, Arch Kelley III, and their children, Elijah, 3, and Grace, 1. Ashley is renovating a house on Wy’s land. Country life and the comfort of family are their touchstones. “I’ve sat at this table when I was going through being pregnant and unmarried,” says Wy, “and when I was No. 1 and everyone was diggin’ me. There are no judgments, no auditions here.” But not to overstate the case: “We are not the Brady Bunch,” says Wy. “We put the fun in dysfunctional.” “We don’t do Ozzie & Harriet,” Ashley notes. “It’s more like The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Mom adds.

The agony goes back to Naomi’s being, she says, a “battered wife, on welfare, raising two high-strung–no, high-spirited–daughters.” In 1983, when she and Wynonna, then 19, signed with RCA, she had no credit or savings, and spent her first paycheck on a garbage-pickup service and a set of hot rollers from Target. Then came the ecstasy: eight years at the top, 14 No. 1 hits, and 20 million albums sold. But the withering pace took its toll, and, behind the airbrushed, sisterly promo shots, there was tension–and disease. In 1990 Naomi, then 44, learned she had chronic, life-threatening hepatitis C, a diagnosis that silenced the Judds and brought her crashing to earth. “I had this M.D. tellin’ me I’m outta here in as little as three years,” she remembers. “First call I made was to a therapist. I just couldn’t tell Wy, `You’ve never been away from me in your life, I may be dying.’”

The years of three-way therapy after Naomi’s retirement marked a turning point. Old wounds stemming from fierce attachments and clashing personalities (“I’m codependent, Ashley’s independent,” Wy says) had to be healed. Indeed, since the early nineties, their lives have flourished: Wynonna is now a giant solo act, and Ashley broke through in 1996 with A Time to Kill. Naomi’s 1993 memoir, Love Can Build a Bridge, was made into a miniseries, and in her now successful quest to wrestle her illness into remission, she began to hang out with mind-body gurus. “I’m very Charles Kuralt,” she says. “My travels and research prove it pays to believe in miracles.”

Having grown closer, the Judds take enormous–and quirky–pleasure in keeping one another in the loop. Wy and Naomi handed out “Ashley 8-by-10s” at a Kiss sneak preview in nearby Franklin, with Ashley available for cell phone chats. Wy once called Naomi from her mom’s favorite fairground stage, in Puyallup, Washington, and had 10,000 fans scream “We love you, Naomi!” Then the whole joint sang “Mama He’s Crazy.” “I broke down,” says Naomi. “I miss the road deep in my bones. Wy’ll call from, say, Topeka, and I’ll know just where the bus is parked. Or I’ll hear a Judds song on the car radio and sing until it takes my breath away. We put so much heart into the music. It was bliss on earth.”

But a very tough act to follow. “My biggest fear was not finding my own place of existence,” Wy explains, “but I did. I don’t want Mom to feel I’m abandoning her, but I don’t want to lose myself anymore in her either. I don’t want to be the Judds. I wanna be Wynonna Alone-a.”

Ashley remains more independent. “I am an extension of [Mom's] dreams, but I lead my own life,” she insists. “I’m not in the business of placating my family.” And she knows Naomi is not all jitters over her success. “When Ashley called from a festival in France, I almost exploded with pride,” says Naomi. “They rolled out the red carpet–she’s got the big movie life.” And there’s also Wy to keep an eye on little sister. “Ashley gets to fly in private jets to Mexico and wear $800,000 of Harry Winston jewels. I’m scared she’ll be in a limo, away from somebody who could give her a noogie and say, `Hey, you’re the same kid I used to know.’”

The evidence hardly shows Ashley losing touch. During dinner she affectionately hops on Wy’s lap and hugs her, then stays there until Wy announces her leg has gone numb. She tells of flying recently from a Nova Scotia location to L.A. for the Kiss premiere: “There were no vegetarian meals aboard, and there was this big debacle about it. So a flight attendant offered me a frozen chickpea sandwich. Here I am, with these so-called accoutrements of success, cracking up with my frozen chickpea sandwich.” (“What kind of word is that?” Wy asks. “Nova Scotia?” Ashley asks back. “No, debacle,” says Wy. “Big word.”)

The most striking changes have occurred in Naomi. Both daughters are inspired by her display of courage and strength. Says Wy: “I’ve seen Mom come home from 10,000 people adoring her and go through agonizing hours alone with just her dogs and the gardener to talk to. I’ve watched her come close to death, and climb a mountain to survive.” The daughters find her lighter and gentler than the hardworking single mom they grew up with. “I just thought she was some kind of a nut case on a bus,” says Wy, “torturing me into understanding life. Now I see she was reacting to some heavy stuff. Music was all she had.” She clearly has much more than that now.

After dinner, Ashley pops a video into the VCR in the roomy dining area. “Mama,” Wy calls out toward the sink, “you’re not gonna like this but you better come look.” Naomi pulls up a stool and stares at a rough cut of Michael Bolton’s new video, “The Best of Love.” As in life, Ashley is playing his love interest. When the buff, newly shorn Bolton grabs her for a sexy surfside clinch, Naomi’s hands clutch her hair in shock. Her jaw drops, eyes widen–and she lets out a shriek of delight. “Mama,” Wy warns, “your daughter’s not a little girl anymore. She’s moved up to video babe. Brace yourself!” The video fades, Naomi hugs Ashley and Ashley high-fives Wy. From the looks of it, Mama is coping just fine.

InStyle – 12/1997

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