My Music Row Story: CAA’s Marc Dennis

Marc Dennis

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.

 

This edition of “My Music Row Story” is sponsored by Worldwide Stages.

 

Marc Dennis is a Music Agent at leading entertainment and sports agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and Co-Head of CAA Music’s Nashville office. Alongside the other Nashville Co-Heads, Dennis is responsible for managing the agency’s business in Music City.

Dennis provides strategic counsel on concert tours and event bookings worldwide to artists Shania Twain, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Brett Eldredge, Billy Currington, Kellie Pickler, Kelsea Ballerini, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, Maddie & Tae, Kip Moore, Carly Pearce, Mason Ramsey, Madison Kozak, Cale Dodds, Seth Ennis, Nate Smith, After Midtown, and Little Big Town, among many others. He also works across the agency to create opportunities for clients in film, television, books, theatre, and endorsements.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up? How did you get into the music business?

My family is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. We moved around a good bit. My mom and dad got divorced. My mom met my stepdad, Ron Baird, who was an agent at a company called The Jim Halsey company, which was located in Tulsa back in the day. The Halsey Company was definitely the biggest country music agency at the time. I not only fell in love with [my stepdad], but fell in love with the music business through him at a really early age. When I was just a little kid, I was lucky to have access to lot of really cool people and agents that are actually still doing it today.

Pictured (L-R): Marc Dennis, Kip Moore

Did you study music business in college or jump right in to work?

I graduated high school in Oklahoma and I was looking at [colleges in] Texas, Oklahoma and some of the schools in the southwest. I came out to Nashville to visit my stepdad who had relocated here from Tulsa up when Jim Halsey moved to Nashville. I came out here, looked at Belmont and didn’t love it, drove up the road to Knoxville and loved the University of Tennessee, so that’s where I went.

I studied business there and I was elected to run the campus entertainment board when I was just a freshman. It was a student activities committee that was charged with producing special activities for the student body, such as concerts and comedy. I had three or four different venues on campus that I could use, so that was my first job, booking concerts for the college. In that capacity, I was more of a promoter than an agent, but I was speaking to agents and buying talent from people that I ultimately would end up working with later in life.

I also worked for the arena there in Knoxville, Thompson Boling Arena. I worked for the general manager Tim Reese. I worked on the local crew, I worked in the box office there, I did the campus entertainment board, and I also booked all of the bands for our fraternity [events]. So I had a fairly traditional college course study, but I layered in a lot of extracurricular music business stuff.

Pictured (L-R): Carly Pearce, Marc Dennis

What were some shows you organized in college?

I was in college from 1988 to 1992. MTV was still a really big deal and they had a lot of those branded content tours that went out, so we did a lot of MTV stuff that was rolling around college campuses, like the Def Comedy Jam. I pretty much just booked my favorite bands and it turned out the rest of the student body liked it, too.

The first big country show that I had something to do with that was playing at the arena was probably Clint Black. That’s when I really started to appreciate country music more. Not only that concert, but the album that he made Killin’ Time. I was wearing that thing out back in 1990, and not a lot of kids my age were listening to country music back then. It wasn’t like it is now, it was much harder to discover music.

What happened after graduation?

I graduated in 1992 and, with my role as the campus entertainment guy, I was mainly into concert promotion, so my first instinct was to keep going with that. I went to work for a great guy named Steve Moore who had just left a company called Pace, which was running the amphitheater here called Starwood. Steve left Starwood and Pace to start his own company called Moore Entertainment. I was his fourth or fifth employee. Steve was promoting Alan Jackson, Reba, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Brooks & Dunn. I would help him build budgets, put offers together, do ticket counts, and just learn how to promote concerts on a big level. He was really a great teacher. Steve was super accessible to me and I really appreciate and respect him to this day.

Pictured (L-R): Sam Forbert, Russell Dickerson, Marc Dennis

When did you move to the agency side of things?

In my capacity with Steve, I had a lot of exposure to agents that we were buying talent from. The concert promotion business is really tough. You win some, you lose some, and by nature, you have to be a bit of a gambler. After doing it for a while, the agency side of the business attracted me a little bit more than promotion. A guy named Rick Shipp at a company called Triad asked me if I wanted to talk to those guys. I took a job there at Triad to be an assistant for a really great mentor, Keith Miller. I was his assistant for a while and then William Morris Agency acquired Triad, so I moved over there and learned from a lot of really great people. I moved to CAA in 2005.

After joining CAA, you moved up the ranks, eventually becoming Co-Head. Along with Brian Manning, Darin Murphy, and now Jeff Krones, you help lead the Nashville office. What all does that entail?

At the end of the day, I’m an agent first and foremost. I’m honored to be in the position to help lead the day to day business of our Nashville office. I’m helping counsel all of our clients and I’m helping counsel our other colleagues. We take care of each other. My primary responsibility is making sure everybody is in a position to succeed and playing the position that they were born to play.

Pictured (L-R): Marc Dennis, Brett Eldredge

I know you’ve probably been asked about the pandemic a lot, but now that we’re getting past it, have you walked away with any lessons learned or new perspectives?

I don’t know that I have a new perspective as much as it’s fortified what I already thought—which is that this is a really collaborative business and a job where the culture of your team really matters. None of us really have degrees on our wall that say, “You graduated from the school of agenting,” so it’s important to learn from each other. I really believe in that. I believe in community and I believe that we learn something from each other every single day. Obviously that was really difficult during the pandemic when we were all separated. We certainly did our best to stay connected. We’ve been looking at each other on a screen for two years now, but you just can’t replace being in the same space physically with each other.

What are some of the best qualities about our community?

I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so I’ve seen a ridiculous amount of growth in this business. It is stunning what the country music business has become. But at the same time, it’s still a relatively small community of people that are doing it. I really appreciate the fact that I can call someone that I was doing this with 25 years ago.

What have been some of your favorite experiences over the years?

I don’t want to give you a boring, soundbite answer, but I really do enjoy seeing a young person at CAA rise through the ranks and excel. There are four or five agents here now that were my assistant at some point. I’m honored to have been in the position to promote all of them to an agent. I will never forget all of those moments, because I know what it takes to get to that point. I know how hard they’ve worked. I know they’ve had long days and long nights, tough days and great days. When you get to that point, it’s really special.

With our clients, I think a lot of agents would probably say their favorite part is when the artist is first breaking–that first single that works really well or that first album that everybody falls in love with. You can just see their lives changing, both professionally and personally. We all get a lot of gratification out of that. You start working with someone typically when no one knows who they are, and then you’re able to experience a transformational period of time with them. Of course it’s driven by their creative talent, but hopefully you’ve made a couple decisions along the way to help that process.

Pictured (L-R): Chrissy Metz, Cait Hoit, Marc Dennis, Kennon Dennis

If someone asked you how to be a successful person in business or in life, what would you say?

This is a very emotional business. All we do is deal with people. Who we represent is a human being with emotions, feelings and thoughts, and who we sell them to…there’s a relationship there as well. When you’re dealing with people all the time, it lends to some complicated situations occasionally which can be emotional. There can be a lot of highs and lows. You can experience the highest of highs and literally 10 minutes later, it’s like you’ve completely forgotten about it because there’s a problem over here that you need to fix. So I think consistency is huge in this business.

One phone call doesn’t need to feel like what you experienced on the phone call before that. I try to not ride a lot of highs or lows, I try to just be consistent every day. I come in and what you see is what you get, people know what to expect from me. I try to be a really stable, logical force, and normalize a super abnormal business as much as I can.

My Music Row Story: Natalie Hemby

Natalie Hemby. Photo: Alysse Gafjken

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.

Award-winning songwriter Natalie Hemby has written some of the last decade’s most loved country songs. Since signing her first publishing deal at 19, Hemby has amassed eight No. 1 country singles, including Lady A’s “Downtown,” Justin Moore‘s “You Look Like I Need A Drink,” Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication,” Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” and Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar,” “Automatic,” and “Bluebird.” Her songs have been recorded by the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Maren Morris, Sheryl Crow, Dierks Bentley, Eli Young Band, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Isaak, Blake Shelton, and Lee Ann Womack among many others.

In 2019, Hemby joined Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires to form The Highwomen. Their self-titled album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart. That year, The Highwomen won Americana Music Honors & Awards for Album of the Year, Duo/Group of the Year, and Song of the Year for their single “Crowded Table,” which was also dubbed the Best Country Song at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards.

In 2021, Hemby stepped out with an artist project herself, releasing her album Pins and Needles to wide acclaim.

Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Hemby

MusicRow: Tell me about your childhood.

