The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Bart Herbison is Executive Director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), the world’s largest not-for-profit songwriters trade organization with 7,000 annual members and over 100 chapters.
Since joining NSAI in 1997, Herbison has led the organization to legislative accomplishments, including adoption of the Music Modernization Act in 2018, a 43.5 percent increase in digital mechanical streaming royalties through the Copyright Royalty Board in 2018, the landmark Songwriters Capital Gains Tax Equity Act in 2006, creation of the first Group Copyright Infringement—Social Network Insurance and the acquisition of the famed Bluebird Cafe.
Herbison’s honors include the NMPA Industry Legacy Award, the IP Champion’s Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center, the Individual Award in Support of Songwriters and Publishers from the Los Angeles Chapter of AIMP and the Arnold Broido Award from the Music Publishers Association.
Prior to joining NSAI, Herbison worked as a reporter and spent 14 years in radio and as a correspondent for The Nashville Banner newspaper before joining the administration of former Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter as Deputy Director of Communications in 1987. He joined the staff of U.S. Rep. Bob Clement (D-Nashville) in 1988 where he served as the Tennessee Congressman’s Press Secretary, Campaign Manager and Chief Tennessee Administrative Officer until coming to Music City.
Herbison and NSAI will continue their legacy of celebrating songwriters tonight (Sept. 26) at the sixth annual Nashville Songwriter Awards.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cottage Grove, Tennessee. Population 250. It’s a suburb of Paris, Tennessee, where I was born.
Were you into music?
My whole family was musical except me. My grandmother played piano at Cottage Grove Methodist Church. My two brothers and I all played trumpet—I sucked and they were amazing.
Where it all started for me was when I was somewhere between four and five. My late Uncle Billy Pullen called me in one day and said, “Listen to this!” He played, “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” by Elvis. I was never the same.
A fun, unknown fact about me is I’m such an Elvis disciple, I’ve got his logo, TCB, with a lightning bolt tattooed down my left shoulder. I win a lot of “who loves Elvis the most” arguments with that. But it really did change me—I knew even then I would do something in music.
Wow. How did you pursue that?
My father and brother ran this company until my father passed—my brother still runs it—JB Herbison and Sons Painting and Sandblasting. They specialized in high stuff back then, like church steeples, bridges and grain tanks. That sandblasting was nasty business. I probably weighed 100 pounds and so did the bags of sand I wold carry up the ladder. I started with him when I was 13. It was never my thing.
One day my father and I got into it. It was hard for me and my dad to work together. I loved him, but that wasn’t a good recipe. A kid at my local high school had gotten a job at the radio station, WTPR (We Treat People Right.) My hair was way longer than yours and it was matted full of sand and paint. I walked into that radio station and I said, “I want a job.” And they gave me one.
Tell me about working there.
I was 16 when I started. People say this is an exaggeration, but it’s not. There were some weeks I worked 100 hours. I had an afternoon shift every day. The school would let me off if some of the other DJs couldn’t make it, so I was constantly on the air. The AM station was a pop/Americana kind of thing and the FM station was country, but on the weekends at 10 o’clock, we turned to acid/AOR rock, which was my favorite.
We did a lot of live stuff. I hosted sports talk shows—all kinds of stuff. As I got older in the ’80s, I became a news director for that station and some other stations that came along. I went back and forth between some stations in that town. I also worked as a stringer for the Tennessee Radio Network and I was the west Tennessee correspondent for the Nashville Banner.
What was next?
In 1986, my state representative Ned Ray McWherter was running for Governor. The reason I have this job and everything else I had from that moment was because of two individuals: one was my middle school 4-H leader, Mary Kate Ridgeway, who got me into public speaking. The other was her husband, who was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, L. Don Ridgeway. He became the House Majority Leader. He was my promoter, often probably to the detriment of his own career. I was wearing the fatigue jacket and was the hippie protesting everything. He insisted that McWherter hire me.
Did he? How did you get that job?
It started off with Ridgeway. McWherter didn’t like Ridgeway’s commercial that an ad agency did in Nashville. Byron Gallimore—who was from the next little town over in Puryear, Tennessee—had a band and a little studio. One weekend without McWherter’s knowledge, we went [into the studio to make a new commercial]. Byron did a soundtrack and the jingle and I did the voice work and wrote a commercial called “He Knows The Way, The Tennessee Way.” I stayed up all night and drove Byron and Ridgeway crazy—we did 85 takes of that commercial. You couldn’t tell a difference in the first and last, but I could. They played it for Ned a couple days later and he flipped over it.
We were doing a live news event on a campaign stop when Ned called and said, “Barto,” which is what he called me, “I’m going to be the next Governor of Tennessee.” He had been the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives for 14 years, so I said, “I believe so too, speaker.” He then said, “I want you to come work for me in the press office.” We ended that broadcast and he asked me again. We didn’t talk about it after that. That was probably in June. He was elected in November and went into office in January.
I was on the air when he called me again. He said, “Can you be up here today?” I said, “I’ll be up there the day after tomorrow.” They had a really sweet little celebration for me in my hometown. I went to Nashville and at the tender age of 29, I became the Deputy Director of Communications for the state of Tennessee. Way over my head, frankly, but Ned liked me. My grandpa was his mailman. He was from a little town called Palmersville. My grandfather carried his mail in a horse and buggy, so he liked me. We spoke the same language.
What was your next move?
Soon after taking that job, I got a couple of promotions. I became the guy that traveled with him all over the state of Tennessee. I was there about two years when then U.S. Congressman Bob Clement—who represented the fifth district, Nashville—came in and needed some help on a press matter. I went out with him that day and a day or two later, he offered me a job. I said I would take it on one condition: I wanted to do the music issues. He said, “We’ve got somebody else doing that.” Through a weird series of events, a few weeks later that came open. He called me back and I took the job. I took a job in Washington D.C. and had never been there. I remember the night I landed, I was at a payphone calling my then-girlfriend and somebody tried to rob me at knife point. Rent there was three to four times what it was in Nashville, but I persevered. I stayed there 10 years.
