When Don Murry Grubbs founded his independent public relations company, Absolute Publicity, in 2009, he was new to the world of PR, and to the Nashville music industry. But he had a passion for the tradition and evolution of country music, along with a relentless tenacity to spread the word about his clients’ accomplishments.
“That’s music that I appreciate. I love classic country, I love stone cold country,” Grubbs says. “I grew up on a farm, that’s all I heard growing up, so that’s what I appreciate.”
Ten years later, he has bolstered the Absolute roster to include more than two dozen artists and projects, including Alabama, Aaron Tippin, Blackhawk, Larry, Steve & Rudy: The Gatlin Brothers, Charlie Daniels, The Marshall Tucker Band, Ray Stevens, Restless Heart, Ricky Skaggs, The Kentucky Headhunters, Shenandoah, T.G. Sheppard, The Journey Home Project, and more.
In the past two years, he has had four clients elected to various Hall of Fame memberships. In 2018, Ricky Skaggs was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and the National Fiddlers Hall of Fame. Earlier this year, Ray Stevens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, while Larry Gatlin was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Alabama elected to the Musicians Hall of Fame.
“The key is reminding people of their accomplishments and what they did, if you can effectively do that and constantly keep them in the forefront of voters’ minds. It’s constantly reminding them of the legacy of their career, the amount of number one hits, the Grammys, Platinum-selling records, and why it’s important for your client to be recognized in a Hall of Fame. That’s the goal,” he says.
“When I hired Don Grubbs at Absolute Publicity, I did so because he was very young with new ideas, he was passionate and wanted to do a good job,” Skaggs notes. “Since then he continues to take on new artists, he still has good ideas, and he still has the desire to do a good job for me and all his clients. It’s great to see how his company has grown in 10 years.”
A chance meeting with another legendary entertainer, Hank Williams, Jr., would serve as Grubbs’ entry to the music industry.
“I’ve always been a fan of classic country music, and I was a huge Hank Williams, Jr. fan,” he recalls. “I met Hank because a friend of mine owned a bar on Dickerson Road, and Hank Jr. was coming down there for a photo shoot with Merle Haggard for Vanity Fair Magazine. I went there and met Hank, I was 22 years old, starstruck as all get out.”
The meeting would spark Grubbs’ serious intent to become part of the music community. Following his graduation from Western Kentucky University with a double major in broadcasting and sociology in 2007, he began work at a local Nashville public relations company.
After a year, he made the bold decision to strike out on his own. In 2009, at age 24, he launched Absolute Publicity, with Pam Tillis as his first client. He soon added Larry, Steve & Rudy: The Gatlin Brothers to his PR roster; a decade later, both artists are still clients at Absolute.
“It was a lot of trial and error my first year,” he recalls of launching the company. “But I kept learning. Having Pam as my flagship artist kind of opened the door to other artists. When the Gatlins came on, I was able to get a lot of great national press for those guys, because they are legends. They are dynamic.”
He still remembers his first major media accomplishment for one of his clients.
“When we got the Gatlins on Jimmy Kimmel Live, that was massive,” he recalls.
Grubbs put in the work, building relationships with members of the media one handshake, coffee meeting, and lunch at a time.
“It’s all about face time. You can’t sit behind a computer screen all day and build relationships. You have to meet people, and develop those personal relationships. That’s what builds a PR firm, is nurtured relationships.”
Grubbs has worked steadily, expanding the staff to include Kay Waggoner-Burney and Caroline Fields. The trio’s work has earned Absolute Publicity consistent ranking as one of the best PR firms in Nashville, according to expertise.com. That work will continue next year as Pam Tillis plans to release her first album since 2007.
“It’s always been organic; the clients have always come to us,” Grubbs says. “And we’ve expanded staff as needed, when it makes sense. Kay has done a fantastic job here, and she’s been with us going on five years. She’s great at personal relationships, getting to know clients on a personal level. Caroline’s the same way. She’s great in building those relationships with the media and with the client, and she’s also very social media savvy. So she’s always letting me know things she has seen on social media that can help better the company and bringing opportunities to our clients.”
Like nearly every segment of the music industry, the rise of social media shifted the way PR professionals approach their work.
“For example, Sammy Kershaw [and longtime girlfriend Mendy Gregory] just had a baby. Sammy is 61 years old. Had he posted the picture of the baby first on social media, it would have gone everywhere very fast—media would have picked up on it, and it would have been shared everywhere. And that would have affected our ability to land an exclusive, like we did with People Magazine. So one thing publicists run into is a lot of times is the clients will post things on social media, and let the cat out of the bag a little prematurely and damage coverage. So social media is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is when it is used the right way for an artist.”
In 2017, Grubbs experienced the kind of sobering moment that has tested many publicists—the death of a client, when Country Music Hall of Fame member and Absolute Publicity client Mel Tillis died at age 85. The singer-songwriter penned hits including “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” and “Detroit City,” and found recording success with songs such as “I Ain’t Never” and “I Believe In You.”
“I kind of went into it blind, and it’s strange because you’re processing all these feelings, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve lost a friend,’ but at the same time you’ve got to do the work. So it’s an odd thing; I didn’t really get to grieve until all was said and done, just because you’re focused on doing your job, and getting the word out about his passing.”
His career has also offered plenty of mountaintop moments.
“When we landed the Marshall Tucker Band as a client back in 2011, that was a huge moment for me, because that is another band I was raised on. We were able to facilitate their Opry debut and that was a wonderful moment. It’s kind of cemented in my mind as one of the key moments in my career, because I met [Marshall Tucker Band] lead singer Doug Gray when I was 18 years old at a concert and we struck up a friendship. We kept in touch over the years, and a few years later they came knocking on our door. The rest is history.”
His willingness to be straightforward and proactive in building professional relationships are models he would recommend to those entering the PR business.
“Always tell the truth. Never try to make a story into something that it’s not, because a lot of seasoned journalists will see right through that and it can reflect badly on you. You also have to get to know the decision makers, the management companies, the booking agencies, and then the key folks in the media who are going to report on your artists. You need to start building those relationships, take these people out for coffee, take them out to lunch. Get to know them on a personal level. Build that relationship, build that particular friendship and you know the more friends you are going to have in your group the better off you’re going to be.”
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