I was born in Illinois. My parents were very young when they got married and were very young when they had me. My dad was in music and he decided to move us [to Nashville] because music was becoming a really big thing here back in the ’70s. We moved here in ’79, so I grew up in Nashville. We lived in the Iroquois Apartments over in Bellevue, then they bought a duplex and then we bought our first house when I was about 11 years old. I was actually a sick child growing up. I had horrible ear infections and I had a tumor on my ear, so I couldn’t hear very well. My mom had to take me to the doctor all the time and she ended up losing her job over it—and my dad was on the road a lot. Long story short, I had to have surgery and all this kind of stuff. I got baptized when I was seven and I’m not even joking when I say that after I got baptized, I got all my hearing back. It was a miracle, honestly.

My dad started working for this woman named Amy Grant, playing in her band. My mom started cleaning houses because she didn’t have a job and she started cleaning Amy’s house. One day my mom said to Amy, “Listen, if you ever need an assistant, I’m really good at organization. I can help you get your house in order.” She’s been with her for over 35 years now, so I really grew up in the music business.

Were you musical as a child?

I was very musical, I loved piano. I started taking piano lessons when I was about six. I played in talent shows and I played saxophone in band. I’ve always loved music, not because my parents were in it, but because it brought me so much joy. It was a passion.

Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Hemby

When did you start writing songs?

I was such a dreamer. I just thought I’d be the singer on stage and it would be that easy. I never dreamed about music business, I didn’t even dream about writing. I was not a big songwriter [growing up], but what I did do was write a lot of poetry. I was a diary writer as a kid and wrote all my feelings down. (Laughs) Honestly, I didn’t start writing songs until I was about 18. Some people would consider that late in life. (Laughs)

Once you started writing songs, how did you start your journey to become a professional songwriter?

I started figuring out that all the artists that I love, a lot of them wrote their own songs. So I started writing my own songs. At the time I was listening to Sarah McLachlan and I was writing really sad piano songs, but I quickly evolved. I started writing with other people. I got my first publishing deal with Barbara Orbison at Still Working Music. Tommy Lee James was my first professional co-write. He was the first person on Music Row that I started writing with a lot. I wrote a lot of songs and I almost got a record deal, but those doors did not open. Throughout the whole process, the one thing I kept doing was writing and writing.

I never wanted to do country music, I wanted to do Tom Petty or Sheryl Crow-style music. But radio just kept changing. It went through a Britney Spears era, it went through a time where you had to be on a TV show to get a record deal, then it went through a Coldplay era. It kept evolving and, as far as being an artist goes, I couldn’t figure out what direction I was going in and what I wanted to do. So I just kept writing songs with and for other people. Then eventually, my husband [Mike Wrucke] was co-producing this girl, Miranda Lambert.

Miranda Lambert and Natalie Hemby. Photo: Courtesy of RIAA

You and Miranda have had a long and fruitful relationship, co-writing many of her hits together. How did you guys start writing?

My husband co-produced her first three records. I sang all the backgrounds on all the records, but the third record was when I got to write with her. I told her, “Look, I realize I’m the producer’s wife, but I have some song ideas I’ve been saving for you. If you just gave me one day, I feel like we could write a bunch of great stuff.” That first day we wrote “White Liar” and “Only Prettier.” We wrote four songs that day, and then she came back and we ended up writing “Virginia Bluebell.” Meeting Miranda and writing with her was a huge turning point.

Now we’re tight, but we don’t see each other all the time, so whenever we do, I feel like it all comes out in songs. The most important thing about writing with someone is not hitching all of your wagons to this one person’s journey. I have written with lots of people and she’s been so supportive of that. She writes with lots of people and I love the songs that she writes with other people. I’m a genuine fan of her and I feel like that’s how our relationship throughout the years has been able to grow and keep us together. That’s why we keep musically going back to each other.

Was “White Liar” your first cut?

My first cut was with a Christian artist, Rachael Lampa. I wrote a song called “When I Fall.” It was single for her on Christian radio. I was so excited about that.

My first [country cut] that was a really big turning point for me was with Lee Ann Womack. She cut a song of mine that I did not write for anybody, I wrote it for myself with Daniel Tashian. We wrote a song called “The Bees.” It was on her Call Me Crazy album. It wasn’t a single or anything, but she got Keith Urban to sing on it with her. Everybody started calling me after that song, saying, “I love that song. I want to write some time.” So it wasn’t a single, but it was definitely a song that opened so many other doors.

In addition to being a hit songwriter, you’ve also released a lot of music as an artist. Do you have any trouble with separating your artistry with writing for other artists?

Honestly, it’s been pretty natural for me. I write so many different kinds of music that I can compartmentalize things. [My first record] Puxico was a love story to my family and to a town that I love. To me, nobody could do those songs justice like I could. I could pitch it around to a thousand people, people could cut it, but it just meant the world to me. With my new record, those songs have been sitting around for a while. Sometimes you have to say to yourself, “Maybe no one has cut these songs because I need to cut them.” (Laughs) I wanted to make a 1990s-Lilith Fair-Sheryl Crow-Tracy Chapman-type of record. All those female artists that I loved from Lilith Fair. So I took those songs and made that record with them.

What did you think of the Music Row community before you became a part of it?

Here’s a little truth serum. When I was growing up, I don’t know if it was because I was intimidated by it a little bit, but I did think of it as a boys club. I was young at the time and I thought people probably thought I sang really good but didn’t really take me seriously. With that respect, when I was younger it was hard to take myself seriously because I never felt like I quite fit in on Music Row. It’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just what it was at the time. But as things progressed and I’ve gotten older, I feel like a lot of things have changed. There’s so much more diverse music and people. It’s been a nice change. Nashville was a small town back then, and it’s hard for [diversity] to be present in a small town. But as it has grown, it’s been forced to take a look at itself.

Who have been some of your mentors along the way?

If I’m being honest, my husband has been a huge mentor to me. I’ve almost quit so many times that he hasn’t let me, and part of the reason why people like my music is because of him. He is my music and I can’t imagine doing it without him.

I wouldn’t be here if Jody Williams wasn’t here. I used to sing all his demos at his company. My husband would produce those demos and that’s how I met my husband. Jody literally kept my lights on because he paid me so well when I sang demos. When he went to BMI, he got me a couple of really big co-writes. He showcased me and I would go meet with him and play songs. He was so supportive of me. And now he’s representing me in publishing, so it’s been a real full circle moment. I’ve gone to him for advice, I’ve gone to him for so many different situations and he has been a guiding light in my career.

Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Hemby

If someone was describing you, what would you want them to say?

I would want them to say that I was kind, genuine, and sincere. That I never used them to get anywhere. I grew up in this town so I’m constantly searching for that quality in people—the sincerity in the love of music and for friendship. One of the things I always tell my friends is, “Hey, we’re friends beyond music.”

What moment have you had that your little kid self would think is so cool?

Singing with Dolly Parton. That was pretty cool. (Laughs) Dolly is like the female Santa Claus. You can’t stop staring at her. She goes around and talks to everybody, looks everyone in the eye. My young self would have been so enamored with her.

My Music Row Story: Fusion Music’s Daniel Miller

Daniel Miller

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.

 

This edition of “My Music Row Story” is sponsored by Worldwide Stages.

 

Daniel Miller is Managing Partner of Fusion Music where he and his team guide the careers of Martina McBride, Riley Green, Lily Rose, Cassadee Pope, Laine Hardy, and pop artist Jeffrey James. Miller, who has 20-plus years of management experience, opened Fusion Music in 2013 and aligned with Red Light in 2014. In 2015, he was named to the MTSU College of Media and Entertainment Wall of Fame, and has served as an adjunct professor there.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up? How did you get into the music business?

It’s hard to believe that this August will mark 25 years from when I moved here. I grew up on a small family farm in rural Missouri. My only exposure to the outside world was the local country radio station and the three or four TV channels our antenna would pick up. I was a finance and banking major at the University of Missouri in the early ’90s when I made friends with the owner of the local country nightclub who managed a band out of Nashville. I soon transferred to MTSU for their Recording Industry Management program. On the day I moved, my mom took me to lunch at the old Shoney’s on Demonbreun and said, “I have no idea what you’re about to do, but I know you’ll figure it out.”

Pictured (L-R): Chris Ferren (Fusion Music), Martina McBride, Daniel Miller at ACM Honors in 2019

Take me through your career journey thus far.

I had only been at MTSU a few weeks when I had the chance to volunteer for the radio remotes at the 1997 CMA Awards. I met Wes Vause, who eventually got tired of me badgering him over email and introduced me to Schatzi Hageman. They ran their independent PR firms out of a shared office space and gave me my first opportunity to learn the business. It’s hard to even remember how we got so much done without Internet access or cell phones back then, but we did.

After graduating from MTSU, I took a position with Simon Renshaw’s management company handling ticketing for the Dixie Chicks 2000 “Fly Tour.” Later that year, I moved over to Borman Entertainment in the middle of the first Tim McGraw and Faith Hill “Soul2Soul Tour,” assisting the great, late Joni Foraker. I spent the next 13 years there working in various support positions. In 2007, Lady A walked in the door and that was my first real shot at being an overzealous day-to-day manager. Gary Borman was a brilliant visionary to learn from.

