By Robert K. Oermann
Country Music Hall of Fame member Jo Walker-Meador passed away on Tuesday evening (Aug. 15), following a stroke. She was 93.
Her grace and guidance as the 30-year executive director of the Country Music Association (CMA) served as a role model for a generation of women in the Nashville music business. Furthermore, she piloted the CMA from its struggling infancy to becoming a powerful force in America’s music industry.
There were fewer than 100 full-time country radio stations when she was hired by the CMA in 1958. By the time she retired, there were in excess of 2,000, more than any other music format. Under her leadership, the CMA built a Country Music Hall of Fame, launched the CMA Music Festival and inaugurated annual the CMA Awards telecast.
She was born Edith Josephine Denning in Orlinda, TN and initially had the career goal of becoming an English teacher and/or a women’s basketball coach. After college, she married WKDA radio executive Charles F. “Smokey” Walker in 1954.
She worked as a secretary in a gubernatorial political campaign, for the Nashville movie-theater chain Crescent Amusements and at a variety of other businesses before she took the job as office manager for the then-new CMA in late 1958.
The organization had been born out of the ashes of the Country Music Disc Jockey Association, founded in 1953. WSM radio’s Harry Stone was the first executive director, but the organization couldn’t afford to pay him.
Jo Walker-Meador was hired as the “girl Friday,” the executive assistant who did bookkeeping, typing and general office-running work. In 1959, she organized a CMA banquet, which eventually was spun off into a number of annual events presented by the organization.
After Stone left in 1959, Minnie Pearl exhorted the CMA board to hire Jo as executive director because she was already essentially doing the job. Jo later ruefully recalled that she was hired because no man would work for so low a salary.
She officially assumed the paid executive-director job in 1962. Then came an aggressive campaign to convince radio stations that they should adopt the country format. Her diplomacy background in politics served her well as she navigated through a music business she initially knew little about.
The first Country Music Hall of Fame inductees were announced in 1961 – Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose. This became the organization’s first annual ritual. In 1966, the CMA successfully marketed an all-star album of country music’s biggest hits to raise funds for a Hall of Fame building. It was sold via TV, and was one of the first telemarketing music successes. The Hall of Fame building opened on Music Row on April 1, 1967. That fall, Smokey Walker passed away, making his widow the primary breadwinner for her family. Also in 1967, the CMA began a second annual ritual, the presentation of the CMA Awards.
Jo Walker-Meador and leaders on the CMA board went to ad agencies and network television to convince them that their ceremony was worth becoming a TV special. In 1968, the CMA Awards became the first music honors presented on national television. It has been a ratings blockbuster ever since.
The annual Grand Ole Opry Birthday celebration began in 1952. It evolved into the Country Disc Jockey Convention, rebranded in 1969 as Country Radio Seminar. Organizers were concerned that country fans were showing up to this industry event to star gaze. In response, Jo Walker-Meador and her CMA founded Fan Fair in 1972.
Initially held at Municipal Auditorium, it attracted little attention that first year. To boost the crowd, Jo reached out to the Fort Campbell army base with free passes. Thanks to the soldiers who came, attendance at that first Fan Fair was roughly 5,000.
She married Nashville businessman Bob Meador in 1981. The CMA’s annual fan celebration moved to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in 1982. By the time it moved to downtown Nashville in 2001, it was attracting 25,000 annually. Now known as the CMA Music Festival, it has more than 88,000 participants. It became a network TV special in 2004. Jo Walker-Meador attended every year, including in 2016.
There were only 200 members of the CMA when it was born. Under Jo’s leadership, membership swelled to more than 7,000 and the CMA became known as “the world’s most active trade association.” Although she retired from the CMA in 1991, Jo Walker-Meador continued to make appearances at Nashville music-industry events.
She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and was present for every successive Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony for other inductees. Jo Walker-Meador was given the Cecil Scaife Visionary Award in 2013. Husband Bob Meador accompanied her when she was presented with a star in the Music City Walk of Fame in 2008. He died in early 2015.
Jo Walker-Meador is survived by her brother Pete Denning, daughter Michelle Walker, stepchildren Karen Meador and Rob Meador.