Ken Stilts, a prominent country music artist manager and record label executive of the 1980s and 1990s, has died at age 81. Stilts is best known as the former manager of The Judds and as the owner of Dimension Records.
He was a Nashville native who made his fortune in industrial manufacturing. His S&S Industries built wrap-around insulation for water heaters during the energy crisis of the 1970s. His first music client was singer-songwriter Eddy Raven.
Stilts formed Dimension in 1979 to market Raven’s discs. The singles “Dealin’ With the Devil,” “You’ve Got Those Eyes,” “Another Texas Song” and “Peace of Mind” all made the country Top 40 in 1980-81. Stilts leveraged this into an Elektra contract for Raven.
Dimension scored its first top-10 hit with “It Don’t Hurt Me Half as Bad” by Ray Price in 1981. “Diamonds in the Stars” repeated its success the following year.
The company also had “Innocent Lies” as a top-20 comeback hit for Sonny James in 1982.
Stilts provided financial support for The Judds while his then-partner Woody Bowles secured the mother-daughter duo a recording contract with RCA/Curb in 1983. The Judds nicknamed Stilts “Big Daddy.”
He became their sole manager as The Judds became a multi-million selling, award-winning act in 1983-91. He gave the bride away when Naomi Judd married Larry Strickland in 1989.
Stilts took on other management clients, notably Carl Perkins and Terry McBride. But The Judds remained his main focus. He is listed as a producer on their 1991 farewell concert event and TV documentary.
When Wynonna Judd went solo, she initially retained him as her manager. But his relationship with both Wynonna and Naomi Judd disintegrated in a series of lawsuits in the mid-1990s.
Wynonna Judd fired Stilts in 1994. He sued. The Judds then sued him, alleging that he “stole” $20 million from them. He countersued for libel.
In recent years, Ken Stilts had been struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease. He retired in 2012. He then went into assisted living.
Ken Stilts died of complications from his disease on Sept. 24. He is survived by his wife Jo, sons Ken Jr. and Steve, daughter Tina Pressley, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A celebration of life will be conducted at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, at Bond Memorial Chapel. Burial will follow at Woodlawn Memorial Park. Visitation at the Chapel is 4-8 p.m. on Wednesday and one hour prior to the service on Thursday. Bond Memorial Chapel is at Mt. Juliet Road and Weston Drive in Mt. Juliet.
Honorary pallbearers will include Jimmy Bowen, Tony Brown, Jack Calhoun, Jerry Calhoun and Juan Carlos Nieto. Memorials may be made to The Pavilion Senior Living (Memory Care), attention Stilts Honor, 1409 Medical Center Drive, Lebanon, TN 37087.
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