When did you start your own company?

In the summer of 2013, I was convinced it was time to step out on my own, so I created Fusion Music. It was the wrong time, and I made every mistake imaginable, but no one could have convinced me otherwise. I quickly found out what I knew and mostly what I didn’t. Six months into it, Coran Capshaw extended the opportunity to partner with Red Light Management. His knowledge and intuition are highly underrated and Red Light gave us a place to incubate our business. We still work with them across all our artist projects.

Today our roster includes Martina McBride, Riley Green, Lily Rose, Cassadee Pope, Laine Hardy, and developing pop artist, Jeffrey James. My original business plan had a concept for content development but aside from a couple TV production credits, it didn’t pan out as I had hoped…until now. We recently started consulting on brand direction for The Morning Hangover, and have begun looking at unscripted TV concepts. We’re also about to start construction on a content studio adjacent to our new office in Berry Hill.

Pictured (L-R): Dylan McGraw (Fusion Music), Daniel Miller, Lily Rose, Daira Eamon (Lily Rose fiance), Lexi Howder (OH Creative) at the 2022 ACM Awards

We’re not the biggest or flashiest—nor will we ever be—and I’m fiercely protective of our team and the culture we’ve built. Chris Ferren was our first intern eight years ago, and he was recently elevated to VP of Artist & Business Development. He, Nicholas Garvin, Danielle Broome, Dylan McGraw, our co-managers and the extended management team we work with are relentless in finding the best opportunities we can to set our artists up for success.

When did Martina join the roster? How did you two come together?

We met with Martina in the fall of 2015 and I told her, “I know your catalog. I know your career.” Working with an iconic artist was a bucket list dream of mine and over the past six years, we have worked to build upon her incredible catalog and touring history.

You have several artists who are owning their own lane such as Lily Rose and Riley Green. What would you say is the ticket to developing a new artist who is different from your ordinary country artist?

It’s important to me that each of our artists have a unique career path and none are too similar or in direct competition with another. We don’t commit to a client relationship unless we can make a significant difference. The vision is ultimately theirs and we work to surround them with the resources needed to reach their goals. Then we move the goalpost. The secret recipe lies within the artists themselves, whether they know it at first or not.

I don’t think this is unique to us, but we look closely at each artist’s life—from childhood to the present moment—and try to understand their values and what motivates them. The superstar armor comes off at the door and we work as partners to create the most authentic connection between who they are and what they sing about. That’s easier said than done.

Pictured (L-R): Daniel Miller, Riley Green, RAC Clark, Zach Sutton (Red Light Management)

Riley Green knows his brand with laser-sharp precision and is a natural-born entertainer. He already had an incredibly passionate team around him when we came on board a few years ago. Our focus has been to show how who he is off stage informs the lyrics in his songs.

WME brought Lily Rose to us. I was not familiar with her music yet and until then had refused to use TikTok or take artists emerging from the platform seriously. She showed me how wrong I was. Her progressive approach challenges us to find a unique cross-section of fans influenced by a completely different generation of music and her fans are unconcerned with the genre confines.

What is something people might not know about what you do?

Philanthropic work is required of the team and expected of our artists. We owe our privilege and success to society whenever possible. The Academy of Country Music gave me an opportunity to serve on their board of directors a few years ago and I quickly learned more about ACM Lifting Lives and the significant impact it makes on our community and countless other benefactors. After witnessing the insurmountable reach of their COVID-19 Response Fund, I was honored to accept a leadership position on Lifting Lives’ board of directors.

When do you feel most fulfilled in your role?

We encourage all our artists to be completely unrealistic with their dreams and then we try our damnedest to bring them to life.  Every big “first”—single release, album release, or tour—is uniquely special. Nothing is more magical than standing at front of house for the top of a big show and hearing the thunderous crowd respond to an artist’s entrance onto the stage. That beats any amount of money you could ever earn.

My other passion is mentoring people up. I had the great privilege to be an adjunct professor for a few semesters at MTSU and loved sharing our daily experience with excited young students. After my time is done on Music Row, I hope to bore students with my stories.

Pictured (L-R): Daniel Miller, Cassadee Pope, Shannon Radel (Rising Star Travel)

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

Don’t go bankrupt buying your own hype.

Who are some of your mentors?

I was raised by strong, independent women so it’s not surprising that my mentors are also. Schatzi Hageman, Karen Krattinger, JoAnn Burnside, Joni Foraker, Donna Jean Kisshauer, and Sandra Westerman gave me opportunities I didn’t deserve and taught me the business. Ed Hardy, Joe Galante, Clarence Spalding and Paul Worley have been incredible resources over the years.

If you could change anything about the Nashville music industry, what would it be?

We have a songwriting community in Nashville like none other in the world but can’t find a way to properly pay them for their works that fuel the entire industry.

What is one of your favorite experiences in the industry that you will share for the rest of your life?

This job isn’t real life. Most of the world works a whole lot harder for much less money. We have been fortunate enough to have artists tour the world and it is overwhelming when an audience in a foreign country sings back every word of their songs.

My Music Row Story: Essential Broadcast Media’s Ebie McFarland

Ebie McFarland. Photo: Jon Paul Bruno

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.

Raised just 90 miles outside of Nashville in the small town of Waverly, Tennessee, Ebie McFarland, a Vanderbilt University grad, founded award-winning PR company Essential Broadcast Media, LLC in 2007. Since then, she has helped launch the careers of critically acclaimed artists such as Ashley McBryde, Caitlyn Smith and Whiskey Myers, as well as earned the trust of discriminating artists such as George Strait, Kenny Chesney and Eric Church. She has retained longtime clients such as Ryman Hospitality, Darius Rucker and Hootie & the Blowfish, further reinforcing McFarland and her team understand and execute the growing importance of telling one’s story with passion, grit and perseverance.

In addition to being a publicist and owner of Essential Broadcast Media, McFarland is highly involved in various organizations. She is Vice President of the ACM Board of Directors, and sits on the CMA Board of Directors, the ACM Lifting Lives Board, the Vanderbilt University Project on Unity and American Democracy Advisory Board, and the Millions of Conversations Advisory Council. She has been honored as part of Nashville Business Journal‘s 40 Under 40 list (2012), MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row (2014), the CMA SRO Publicist of the Year (2015), CMA Publicist of the Year (2017, 2019), and with the Nashville Business Journal‘s Women in Music Award (2017).

Ebie alongside management with clients Kenny Chesney and Michael Franti at SoFi Stadium. Photo: Allister Ann

MusicRow: Where did you grow up? How did you get into music?

I grew up in Waverly, Tennessee. It’s an hour and a half west of Nashville. That’s why I ended up executive producing the Loretta Lynn “Hometown Rising” benefit concert, because that was my hometown that flooded last year. Until she retired, my mom was a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She and my dad met while camping and going to art experiences in Kentucky, years and years ago. My dad was always a painter, but grew up up on Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, and The Rolling Stones. I don’t remember this, but my first concert was Talking Heads when I was two years old. The first concert I really remember was Jon Bon Jovi.

I graduated high school in ’99 and went to Vanderbilt University. They did not have a music program at that time, so I did a bachelor of science. I have a cognitive studies major and a child development and women’s studies minor. It comes in handy working with artists because the best ones are a little crazy. Understanding and getting to the root of the origin story is probably the most exhilarating part of my job. If it is Ashley McBryde and “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” and that moment that fueled that chip on her shoulder. If it’s anything Eric Church offers up, I always feel like there’s a “why” with him. In working with new artists, like Caitlyn Smith and Walker Hayes, it’s understanding what stories to lean into that really connect and having that conversation with them that helps drill that down.

What happened after graduation?

I started working entry level at a PR firm that’s now defunct. I was at Webster & Associates for four years. I made $8 an hour so I also worked at a tanning bed and I bartended on weekends. I remember not being paid until every other week from one of the jobs and having to put an IOU for toilet paper [so I could take some] home until I could buy toilet paper and then pay them back. (Laughs)

It was dark days in PR early on. Even around the holidays, you weren’t guaranteed to make your paycheck because so many artists took the holidays off and it wasn’t tour season. I remember the looming threat from my boss at the time was, “We’ll see if we can keep the lights on this Christmas or if we need to light more candles.”

Pictured: Team Ashley McBryde at the Ryman after one of her AIMP wins. Selfie courtesy of Ashley McBryde.

You started your own PR firm in 2007. How did that come to be?

It’s truly a 10 year town. I started my company in 2007. Darius Rucker had signed with UMG and he was doing a “Hootie Homegrown Tour.” [At the time] I had all the rock acts. I had Sister Hazel, Hootie & the Blowfish, Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock, and Hank Jr. When I found out Darius had signed, I started thinking it might be a good time to go out and super-service one or two clients and try to do this on my own. So I started the company when I was 26 years old. I very naively thought, “I can do this.”

