Wynonna Judd on ‘ugly-crying’ at Joni Mitchell surprise show

Forty-eight hours after she performed Sunday with Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival, Wynonna Judd couldn’t quite wrap her mind around what she’d taken part in.

“I’m still like: What the heck just happened?” the veteran country star said Tuesday of Mitchell’s first full public concert since she suffered a debilitating aneurysm in 2015. Unannounced in advance, the legendary singer-songwriter’s return to the stage — in which Mitchell, who sang and played guitar, was accompanied by a cast of friends and admirers including Judd, Brandi Carlile, Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Allison Russell, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius — went instantly viral online due in large part to a video shot by a fan that shows Mitchell singing her classic “Both Sides Now” as Judd, positioned right behind her, goes through what appears to be every conceivable emotion separating joy and pain.

“I know I was ugly-crying most of the time, and I’m not thrilled about that,” Judd, 58, said with a laugh. “Who would be? But I feel like I was there to be a messenger of how precious life is because of my mother,” she added of Naomi Judd, who died from suicide in April. “Joni was the soundtrack of my childhood — she’s my hero — and Brandi invited me to come and be a witness to her incredible journey.

“I wasn’t there to perform, I was there to be,” Judd said, noting that her trip to Rhode Island marked the first time she’d flown from her home in Nashville since the beginning of the pandemic. “It was magic — like death and life at the same time.”

Mitchell’s set at Newport — where the 78-year-old last sang in the late 1960s, just before the string of fierce and tender albums, “Blue” and “Court and Spark” among them, that would make her a superstar — was meant to replicate the so-called Joni Jams she’s held at her home in Bel-Air since the aneurysm that made it difficult for her to move and to use her voice. The beret-clad singer and Carlile — who’s made a mission of publicly celebrating Mitchell over the last few years, including with live performances of “Blue” and with her role spearheading April’s MusiCares Person of the Year tribute — sat in glittering armchairs, surrounded by their collaborators as they ran through about a dozen songs including “Carey,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Help Me” and “The Circle Game.”

Mitchell’s voice was softer than in the past, her famously idiosyncratic phrasing slightly less certain. But as Judd’s reaction vividly captured, the feeling in her musicianship ran strong and true, not least when she took up an electric guitar for a spirited rendition of “Just Like This Train.”

So how did such a moving moment come together?

According to Jay Sweet, Newport’s executive producer, it all began with a boat ride and a bottle of tequila. That’s a post-show tradition he and Carlile have shared since 2018, when Carlile headlined the festival and the two old friends took to the water afterward to discuss what they might do together in the future.

“Brandi looked at me and said, ‘One year from now we’ll be on this boat toasting the fact that we brought Dolly Parton to Newport,’” Sweet recalled. “And I laughed in her face.” But indeed the country legend performed in 2019 with Carlile and her group the Highwomen. After that gig, Sweet said, “I was like, ‘Well, we got Dolly — next year we’re f—. And we were because of COVID.” (Carlile declined to comment for this article.)

Like virtually all music festivals, Newport was called off in 2020, but it returned in 2021 with an acclaimed show-closing throwdown featuring Allison Russell, Chaka Khan, Yola and other Black women. On the boat later with Sweet, Carlile (who’d come as a fan and whose Looking Out Foundation helped bankroll Russell’s jam session) told her pal she wanted to perform at the festival again in 2022 — and that she had another special guest in mind.

“I said, ‘Who you got?’” Sweet said. “She goes, ‘We’re gonna get Joni back.’”

Sweet was excited but skeptical. “That’s not just manifesting somebody who’s out on the road or is just too big or too cool for school to come do it,” he said. “You’re talking about a serious physical challenge.” Still, he was inspired by the idea of Mitchell’s returning to one of the spots where she began her ascent. “If she’s gonna learn how to walk and how to sing and how to play guitar again — if she’s gonna come back to the stage — maybe it happens at the place where it all started,” he said.

Yet those involved say they weren’t sure the performance would actually go down until it did.

