Hall of Fame Honors Kay Clary

Pictured (L-R): Museum Writer/Editor Michael McCall, Randy Scruggs, Gibson Foundation Executive Director Terry Stewart, Kay Clary, Senior Vice President of Public Relations Liz Thiels and Gary Scruggs. Photo by Donn Jones

Pictured (L-R): Museum Writer/Editor Michael McCall, Randy Scruggs, Gibson Foundation Executive Director Terry Stewart, Kay Clary, Senior Vice President of Public Relations Liz Thiels and Gary Scruggs. Photo by Donn Jones.

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”: it’s a metaphor for the career of Kay Clary, who was saluted Wednesday night (Dec. 4) at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Clary’s impact on the Nashville music business began with partners Jack Emerson and Andy McLenon at Praxis International, where the team adopted this line from a Walt Whitman poem as their motto.

Clary was the focus of the Hall’s seventh annual Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum, where she sat down with Michael McCall for a discussion of her career accented by videos, photographs, press clippings, and, of course, music.

Opening the event was Hall executive Liz Thiels, who recapped the career of Louise Scruggs, wife of Earl Scruggs and a pioneer for women in the music business. She was his savvy strategist, serving as booking agent, publicist, manager and negotiator to keep his career in forward motion.

Terry Stewart, the former president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, was on hand to present Clary a guitar on behalf of event sponsor Gibson. Stewart recently took up digs in Nashville.

While introducing Clary, McCall explained that she was “a major force in establishing Nashville’s rock and Americana scene,” and noted her “well earned reputation as a musical tastemaker.” Next he read a letter from Jason Ringenberg, the voice behind Praxis’ first signing, Jason and the Scorchers. Ringenberg, who was on the road and unable to attend, recalled Clary’s “vision and attention to detail it takes to pull off that vision.” Appropriately, Clary walked onstage to the Scorchers’ song “Greetings From Nashville.”

She recounted her lifelong love of music and formative years in New Jersey, where she picked up radio stations from Philadelphia and New York. Her family moved around the country often while she was growing up. Time in Wisconsin resulted in her first music job, where she worked at a record store and poured through Billboard on her lunch breaks. She eventually landed at Belmont to study music business.

In Nashville, she met Praxis’ McLenon and Emerson. The three bonded over a love of classic country and punk rock. The label/management company’s first office was in a basement apartment where a board propped up by guitar amps served as the desk. Clary recalled the excitement and energy of the Praxis days for the crowd in the Hall’s Ford Theater. In the 1980s, Praxis significantly boosted Nashville’s rock and left-of-center scene through its work with artists including Jason and the Scorchers, Georgia Satellites, Billy Joe Shaver and Webb Wilder. Praxis’ clout continued to grow when the Scorchers signed with EMI and Georgia Satellites scored with the major hit “Keep Your Hands To Yourself.”

The onstage projector showed a Nashville Scene cover featuring a photo of Clary shot at Praxis, after it had moved to real office space. Other images included rave reviews about the Scorchers in Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and an early-career postcard from R.E.M. to Clary. The music video for the Scorchers’ “Absolutely Sweet Marie” played, offering a look back at a grittier Nashville.

She and McLenon married and had two daughters before divorcing. Emerson passed away in 2003, and is survived by wife Danna Strong, a longtime staffer at the Americana Music Association.

During her time at Praxis, Clary operated mostly outside of Nashville’s country mainstream, but she developed a handful of professional relationships that would carry her career forward in the post-Scorchers days. BMI was a major supporter of Praxis. Additionally, Kerry O’Neil handled the company’s accounting, and Praxis worked with AristoMedia on music videos. Aristo later hired Clary, who then went on to work at Kathy Best’s FrontPage Publicity before opening her own Commotion PR. Along the way, her passion for music guided her to work with artists she truly admired. She most recently spent seven years at BMI, where she was promoted through the ranks to Executive Director, Media Relations. When the nighttime custodians and security guards knew her by name and even brought her candy, she wondered if it was time for a change. The untimely passing of friend and publicist Jayne Rogovin, and mandolinist Butch Baldassari also contributed to her decision to take a year off. Now, that year is up, and all she said about her next move is that it is “a cornucopia of possibilities.”

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Sarah Skates has worked in the music business for more than a decade and is a longtime contributor to MusicRow.

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