I’m glad I bet on myself, but at the same time, when you have mentors helping you along the way, you learn so much faster. I’m super grateful for the mentors that were and still are there for me, including Doc McGhee and Joe Galante. I’m very fortunate, looking back, on the people that took time out of their days to help me.

How did you grow your roster from there?

After working with Darius for a few years, I started working with other management firms. I started working with Q Prime on Little Big Town. They left and went to Jason Owen, so Q Prime asked if I could work on Eric Church on the Carolina record. So Eric was my next big one as far as signing, and somebody that I’ve been with the longest. I started working with George Strait in 2012, ahead of Cowboy Rides Away, and did everything from the strategy on the announcement through the two-year tour into Vegas, then subsequently these stadium shows that he’s doing. I’ve been with George for 10 years now, and Kenny Chesney since 2014. I started working with Caitlyn Smith and Chase Rice around then, too.

I had been working with Miranda [Lambert] on the touring side for a few years, so I was very honored when she called. That’s a big change anytime an established artist makes a PR change. I thought I was going over to the office to talk about the tour, and I sat down with her and Marion [Kraft] and [they asked me to do] Palomino and everything from Miranda, with Mutt Nation, the forthcoming announcements that she has, and strategizing the Las Vegas announcements. It’s been a blessing to work with so many in-charge people who know who they are and know what they stand for. They know what they want to do.

Pictured: Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco and Ebie ahead of his four 2019 Madison Square Garden shows. Photo: Brian Samuelson

Because you were young when you started your company, did you have to fight for people to take you seriously?

Yes and no. Enthusiasm goes so far. When the artist is fired up about an idea that I come to them with, then everybody else doesn’t really have a chance to undercut me. Being a little bold in that sense, as long as you really thought it out, [paid off]. Scott McGhee used to always say, “Is it important, is it urgent and is it interesting?” If it checks those three boxes, it’s worth taking to the artist. So I always try to answer those reasons before I take something to someone.

When do you feel most fulfilled in what you do?

Definitely at the live shows. When it’s all together and the fans gravitate toward a song; they have their phones up and they’re FaceTiming other people because they want to be in that moment with even more people, that’s the most fulfilling.

The happiest I get for an artist is when I hear a song that fulfilled the life it should have had. The saddest thing is when I hear a song and it never gets to reach that moment. There are so many hidden gems on albums that I don’t know why those songs were never smashes.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

To truly listen more. [I listen] in meetings when artists are talking. I feel like the access we’re given has pretty unparalleled insights. So in the moment, I try to be as present as possible, absorb it all, and then come back with, “Hey, here’s some ideas because I heard you when you said this.”

Galante is always saying use your voice and speak up in meetings, in the sense of CMA Board meetings. That’s why I probably volunteer so much. I sit on [a lot of boards]. That’s like a full time job, in addition to doing the job. (Laughs) I wish more industry members and artists had the time to dedicate to that because I think that’s where you can really impact real change—systemic, generational change.

Pictured: Ebie and George Strait

What are some things that you think are really great about our industry and what are some things that we could work on?

We can always be working on how we communicate. Working in communications, knowledge is power. There’s still folks that want to retain that power so they hold back on that knowledge. That doesn’t really help anyone. I get it, but at the same time, we as an industry could do a better job telling the story of what we are doing on a foundational level.

Country music is the soul of America. I’m very proud of our songwriters and the songwriting community. Anything we can do to further elevate their voices and their roles in the industry is important. Something that everyone on our roster, including the comedians, have in common is that they’re all storytellers. Every single one of them, even the Ryman. I mean, name a better stage; her story is insane. When we move too fast, we don’t do the story justice. If we could all just take a little bit more intention and time to do that, then we’ll all benefit.

What is a moment that you have had that your little kid self would think is so cool?

There was a moment on the George Strait tour where afterwards I went on George’s bus. We were recapping the weekend and he was playing some music. It wasn’t his music, he just had music on in the background. He and Martina [McBride] went into this moment of singing back and forth on the bus. For whatever reason, I jumped up and was singing with them. (Laughs) I will never forget it. I caught myself and was like “Oh, I can’t even sing!” I was just in the moment having so much fun. I remember George laughing and patting me on the shoulder. I got so carried away in the moment that I jumped in and crashed George Strait and Martina McBride singing. My younger self would’ve kicked myself off the bus. (Laughs)

My Music Row Story: CMT’s Leslie Fram

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.

 

This edition of “My Music Row Story” is sponsored by Worldwide Stages.

 

As Sr. VP Music and Talent at CMT, Leslie Fram oversees music on all of its platforms and negotiates talent for major tentpoles specials and music specials. A champion of female artists, in 2013 she created CMT’s Next Women Of Country franchise which has grown to include a tour, and also oversees CMT’s Equal Play platform. Before joining CMT in 2011, Fram had a long and impressive career in radio. She is one of the Co-Founders of Change The Conversation and Nashville Music Equality. Fram has been honored by the T.J. Martell Foundation, Billboard Women In Music and more.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a little town called Fairhope, Alabama. I’m the only southerner in my family. My family is from Massachusetts and moved to the south before I was born.

Were you musical as a child?

Yes. I didn’t play an instrument, but was turned on to music by my older brother who turned me on to a lot of classic rock, from Led Zeppelin to Heart. Then I started discovering my own artists that I liked. It went from one extreme to the other—I loved rock and folk. Country was not in my sphere at all, I have to admit. I would listen to radio stations late at night and really liked a lot of underground music. I was very shy, so I listened to music as a form of entertainment. I would call DJs to request songs.

Pictured: Sting and Leslie Fram

Is that why you started your career in radio?

At first, I wanted to be a journalist, but I got a job at this radio station and I was hooked. Radio was IT for me. It was definitely my first love.

In college I was working an album-oriented rock and top 40 radio station. So I was doing midnight to 6:00 a.m. and going to college from 8:00 a.m. to noon—and falling asleep in my 12 o’clock class.

When I graduated, I ended up getting a job in Atlanta at a radio station called Power 99 that turned into 99X in 1992, which was the beginning of the evolution of alternative music and the explosion of Nirvana and all of those bands. So I was really lucky to be at the height of alternative in the ’90s.

What was next?

I left Atlanta and went to a radio station in New York for three years called WRXP. It was a rock-alternative hybrid. I went to be the program director in 2008, but when I got there, they said, “Hey, how would you like to do a morning show with Matt Pinfield?” He came from MTV and had a radio background. I was like, “Well, how can I turn this down?” [I didn’t realize] that my day would be getting up at 4:00 a.m. and working until 6:00 or 7:00 at night and then going out. (Laughs) But I did it for three years, living and doing radio in New York and going to all these historic venues to see shows. I was like a kid in a candy store. It was incredible. So I was the program director and on-air with him, but the company sold the station in 2011 and the new owners turned it into a news talk station.

Pictured: Leslie Fram and 99X colleagues with Johnny Cash

My radio mentor was Brian Philips when I worked at 99X. Brian was president of CMT, so he invited me to come to Nashville to meet everyone and see CMT. I came in for a very long weekend and at the end of the weekend, he offered me the job to come and oversee music. I said “Yes” without even thinking about it because I loved it in Nashville and obviously loved Brian.

How did you get your feet wet in country music?

For the first year, I really put my head down and people in the building were so helpful. I would go to shows just so I could learn the format and how it worked. I discovered all the artists and met a whole new set of people from managers, labels, publishers and publicists. I obviously fell in love with, first and foremost, Nashville. The community of people here are incredible.

[Before I got to Nashville,] when I was in New York and at this rock station, Skip Bishop was working for Sony. Skip and I knew each other from my rock years, and he would send me music all the time. He sent me music from this up-and-coming female artist they had signed named Miranda Lambert, and he invited me to go to her show. So I go to this show in New York, not realizing it was a CMT Tour, and I see a lot of the rock [staffers from the] management company Q-Prime. I said, “Why are you guys here?” They said, “We have the opening act, Eric Church.” So I fell in love with Miranda and Eric Church. I just couldn’t believe how much of a rockstar she was on stage.

Pictured: Matt Pinfield, Brad Paisely & Leslie Fram

Skip also brought Brad Paisley into our studio. We had him on the air for an hour. I went to see him in Madison Square Garden. Keith Urban played Madison Square Garden and I went to see him, so I started opening up my eyes to some of these [country] shows then.

You joined CMT in 2011, and your impact since then has been enormous with new initiatives like Next Women of Country and many more. What was your vision for CMT when you started moving up the ranks?

When I got there, I was blown away by the music team. They’re all experts in their own field; they are music junkies. They go see all types of music. I was like, “Wow, I have this team that I can empower that are so incredibly talented. They are music fans first and foremost.”