Mills, a Joni Jams regular known for his work with acts like Fiona Apple and Alabama Shakes, said Mitchell’s progress in the private gigs at her house has been steady but incremental.

“Every step of the way she’s surprised us all with what she’s capable of doing,” he said. For the most part her development has been focused on her voice, Mills added. But about a year ago, Kathy Bates, the Oscar-winning actress, turned up at a Joni Jam with a gift for Mitchell: “a beautiful, ornate, custom electric guitar,” according to Mills. “Joni was so touched that she held it in her lap. She hadn’t played since the aneurysm. But we put it in a tuning for her — I think it was open D, which is the tuning for ‘Come in From the Cold’ — and she started to strum.

“She has a unique right-hand posture — it’s more like a bass player — and the motion seemed foreign to her,” Mills continued. “It was like she was relearning it.” In an interview at Newport, Mitchell told CBS News that she’d been watching old videos of herself to figure out how to play her songs; eventually, “Come in From the Cold” became a part of the Joni Jams set list, which led her to relearn “Just Like This Train” and “Sex Kills.” Within the past couple of weeks, Mills said, Carlile had quietly assembled a team of musicians for Newport and had begun telling them which songs to be prepared to perform.

The festival gig was billed as Brandi Carlile and Friends; Sweet said the original idea was simply to have the musicians interpret Mitchell’s songs as a way to honor her. “Then it was like, ‘What if we could manage to get Joni onstage?’” Sweet said. “‘What if we built a living room and put a couch and a bottle of wine up there? What if we could get her to play the guitar?’”

An all-hands rehearsal last Friday night was a test run. “Joni came in and we all watched her stand up and put her guitar on, the Parker Fly, and my jaw just hit the floor,” Mills said. Sweet walked into the rehearsal to find Carlile and Mumford singing “A Case of You” with Mitchell — the plan was to have them take over lead vocals if Mitchell faltered — and found it all too much. “It was like hearing the ultrasound of your first child or something,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it. I had to leave.” Everyone agreed Mitchell sounded great, though they kept themselves open to the possibility that she might not have felt up to the challenge by Sunday.

“It’s kind of like going fishing,” Mills said. “You’re hoping you’re gonna be in the right place at the right time. We all were ready until the last minute to go up there and perform Joni songs for Joni, and I think something about that may have made it a more comfortable reentry into a public space.”

With Mitchell in good spirits before showtime, “The joy backstage was palpable,” Judd said. “I ended up in a dressing room with Joni and Brandi for an hour, and I was on my knees in front of her, putting sparkles on her face.” During the gig, Mills said he was amazed at the new harmonies Mitchell seemed to be coming up with on the fly — “inventing a new vocal role for Joni Mitchell in Joni Mitchell music,” as he put it. He added that, in rehearsal, Mitchell had played guitar for a verse and a chorus in “Just Like This Train.” “But on the day of show she did three verses and kept going. It was like being on a roller coaster: ‘Oh, wow, this is going around again.’”

Asked what she was thinking about as Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now,” Judd said she remembered herself singing the song “as a little girl, has no idea what’s going to happen in life, at her eighth-grade graduation.” She paused. “My mother committed suicide. I’m by myself. But I felt like I was in eighth grade again and my mom was gonna come in my room and tell me to do my chores.

“I wanted to jump into the audience I was so overwhelmed.”

The reaction in the crowd was nearly as intense, at least in part because Mitchell’s performance was a surprise. Sweet said the Newport staff has gotten good at keeping secrets, as with Parton in 2019. (Paul Simon also made an unannounced appearance at this year’s festival, performing Saturday with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.) The festival crew even used a code name, Coyote, while planning Mitchell’s gig.

The vibe after the show was “a party — pure celebration,” Sweet said. “A gazillion group photos.”

“Nobody wanted to leave,” said Judd. “I ended up next to Taylor Goldsmith, who I didn’t even know, but I texted him and now we’re besties.”

And did Carlile and Sweet share their annual tequila when it was all over?

“Yep,” Sweet said while declining to relay what they might have envisioned for next year. “But I can tell you the words were: ‘Now we’re all doubly f—.’”