Tell me about that job.
My very first two or three weeks there, NSAI made an appointment with me. The two individuals that came in were the late great songwriter Peter McCann and the then-publisher Kevin Lamb that ran Peer Music. It must’ve been the worst meeting in history for them because all I kept saying was, “Y’all do what?”
Back in my radio days, there was a huge popular local band known Tennessee River Crooks or T.R. Crooks. They were a southern rock band in their heyday. Their leader and main songwriter was my best friend to this day, Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy went to Nashville before I did and got signed. A couple of his songs people would know were “Brotherly Love” and “A Little Less Talk And A Lot More Action.” While we all read the liner notes, I always was a lyric guy. I loved the music too, but I cared about who wrote the songs. Visiting Jimmy [after he became] a professional songwriter is the second reason why I have this job, besides the Ridgeways. I wanted to work for songwriters from the time I was about 17 or 18 years old.
After Peter and Kevin left that appointment, I said a prayer that day. “Lord, let that be my next and my final job.” 26 years ago that came true. It just was ordained for me. This job requires legislative knowledge, intricacies of politics, fundraising and communications. I felt like 10 years after I was born, when they created NSAI in 1967, somebody had me in mind.
That’s amazing. What were your goals when you joined NSAI?
We were in terrible financial trouble. Starting with the three performing rights societies, I tried to let them know who I was first. I had to sell myself, the vision of NSAI was going to be and why they needed an independent songwriter organization like us. By the end of the year, we turned the finances around and they’ve been in good shape ever since. That was the first challenge.
That organization had been there for 30 years and we were doing a lot of things like programs, services, camps and cruises that didn’t make any sense, but a lot of board members had personally inherited some of them. So I had to get rid of a lot of those.
Then we had to get ready for advocacy. We needed a bill—we needed to pass a piece of legislation. So I’m sitting in a room one day about to have a legislative committee and a songwriter named Billy Kirsch walks in—he wrote “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven”—and he was talking to another songwriter named Beckie Foster. He said, “I just sold a catalog. I wish I could get the same tax breaks publishers get.” So I start looking into it and it’s another wacky story that goes back to 1951 and involves Groucho Marx, Salvador Dali, Ira Gershwin and Dwight Eisenhower. They took capital gains treatment away from songwriters, as well as from some other intellectual professions.
That was our first bill. We went to the Hill with it in ’98 into ’99 to tweak it. Our contention was songwriters had already paid income tax, FICA, Medicare and Social Security on those income-producing songs and it was double taxation. Congress agreed and seven and a half years later in ’06, we passed the Songwriters Capital Gains Tax Equity Act. It took effect January 1 of 2007 and I think it had a big part to do with the values and the explosion of catalog sales that you see today, because there’s much more incentive for songwriters to sell them. That put us on the map. We became a force and we’ve grown as a force in D.C. and in regulatory bodies and courts ever since then.
What’s the best part of your job?
The more fun two things is a tie. It’s meeting with the up-and-coming songwriters here and our other chapters around the country. I love that enthusiasm and glowing nature. Just about every songwriter started with a meeting with us at NSAI. It’s that and this series I do for the Gannett newspaper chain and The Tennesseean called “Story Behind the Song.” I also love working with our staff, starting with Jennifer Turnbow. I get all the credit, but I would say over the past few years, she’s done more to lift this organization than I have. So has Erika Wollam Nichols at the Bluebird Cafe.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
It was really from the Governor’s Director of Communications, Ken Renner. I was overwhelmed when I was going to D.C. and he said, “Bart, read everything you can read.” I would get up every morning and read seven publications: The Tennesseean, Washington Post, Roll Call, The Hill and several other political things. He said, “They’re all going to be more experienced than you, but trust your instincts.” Every time I haven’t, I’ve regretted it. That’s probably the best advice I ever had. My father would say, “Your word is your bond.” I always keep my word.
Erika gave me a piece of advice when we were trying to resurrect the funding structure of NSAI in 1997. There were some people that wanted to come fund us, and it would’ve been easy to do, but it would have potentially compromised our mission. Wayland Holyfield, the President of NSAI who hired me, always said this to me, but Erika said it that day and I still use it: “Read your mission statement.” Sometimes when Jennifer and I are torn or lost, we read that mission statement and it becomes crystal clear. It’s not always the answer I want, but it’s never wrong.
What are a few”pinch me” moments you can recall?
Getting to meet the songwriters I grew up loving and admiring. In particular, the late Mac Davis. You don’t always want to meet your heroes, but Mac and I became fast friends. Some days I would sit there and go, “Oh my God, he wrote ‘In The Ghetto!'”
[Another thing that comes to mind is] our 50th anniversary event that we did at the Ryman in 2017. Jennifer is responsible for it. We performed 25 or 30 songs, but we celebrated the rest with videos. Kris Kristofferson performed, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, everyone. My single favorite music moment since I took this job was reuniting Shelly West and David Frizzell for “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma.” That was my favorite moment in all these years.
Jimmy Stewart and Tim Nichols wrote “Brotherly Love.” When I started coming to town, Tim was the first writer I met. They regularly played rounds with Craig Wiseman, Tony Arata, Bernie Nelson and Scott Miller. They introduced me to the songwriter community. I hung with them. They accepted me as one of my own. There are great stories to tell—some I will never tell. [Laughs] That’s where I learned the pulse beat, the fabric, the desires, the successes and the fears of professional songwriters.
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