The lay of the land was that women were not being well represented on contemporary country radio, and I didn’t understand why. So after doing a deep dive there, and knowing that Viacom was behind us wanting to start a female franchise, my first passion point was launching Next Women of Country in 2013. [We wanted] CMT to be a vehicle to support these artists on all of our platforms and then continue to grow it with a tour, because if you remember, you couldn’t get on a tour unless you had a song on the radio. Half of these artists had no tours and no chance to play on stage anywhere, so we started the tour. It just kept developing, so we knew that we could have an impact on new artists and artist discovery.

Pictured: Tracy Gershon, Leslie Fram, Beverley Keel & Dr. Jada Watson

Not only are you helping to lift up female artists at CMT with Next Women of Country, but you also co-founded the initiatives Change the Conversation and Nashville Music Equality, and are a very big advocate for equality in country music when it comes to gender and race. Do you feel we are moving in the right direction?

I do. Even for us, we had to look at ourselves first and foremost. That’s why we started Equal Play. We had to ask ourselves, “What more can we do?” Knowing that we program our own music channels and we have three video channels, we could do even better. So we started Equal Play to have 50-50 parody: male, female. Then we looked at ourselves again and said, “We can’t wait for people to come to us, whether it’s a label or a publisher or artist reaching out. We actually need to do the research to find these artists that make our format move forward.” I’m really proud of what the team has done there with our Equal Play, Next Women of Country, and Listen Up programs, and being a voice for these artists.

What is something people might not know about what you do?

Speaking for myself, because I love to do it, I do a lot of mentoring and make myself available because people did that for me when I was getting into the industry. I always feel like I have that responsibility to give back, but I honestly enjoy doing it. I think a little encouragement goes a long way for someone and if you’re being a good listener and you’re encouraging someone, it’s incredible to see what happens next.

Who have been some of your mentors?

Early on when I was in radio, there was a guy named Eric Tracy. When I was a little baby DJ, he would listen to my airchecks. He was a big DJ in New Orleans and he would actually get back to me and would critique my airchecks. I speak a lot about Brian Philips because, throughout my career from radio to television, he’s always given me solid advice. When I made the move to come [to Nashville], he was the one that said, “You should look outside of radio. You should think about other opportunities.” He’s been a huge mentor to me throughout my career and still is.

Pictured: Mickey Guyton & Leslie Fram

What are some of the best qualities about our industry?

The support. When I moved here, I couldn’t believe how people got back to you. They were willing to meet, they were willing to give advice. It’s just an open arms policy. I don’t think you find that in other cities. We all want to support the next generation of industry leaders.

If you had to name something that helped make you a successful person, what would it be?

Number one is just respect. You treat everyone the same. If I’m going to walk into a room, I’m going to talk to everybody. I know that there’s a hierarchy with some people, but for me, it’s just about treating everyone with respect and kindness.

What moment have you had that your little kid self would think is so cool?

When I was 19, I was working at this little radio station and we were covering this Eagles concert in Pensacola, Florida. I was going to drive back late at night and Irving Azoff said, “Why don’t you just jump on the plane with us and we’ll take you back?” I said, “Okay.” I didn’t know who was going be on the plane, I thought maybe the label [staff would be]. I get on the plane and it’s me Irving Azoff and the Eagles. I didn’t say one word the entire time, because I was sitting there going, “What do I say? What do I do?” I’ve got Don Henley to the left of me. (Laughs) Looking at it now, I’m like, “What would I do today if I was on a plane with the Eagles?” I probably wouldn’t say anything again!

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m proud of the team that we have at CMT because we are a big family in how we all support each other. That doesn’t always happen, but I think everyone has each other’s back and everyone supports each other. For me, personally in my career, it’s just the friendships that I’ve made along the way. It’s not about getting an award. It’s not about recognition. To me, it’s just the friendships along the way that are invaluable.

My Music Row Story: The Recording Academy’s Alicia Warwick

Alicia Warwick

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.

Alicia Warwick is the Senior Executive Director of the Recording Academy’s Nashville Chapter. She has been with the Recording Academy for more than ten years and currently leads day-to-day operations of the Nashville Chapter. Warwick works with the board to engage artists and industry members regarding initiatives, programming, and outreach. Prior to joining the Academy, she served as National Membership Director for Nashville Songwriters Association International.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?

I was born in Weatherford, Oklahoma, and I grew up in Chickasha. My grandparents have a lot of farmland, and my parents are teachers and ranchers. So I had a very sweet childhood and was outside all the time.

Music was always in the household. My mom sang and played piano, and so did my grandmother. My mom tells the story that when I was six, I used to sing harmony along to songs in the car with her. I think I had the gene. I was just lucky that at a young age, I really enjoyed it and felt connected to it.

Pictured: Alicia with Bart Herbison at NSAI in 2001.

How did you pursue music as a career?

I sang in high school and I played in band. [During high school], I specifically remember having the opportunity to meet a gentleman named Joe Settlemires in Oklahoma City. A dear friend of mine in high school, Travis Linville—who is a phenomenal guitar player and singer-songwriter—introduced me to Joe. We started going to Oklahoma City and I would sing demos for Joe. That was such an eye opener because you got to see more than just what’s on the radio. You got to see behind the scenes. I realized this could be a career.

My high school music teacher pulled me aside in high school and said, “You need to sing or do something in music.” I think having some support outside of family was really a catalyst for me. I also had the opportunity to audition and be a part of the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute in high school. All of these continuous opportunities happened because I loved music and I loved to sing and write. They opened doors that provided the next steps.

I had a vocal scholarship in college and went to Southwestern Oklahoma State University, and really loved it there. I went to school there for two years, but I wasn’t learning about the music business quite like I wanted to. I had met with the gentleman in Oklahoma City and he mentioned MTSU, so I transferred to MTSU my junior year. I realized that this is where I needed to be and the opportunities, again, happened through connections. I always tell everybody, whether it’s a student or someone that’s asking for advice, it’s the “class of” mentality. You join the industry in a “class of.” I was lucky to go to college with dear colleagues like Amanda Joyner, Daniel Miller and Luke Laird.

Pictured: Alicia at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards Nashville Chapter Nominee Celebration with Thomas Rhett, Lady A and Little Big Town. Photo: Courtesy of the Recording Academy/Getty Images © 2018

How did you get into the industry?

I interned at Zomba Music Publishing. At the time that was unique to me because it was multi-genre. I love country music, but I was really excited about that. The boy bands were hot then. (Laughs)

I interviewed for a position with Bart Herbison a couple weeks before I graduated. It was for the receptionist position and I didn’t get it, but I heard from him a couple weeks later. He gave me a call and said, “You’re very Type A, like me. I think you’re going to love this new position.” He hired me as a Member Services Coordinator. [In that job] I had the opportunity to work with the pro writers for an auction that I produced. I had so much freedom in creating the program and I am really thankful to Bart for that. I would call pro writers and Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame members and ask them to submit their lyrics in some unique way [for the auction]. So Don Schlitz wrote “The Gambler” on a set of cards, Merle Kilgore wrote “Ring of Fire” [on some paper] and burned the edges, and Larry Henley wrote “Wind Beneath My Wings” on a kite. I was literally receiving a Grammy 101 from the legacy writers in Nashville, and it was such a memorable time. It was a really successful program and auction to raise money for NSAI.

I later worked my way up in the company there, through the support of Bart and all of my amazing colleagues there, and I became the National Membership Director. I oversaw membership, the workshops program and events in that role. I truly loved it because I love working with the songwriters where it all begins, the true heart of where the music starts. That was an amazing time.

Pictured: Alicia at the 20th Annual Nashville Block Party with T-Pain, Gavin DeGraw, Francesca Battistelli and Jimmie Allen. Photo: Courtesy of the Recording Academy / Getty Images © 2019

How did you get involved with The Recording Academy?

I had run into a colleague at an industry holiday party. They mentioned that there was an opening at the Academy—it was actually called NARAS back then, before The Recording Academy. I applied and I was hired as a Project Manager at the Academy in 2006.

You have worked your way up in the Academy, eventually being named the Senior Executive Director of the Nashville Chapter. What all does that entail?

The role of Senior Executive Director means I get to oversee a board of around 40 industry professionals and creators in all genres and in all professions. I am also charged with keeping the Academy’s Nashville Chapter fiscally smart and making sure we’re staying on budget. I raise funds for sponsorships along with really supporting the community at large. And of course, I help bring our national efforts with the Academy to the forefront, making sure that our members are aware of the amazing support that MusiCares provides, working philanthropically with the Grammy Museum, and working alongside our significant advocacy efforts.

My role varies in so many ways, but I would say the most important thing I do as Senior Executive Director is [help make] connections. It’s a multi-genre world. We’re charged with making sure that we are embracing all creators and all genres. That is such a fun aspect of my job.

Pictured: Alicia backstage at the Nashville Block Party with Shannon Sanders and Pentatonix. Photo: Courtesy of the Recording Academy / Getty Images © 2016

From the recent Grammy party, it seems quite clear that Nashville is very focused on diversity in its chapter. How are you guys addressing that?

