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.
Industry veteran Sherrill Blackman has owned and operated his SDB Music Group for nearly 30 years. The company is home to three publishing divisions and a professional song-plugging service.
Over the years, Blackman’s pitches have secured recordings in multiple genres such as pop, rock, country, gospel, bluegrass, jazz and polka, resulting in multiple radio hits as well as Gold, Platinum and multi-Platinum certifications, several Grammy and IBMA nominations and one Dove Award. His work landed him MusicRow‘s Songplugger of The Year award in 2004-2006, in addition to others honors and accolades.
Prior to forming his company, Blackman spent time at MCA Music Publishing, American Image Productions, Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) and Buckhorn Music. He is a three-term past President of The Nashville Publishers’ Network and co-founded The Independent Pluggers Association.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a little rural community called Dudley, North Carolina. It’s a farming community about an hour southeast of Raleigh.
Were you into music growing up?
No, I was an athlete. I grew up playing basketball and baseball. That background helped me do what I do now because I’m very competitive. I hate to lose. Plus, growing up working on farms instilled [a strong] work ethic [in me]. The work ethic and competitiveness have helped me survive in this town.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I thought I was going to be a professional athlete. I was pretty good at basketball and not bad at baseball. When I was a senior, I had a little bit of interest from some small colleges for baseball, but then I got hurt. That kind of tossed that dream away.
So I went to a community college in that area to figure out what I wanted to do. I was getting ready to graduate from there, and we had to do an exit interview before we could graduate. As I’m waiting for this interview, I started thumbing through some magazines and I see this ad for Belmont College (now Belmont University). It was like a lightning bolt struck me. It said, “music business degree with classes in music publishing, record company administration, studio management and more.” It was literally like the voice of God said, “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Did you go right away?
No, it took me another year to get there. I worked and took some more classes. I got here in Aug. 24, 1980. It was everything I thought it would be and more.
I’m sure a lot of folks in the industry can relate to this, but nobody understood my passion for music. To me, it meant something else. It was not just something you listened to for enjoyment—it resonated in a different frequency for me. I was always reading and devouring Billboard magazine, when I could find [a copy]. I read the first Clive Davis book. I would listen to the countdown. I would look at the liner notes and see who wrote the songs, who played and who produced. I didn’t know there was a music business, so when I saw that ad from Belmont, I was like, “That’s it.”
I was not into country music at the time, I was into heavy rock & roll. My parents thought it was very amusing that I wanted to move to Nashville to be in country music. I flew out here for a weekend trip to visit and get a lay of the land, and it [affirmed that Nashville] is home.
What happened at Belmont?
I met some great people. There’s a handful of us that are still around in the business from 40-plus years ago. It provided me with the foundation to go forward and learn more.
I did an internship at MCA Music Publishing during that time. A lady named Marty Craighead gave me an internship there. That really helped launch me, because I got on the inside and was able to see how a publishing company worked. I worked in tape copy and saw what the pluggers were doing. Artists would come in and [I got to see] how they interacted with them as well as how they did demos. It gave me insight into how that world works. I actually helped get my first song recorded at that time.
How did that happen?
Being a music junkie, anytime I’d go into an office and see a vinyl collection, I’d flip through it. We had an upstairs storage closet and I had obviously looked through the vinyl in there. We got this call one day that Hank Williams Jr. was in the studio and wanted to do this old Lynyrd Skynyrd song. They needed to get a copy and a lyric sheet, and [everyone in the office] was scrambling around saying, “We don’t have the old Lynyrd Skynyrd stuff. That’s in New York. We don’t have a copy of it.” I heard them talking and said, “Yeah, we do. It’s on one of the albums upstairs.” So I made a cassette copy, they took it to the studio and he cut the song. That was a thrill.
What was next for you?
I learned a lot from Marty [during my internship]. She was instrumental in helping launch my career.
In ’83, I got a job with a company called American Image Productions. What they did was provide [the musical audio clips of] station IDs for radio and television—like what you would hear on the radio of people singing, “WCCC!” They also did instrumental tracks that we sold to radio stations to do their own commercials, so it was different lengths of music with different tempos and feels. They could then customize it and do their own commercials with voiceovers on this music tracks we made.