The Nashville chapter absolutely supports our diversity efforts. Some of the ways in which we do that are working with our Nashville staff, our board and our committees, along with Senior Membership Manager Laura Crawford, to recruit the new member classes of the Academy. We do that through one-on-one connection, making sure that we’re allowing all of our creators to see themselves in the Academy. Whether it be by genre, generational inclusion, or racial equity, they’re all highly important to the Academy. That’s something we talk about on a daily basis. We specifically have a diversity outreach initiative committee here locally, and it has been at the top of our minds consistently on any meeting we have. It’s about how can we make all of our members feel welcome and included, because that’s what music is and that’s important to us.

Other initiatives that the Academy has worked on in regards to diversity, equity and inclusion are the creation of the Black Music Collective, and making sure that we are focusing our energy on highlighting Black creators. We also have a Women In The Mix survey that went out to women throughout the country in all genres and all areas of music to see how we can support women in music. I’m happy to say that we have increased our membership and are at 60% towards our goal in doubling our women voting members by 2025. So there’s a lot of exciting action going on.

Who have been some of your mentors throughout your career?

Connie Bradley and Pat Rolfe were absolutely mentors to me. They were so phenomenal. I remember being in the industry early on and they remembered me, they made me feel seen, and they would give me advice. Sometimes I don’t even know if they knew how much they mentored me.

I was also mentored by a lot of the professional, established writers in Nashville. A lot of members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame would come in to NSAI and they really helped pave the way for me, helped me see how the industry could work and how it really was a family.

What is some of the best advice you’ve gotten from any of them?

The best advice from Connie was to be nice to everybody no matter where you are in your career. She used to say, “You never know who your boss is going to be someday.” That really stuck with me.

Pictured: Alicia with Phil Ramone at Ocean Way. Courtesy of the Recording Academy / Getty Images © 2010

What moment have you had that your little kid self would be proud of?

About three years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Linda Perry. She was working on producing an album with Dolly Parton. I wanted to meet Linda and really engage her in the Academy. I emailed her and had a chance to connect. She said to just come by the studio and say hi. So I come in and they were like, “We’re expecting you, Alicia. Please sit here.” And I said, “I just want to be a fly on the wall. Just sit me over to the side and I will be ready to meet with Linda whenever she can.” Linda came [in the room], just going to get a drink, and she said, “Alicia, just go on into the control room.”

I was still a little hesitant, but as I walked in, Dolly was sitting in the control room and greeted me like it was just another morning. (Laughs) Linda sat down at the console, turned and chatted with me for a second, and said, “Just hang with us for a while.” Macy Gray was in that day singing and Dolly was singing harmony. That moment to me [affirmed that] this is why I love music so much and why I love the Nashville community. It reminded me that everyone is so welcoming. That was a fly on the wall moment for me that I think my younger self would’ve really cherished.

If someone was describing you, what would you want them to say?

That’s such a hard one. I would say that I cared and that I had a real open door policy. Whether someone’s joined for the first time or been a member for 30 years, I’m here.

My Music Row Story: Huskins-Harris’ Becky Harris

Becky Harris

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.

Music industry veteran Becky Harris is one of Nashville’s top business managers. She started her firm, Huskins-Harris Business Management 14 years ago, where she handles business management and accounting for clients including her son, Chris Young, as well as Kane Brown, Riley Green, Alexandra Kay, Nick Conners, Angie K, Drew Baldridge, Frankie Ballard, Keith Anderson, James Stroud, and Absolute Publicity, among others. Under the Huskins-Harris umbrella, she and CPA/business partner Donna A. Huskins work for CeCe Winans.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I was born and grew up in south Nashville. I grew up in the same house that my parents bought 6 months before I was born and sold 6 months after my son Chris [Young] was born. I lived in the same house my entire childhood.

Pictured (L-R): Becky Harris, Willie Nelson, Chris Young

How did you start your career?

When I was in college, I started out as a journalism major. I switched my major to literature and was going to teach college literature. I got married at the beginning of my senior year of college and graduated. In the summer after I graduated, they offered me an assistantship to work on my masters, and then I found out I was pregnant with Chris. Fast forward 13 months [after Chris was born], I had his sister. So I decided I could not go back to school with two little babies. Fast forward a few more years, I got divorced and I was raising two small kids by myself.

[When Chris was a kid], he ended up in a children’s theater group. They asked him to be part of a song and dance group. That’s when we realized he could really sing. When he was 15, this guy found us on the internet. He ended up being somebody who really didn’t know anything about anything. He had been a successful songwriter and he had an investor. I got panicked because now my kid was signed to a record deal and I didn’t know anything about this and this person didn’t either. I went to see an attorney, the attorney told me not to worry, that the deal would age out when he was 17. So I went back to school to get a second degree in the music business. After I graduated, another business manager here in town offered me a job so I went to work for him for seven or eight years.

What did you learn there?

The day I started they gave me James Stroud as my first client. James was running Dreamwork Records, had a studio, was one of the first guys in town to rent Pro Tools rigs, had publishing companies, had houses all over the place and hunted all over the place. I always tell everybody, “You want to learn how to be a business manager? Go to work for James Stroud.” I still have him as a client.

Pictured (L-R): Kane Brown, Becky Harris, Chris Young

You formed your business management firm, Huskins-Harris, in 2008. How did that come to be?

I quit [at the business management firm I was at]. My former boss passed away after I left, so James came with me. When I started, we didn’t really have any clients. We were going to take the people in Nashville that nobody else wanted. That was my business model. I thought I was going to work three days a week and Donna [Huskins], my business partner, was going to work two days a week. Now we work seven days a week. (laughs)

I had done a lot of things throughout my lifetime when my kids were little. I worked in accounting, human resources, and had been a personal assistant. I’ve done all kinds of stuff. Really the very first day that I worked for James, I thought, “This is everything I’ve ever done that I liked about every job I’ve ever had… all rolled into one thing.”

Business managers are some unsung heroes in the music industry. How do you approach business management?

We’re a little bit different than some business managers. We look at it as if it touches their money, it’s our job. So we actually get involved in a lot of stuff that some people don’t. I’ve done everything from going to somebody’s house at 8:00 o’clock at night to fix their microwave. We go get people’s car tags for them. We’re just very hands on. That’s part of why we stay a smaller firm. We over serve our clients, so I don’t take everybody. During the pandemic, a whole bunch of people called me saying “All your people are fine!” The sky fell and they were all fine.

The buck always stops with us. While we get paid the least amount of everybody, we’re always the ones that have to go to somebody else and go, “Nope, you can’t do that.” Whether that’s the artist, the booking agent, the manager, or the venue. We’re professional jackasses. (laughs)

Pictured (L-R): First National Bank of Middle Tennessee’s Ellen May, Becky Harris, SESAC’s Lydia Schultz and Shannan Hatch

Do you find it’s tough to be firm and decisive as a woman?

Not so much now as it was when I first started. I’ve been at this a long time—more than 20 years now. There weren’t a whole lot of female managers or female business managers [when I started]. Mary Ann McCready was it. She paved the way for everybody else. Now there’s Julie Boos, Kerri Edwards, Marion Kraft, and Ebie McFarland. There’s a group of people that are out there now, so you don’t have to prove yourself like you once did to be a female in the music business.

When do you feel most fulfilled in your role?

It’s always the firsts. At some point, they get to where they can afford to do whatever they want to do, but then they still have firsts. The first award, the first car they buy, the first time they get to take a bus, and their first No. 1. It’s the firsts.

I went with Kane [Brown] to buy his first truck. This was really early on—the very first year. He had always wanted this truck that somebody else had. He called me one day and he said, “Hey, I really want that truck. Do you think we can go get it?” I was like, “Yep, let’s go!” So I drove him to Chattanooga to get the truck. Now he’s a car guy, so he’s always got some car. But that very first truck was just super cool because he was like a kid at Christmas time.

You have a unique perspective on the music business, also being Chris Young’s mom. What has it been like to be in the music business and watch him work his way through it?

I was in the music business for about five years before he got record deal. I knew he was successful the day that it went from everyone introducing him as “Becky Harris’ son,” to “This is Chris Young’s mom.” Every group of people that start at a label, I have to re-prove myself. They’re always like, “Oh, you’re his mom. He put you in business.” I’m like, “No, that’s not quite how that happened.” (laughs)

You learn business lessons from every client, so it wouldn’t just be Chris. I’ve been through something with every client that’s given me a unique perspective on how to move forward with other people. If you don’t grow in this industry with the way it is right now, you won’t make it very long. Things change every year.

Pictured (L-R): Tyler Reeve, Becky Harris, Riley Green

What has been a big lesson you’ve learned over the years?

The thing that has affected me most is Route 91. Chris hadn’t intended to go there, he was going to hang out with a friend in San Diego. He changed his mind at the last minute and went by himself to Vegas.

I keep my phone on 24/7. All of my clients know that. My phone ringing always wakes me up, but I had a week where I didn’t sleep. Chris tried to call me multiple times that night and it didn’t wake me up. Kane did what I’ve always told him to do, he [kept calling] until I answered the phone. When I answered the phone, Kane goes, “Have you talked to Chris? You need to call him right now, there’s an active shooter in Vegas and he won’t answer his phone for me.”

From every business management perspective and every personal perspective, so many things came out of that. You’re always told to hit the ground when there’s a shooter. Well the shooter was above and when everyone hit the ground, a lot of people got hurt. But [in regards to] every safety protocol we had in place at the time, Route 91 was a cutting edge event. They had a fence up, they had metal detectors. You could not get into that festival with any kind of weapon. Nobody ever thought about somebody [shooting from] above. I deal with insurance, I deal with liability issues, I deal with protecting the personnel, personnel policies and all those things. That was a wake up call for everybody.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

Don’t give up. Judy Harris is one of my mentors. She and Pat Rolfe have talked to me over the years. When I decided to go start a business for myself, they asked if I had any clients. I said, “No,” and they said “Don’t give up.” There’s been a number of times through the years that I’ve said, “Maybe I should retire,” and they’ve said “Don’t give up.” They weren’t wrong. Anything that you’re successful at, you have to work long hours. It’s like that in any career, not just the music industry.

What are you most proud of in your career?

That’s a hard one. Knock on wood they don’t all fire me tomorrow, but normally when somebody comes through my door, unless I tell them to go someplace else, they don’t leave.

I was Kane’s first business manager. I was Riley Green‘s first business manager. They come and they stay, thank goodness. I love that because I love growing a career with those people.

My Music Row Story: UMPG’s Troy Tomlinson

Troy Tomlinson

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.

 

This edition of “My Music Row Story” is sponsored by Worldwide Stages.

 

A 37-year publishing veteran, Troy Tomlinson is in charge of day-to-day operations for Universal Music Publishing Nashville. Among his current writer/artist hitmakers are Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Maren Morris, Luke Combs, Shania Twain, Chris Young, Brandi Carlile, Brad Tursi (Old Dominion), Scotty McCreery, Sam Hunt, Ingrid Andress and Caitlyn Smith.

Notable hit songwriters at UMPG include Chase McGill, Paul DiGiovanni, Justin Ebach, Lee Miller, Sam Ellis, Derrick Southerland, Ray Fulcher, Jacob Davis, Shane Minor, Bart Butler, Jamie Paulin, Troy Verges, John Pierce, Greylan James, and Dave Cobb, among many others.

Prior to UMPG, Tomlinson served as President and CEO of Sony Music Publishing Nashville from 2002 until 2019. Before that, he served as EVP of Acuff Rose Music Publishing from 1988 until 2002.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up up 40 miles north of here on the Kentucky line in a little town called Portland, Tennessee. I grew up on a beef cattle farm. My brother and I roamed the 80 acres that we had and had a really great childhood that made us grow up to be curious. There was just so much to explore on that farm and it really did expand this notion of curiosity for me. That’s been something that I cherish now as an adult looking back on it because we really don’t meet a lot of people in our creative business who don’t have a sense of curiosity, because that’s what spurs creativity.

Pictured: Troy, asleep in the tape room.

Did you always want to work in the music business?

When I graduated high school, I went straight to work at a plastic injection mold company, in a mentorship program. I was burned really badly on both my hands. I had second and third degree burns on both hands from this accident that happened with 700 degree molted plastic.

At the same time, I was volunteering for a civic organization called the JCs, or the junior chamber of commerce. We did about a dozen events each year to raise money for one event a year, which was to take underprivileged children in our area Christmas shopping and to throw a big Christmas party for them. I became president of the JCs when I was 19 or 20.

At my induction as president, there was a guy there that I had only met a couple of times named Cliff Williamson. So fast forward a few months, I’m laying in a burn unit here in Nashville with skin grafts on my hands, and Cliff called me. He said, “Hey man, have you ever thought about changing careers?” I was thinking, “As a matter of fact, I’m thinking about it right now!” (laughs)

Cliff hired me as a tape copy boy and as a beginner song plugger to teach me the art of song plugging at a company called Multimedia, which was a New York firm that owned TV shows like The Phil Donahue Show, Sally Jessy Raphael’s show, and some early talk shows. They also owned Channel 17 here in town and a magazine called Music City News. Cliff just thrust me into this world that I could have never really imagined being a part of.

Troy with Reba McEntire.

After getting your start at Multimedia, where did you go next?

When Multimedia was prepared to sell off pieces of the company, they began to do layoffs. I got laid off after a little over two years.

One of my writers was a writer named Don King. Don had built a new studio and started a little side publishing company. He and his father, Don Sr., asked me to come and work for them to help build up a roster. I stayed there for a couple of years. Then Rick Hall—the Muscle Shoals mogul, producer and publisher—had an opening for someone to run his Nashville office. He hired me to do that.

I was only there about a year and I learned so much. I learned what standards were. Rick Hall taught me the difference in hit songs and standards in American culture. That catalog that he owned, Rick Hall Music and FAME, it’s a patch quilt made of America’s music standards.

Then you went to work for Jerry Bradley at Acuff Rose.

All those years prior that I had been in the business, Acuff Rose and Tree Music Publishing were, to me, the preeminent country catalogs. Jerry Bradley was running Acuff Rose, and they were reinvigorating the sleeping giant [that the company had been]. It had drifted when Mr. Fred Rose became ill. So Jerry Bradley hired me and pushed me out in front of our parent company, Gaylord Entertainment and Mr. Bud Wendell, every time he could. If Jerry couldn’t be at a meeting, he pushed this little 24-26 year-old to go sit in for him in these corporate meetings and make presentations. That’s the mentoring that he did, he pushed me to the front of the stage, metaphorically.

I worked for Acuff Rose from ’88 to 2002, and moved up the ladder in that company to my final position, being Executive VP of the company and Jerry as the President. Then we were bought by Sony, and Donna [Hilley] allowed me to come over and bring a half dozen of my employees with me to Sony.

Kenny Chesney and Troy accept a BMI Award.

You had many successful years at Sony Music Publishing, and then left in 2019 to become Chairman/CEO Of UMPG Nashville.

We become an aggregate of all of life’s experiences, the good ones and the bad ones. That period working for Jerry, and then that period working for Martin [Bandier, former CEO/Chairman of Sony/ATV] were the largest aggregation of knowledge about publishing for me.

Marty was retiring and changes within Sony were occurring. At the same time, Jody Gerson, who I had worked with for a number of years at Sony and always respected and admired so much, we had breakfast together in LA at some function we were both attending. At breakfast she proposed that we find a way to work together. She was very convincing and ultimately, I made what, in one respect, was a difficult decision because myself, my staff and most people on Music Row thought that Sony/ATV is where I would spend the rest of my career.

In that regard, it took some thinking to process why I should do it. The reason I ultimately did it was I knew Jody was another one of those people that would mentor me, support me and grow me in that sphere of influence that a publisher has. I also watched the culture she had built at Universal Music Publishing since she got there and was blown away. She’s a culture-centric leader, it’s very top of mind with her.

That was a little over two and a half years ago now. Of course two years of that has been eaten up by COVID, but we’ve not only nixed a beating, but we have grown remarkably in every measurement over COVID. That’s a testimony to the employees here and the support that Jody has given us.

Looking back, what are some of the first few songs you remember having success with?

The first No. 1 that I pitched was the Alabama song called “If I Had You.” Barry Beckett, a dear friend who’s gone now, cut one album with Alabama. I’d known the boys from Alabama since I was a teenager through a variety of interesting ways. But my first pitch appointment at Acuff Rose when I got hired was with Beckett. I wanted to impress Mr. Bradley that I could get Barry Beckett in the room.

He was producing 15 acts at the time. So Beckett came down at the end of the day. He was tired and was notorious for falling asleep during pitching appointments, which was beautiful. You’d cough really loud or turn the volume up real quick [to wake him up]. (laughs) The last song on the tape was the Danny Mayo and Kerry Chater song, “If I Had You.” It was just a work tape. When it finished, Beckett said, “Randy will love that, I’ll love cutting it, and we’ll have a hit together.” Within six months, we had a No. 1 record.

Interestingly enough, as I told you, “If I Had You” was the last song out of 10 that I played Barry that day and it was the only one he loved. Fast forward a few months or a year, I’m in our new building at Acuff Rose, playing for Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs who were producing Collin Raye. The first song I played them was “Love, Me.” We had a No. 1 on it. I played them three or four more and every time they’d pass on one, they would say, “We gotta cut that first song.” So after four songs, I could see where the meeting was going, and I said, “Do y’all just want to stop listening and go to lunch?” They said, “Yeah!” (laughs). We didn’t listen to another song. I’ll never forget that. That was a wonderful experience.