I wasn’t involved in the production, I was facilitating it. At the same time, my job was also to program Armed Forces Radio—country and pop. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I got it done. I would look at the Billboard charts and then go to a distribution company here called Music City South. I would pick out what I thought were hits and then make recordings on reel-to-reel, and we’d ship them to the Armed Forces headquarters. They would make sure that all Armed Forces Radio got programmed. That ended up being a very good background for trying to find hits.
American Image Productions moved to Memphis. Then the next year, in ’84, I started working for the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) with Maggie Cavender, who was our Executive Director.
What were those years like?
Maggie had such a super passion for songwriters. It rubbed off on me to really appreciate and respect what writers did. Writers were not very well-appreciated back then. They were looked at as like a necessary nuisance—Maggie and NSAI worked hard to change that.
Next, I got back into publishing and went to work with Marijohn Wilkin at Buckhorn Music. We were a small company, so I got a chance to do everything and learned a lot. I got to pitch songs, help do demos, work and consult with writers and go back through the catalog. Marijohn discovered Kris Kristofferson, and she wanted to get that catalog organized, so my first task there was to go through about 80 of his songs from when he was just starting to write.
What were some highlights from then?
We got a call one day from a guy in Texas. He said, “I’ve got a young daughter who wants to be a singer and we need some songs so she can sell music at her little shows around Texas. Could we get some? Nobody is sending us songs and we’re frustrated.” I figured it would only cost me a cassette to mail down there, so I put some stuff together. He called me up and picked a few they liked. That girl was LeAnn Rimes; she was 10. So when she signed to Curb, one of those songs, “I’ll Get Even With You,” appeared on her first album Blue that sold about seven million copies. The other two songs, “Broken Wing” and “Sure Thing,” ended up on her second album The Early Years, which ended up being triple Platinum. I looked like a genius all because I took a chance.
In 1994 you started your own company, SDB Music Group. Tell me about that.
I went to see my friend Charlie Monk to talk about starting my own company, and he said “You don’t have anything to lose. Go for it.” It was a leap of faith, but I hit the ground running. When I started it, I’d landed another LeAnn Rimes cut. John Michael Montgomery started cutting some stuff for Atlantic. It all started happening.
My first hit with the company was a BlackHawk single. Danny Wells, one of my best friends in the business, called me one night and said, “Don’t you have that BlackHawk single? It’s on the radio!” I turned it on and caught the last half of it. That was so exciting to hear a song on the radio.
At that time, I had a single with them, John Michael Montgomery and George Jones. They were all out at the same time and they were shooting up the chart. Then one by one those companies folded into their parent companies and killed each single. [Laughs] And I was just getting ready to have a huge year.
You’ve had 30 years of success since then. What is next for you? What do you still want to do?
I’m always looking for one more great song. It’s all about the song. In today’s environment, it’s all about the co-write and the artist being a part of it, and that really frustrates me. There’s a lot of great songs out there from writers that are not connected with an artist, but the fans are not getting access to that. I mean if you look at Garth Brooks, he didn’t write his two biggest hits. Reba McEntire‘s career is not based on songs she wrote, neither is George Strait‘s.
These days, most of my success comes outside of Nashville. Marijohn would say, “The world needs music, not just Nashville.” I’ve always adhered to that. I still pitch to country, but I also pitch to pop, R&B, jazz, contemporary Christian, country gospel, bluegrass—I’ve even had a polka cut that was nominated for a Grammy. I look at the whole world as my customer.
Who have been some of your mentors along the way?
I have direct mentors and indirect mentors. My direct mentors have been Marty Craighead, Maggie Cavender and Marijohn Wilkin. Indirect mentors would be great folks like Woody Bomar, where I would watch what they did from a distance and admire them. Just about everybody I’ve encountered is an indirect mentor—I hope I’ve learned something from everybody, because there’s a lot to learn.
What advice would you give others?
Always show up. Good things and opportunities can happen if you show up. Even when you don’t want to, do it anyway. You never know who you might meet or what piece of information you might learn that can help your career.
When you look back on it all, what are you most proud of?
The thing I’m most proud of is all the friends I’ve made through the past 40-plus years. I have a lot of friends that I’ve known for 40 years, and I’m still making new friends that I think I’ll have for the rest of my life. I treasure that.
- My Music Row Story: Why&How’s Halie Hampton Mosley - February 27, 2024
- MusicRow’s 2024 CountryBreakout Award Winners [Full List] - February 27, 2024
- Jason Aldean & Songwriters Celebrate ‘Try That In A Small Town’ - February 26, 2024