Taylor Swift and Troy accept a BMI Award.

What are some of the best qualities about our industry?

We are truly a community. We’re not strung out miles apart like Los Angeles is forced to be. We run into one another and spend time with one another at the ball field, concerts, restaurants and clubs. We have a sense of community. LA, New York and Atlanta all have their own sense of community, but there’s no question that this is pretty unique.

Earlier this week I was in a label meeting with three other heads of Nashville publishing companies, and we’re all in there together talking, conversing, asking questions and sharing together. That’s a little more iffy in other places. Obviously we all compete with each other in a certain sense, because you’re trying to get the cut or have the hit, but in another sense, we truly are friends. That’s what sets this community apart.

One of the most satisfying things about the Music Row community is raising a child around all these gifted songwriters who are such characters and then having that child grow up and want to work in that same culture, both with some of those same writers but also with their own generation of creators. Seeing my son Joshua, find his place in this community as songwriter representative at BMI has been particularly gratifying.

Troy (middle) with his wife Sylvia, and son Joshua, who is also in the business as Director of Creative in Nashville’s BMI office.

What does it take to be a successful person in business and in life?

There is a a quote from To Kill A Mockingbird that I try to live by. It’s when Atticus is sitting with Scout, his young daughter who’s really torn up inside because she sees the divisiveness in their community over this false accusation of rape by a Black man. She sees this miniature culture war that’s happening all because of this lie that’s told. She’s obviously trying make sense of it and, I’m paraphrasing, but Atticus says that great line: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I would say that, one of the ways that one might measure success that seems more important to me than a lot of other ways we can measure it, is what Atticus was describing: empathy. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes to the best that you can.

I really believe with all of my soul that you will look back on your career and call it successful if you have loved the people that you work with, if you’ve poured yourself into it, and if you have tried your best, even in difficult times, to show them empathy. Even when we disagree, even when it’s hard to show empathy toward people, I believe that would be the premier expression of success for me. If I’m doing that, I can feel successful. And if people see me doing that, they might consider me successful.

The string of No. 1s or the string of awards from organizations, all the pictures that we take with ourselves and with artists, all that’s wonderful—that’s part of our culture and who we are. It’s all important and a joyful experience. But if we gain all that and we sacrifice loving one another and showing empathy to one another, all that other stuff is just a breeze that blows by for a second and is gone. That would be my underlying definition of success.

My Music Row Story: ASCAP’s Mike Sistad

Mike Sistad

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.

Minnesota native and music industry executive Mike Sistad has worked on both the creative and business sides of the music business. As a musician, he has performed across most of North America, including stops at the Houston Rodeo and Calgary Stampede, as well as radio and TV performances including Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry.

A Belmont University graduate, Sistad has worked with legendary Muscle Shoals producer/musician Barry Beckett; as an A&R executive for Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan with Arista Records Nashville; and as a band member for 2-time ASCAP Country Songwriter/Artist of the Year Phil Vassar.

In 2001, the late, legendary Connie Bradley enlisted Sistad to join the ASCAP Membership team. In his current role as VP of Nashville Membership, Sistad continues to work with all aspects of the music industry as it pertains to songwriters, artists and publishing companies. He has contributed to the success of Chris Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini, Old Dominion, Brothers Osborne, Carly Pearce and many others. Sistad previously served as both a Board Governor and Chapter Advisor for the Nashville Chapter of the Recording Academy in addition to being an AIMP Nashville board member, CMA, ACM member and Leadership Music alumni.

Pictured: Mike Sistad and fellow band members of The Barn Boys stand in front of their bus in 1983. (L-R): Sistad, Tom Bernstein, Randy Larson, Gene Lunsetter, Terry Ruud, Randy McMillin, Mike Semanko

MusicRow: I didn’t realize you were a musician before you got into the business. Tell me about your musical upbringing. 

I have been doing music since as long as I can remember. My mom is the church organist and pianist at our little Lutheran church back home in Minnesota. She’s 87 years old and she’s still the church organist. So music has always been a part of my life, right from the beginning with performing and playing.

In high school, I ended up playing in a band on weekends with a bunch of buddies. My senior year, [the band competed in] The Country Showdown contest. It was in ’82, and our band ended up winning in Minnesota and representing Minnesota at the national contest here in Nashville. I was just about ready to graduate from high school and instead of just having fun playing—which it was—all the band guys thought if we took this a little more seriously, maybe we can actually do something with this.

The original band name was Bean Ball Barnett & The Back Behind The Barn Boys. Eventually we figured out that nobody wanted to be Bean Ball Barnett so we shortened the name to The Back Behind The Barn Boys. Of course it started out as a joke to us, but we soon had a following and didn’t think we should change the name! The Barn Boys became the abbreviated version. We were booked by the Good Music Agency (GMA) out of Minneapolis, Minnesota—which was a training ground for many of the booking agents that found their way to Nashville over the years.

How did you get to Belmont University? 

I started college for a semester and quit to go be a full-time musician, every parent’s dream for their children. I [traveled with the band] full time for about six years. I started a family in the middle of that and decided I didn’t want to be traveling and gone all the time anymore. So I started to look at going back to school and Belmont was on the radar for me.

Pictured: Arista Records Nashville team at Fan Fair in 2000.

What was your first stop after graduation?

I interned with Barry Beckett, a very famous Muscle Shoals musician and producer here in town, for about a year. In my next internship, I went from Barry Beckett to Arista Records. It was very early on and really small at that point.

I went there as an intern. I thought, “I’ll go check out this record label and be disillusioned by the record industry.” As a musician, you think they’re the big, bad guys. But I ended up loving it. I didn’t know Tim [DuBois], but I knew he was a songwriter and he was running the office. It was a big deal to me that there was a musical person running the office. I ended up working my way into A&R, which was really the only thing I cared to do.

What happened to you when Arista closed?

We kind of knew what was coming before it happened. Phil Vassar was one of the artists I worked with and he was brave enough to invite me to go back out on the road as a musician again, so I did that. Connie Bradley had actually reached out to me too while I was still at Arista. She said, “I don’t have a job to offer you right now, but I’d love for you to consider it when the time comes. I’d like to call you if you’re interested.” I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to do that.”

Phil was just getting started. I was excited to go on the road and start playing with some of the band guys and remember all the reasons I started. [I toured with Phil] for about a year.

Then Connie reached out to talk to me and she actually called Phil to talk to him about it, too. She came to the CRS New Faces show when Phil played. I played with him on that show. That’s where she officially asked me to join.

Pictured (L-R): Mike Sistad, John Osborne, TJ Osborne, ASCAP’s Evyn Mustoe Johnston at the 2019 ASCAP Country Awards.

Now, more than 20 years later, you are VP of Nashville Membership at ASCAP. What are some things that you’ve enjoyed about transitioning into the business side?

I love being on the business side, but I’m still working with the people who are writing the songs, the people that are singing the songs and the people playing the songs. That’s where my heart is: the creative community, the people making the music. It’s fun to work at a place where we’re owned by our membership. ASCAP is a little different that way than the other PROs in that we’re actually owned by the writers and the publishers. So it’s nice to work someplace where I feel there’s a bigger purpose behind it, other than a job. You’re their advocate, you’re cheerleading for them, you’re trying to hopefully help them move forward and have success. I’m fortunate to get to see a lot of those folks early on before that happens for them and it’s pretty fun to have those kinds of relationships with a lot of people.

When you look back on the last 20 years at ASCAP, when have you felt most fulfilled?

One of the most rewarding parts of what I get to do is trying to be helpful for people when they’re in the beginning stages, especially. A lot of them don’t have a publisher, a manager, or a label deal yet. It’s exciting when you see somebody you believe is going to be great and it might happen a year from now, it might be five years from now, or it might not ever happen.

When I met Carly Pearce, she might have been 18. She was pretty new to Nashville. I love the fact that she just kept going. She had her ups and downs, two steps forward and one step back through all those years, but it’s that five-year or 10-year overnight success thing when things finally start falling into place. She was doing all the right work to get there.

I met Kelsea Ballerini when she was 15. Matt Ramsey from Old Dominion was around town working, trying to make it for a lot of years before things started happening. That’s true for most people. For me, it’s great when I see people that I know have been working for it and haven’t given up when it doesn’t happen easily.

Pictured (L-R): MusicRow‘s Sherod Robertson, Carly Pearce, Mike Sistad at the unveiling of MusicRow‘s 2018 Artist Roster issue.

Who have been some of your mentors over the years?

Connie Bradley was big mentor, obviously, with my role where I’m at now. My current boss, John Titta has been great. Ralph Murphy really took me under his wing when I came to ASCAP. Phil Vassar—he didn’t have to ask me to come out on the road and play with him when that happened.

The Arista days were really special. It was great to work with Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan. Those two people have been friends through the whole process. As much I missed seeing that time period go away and the Arista family split, what’s really been rewarding is to see the success of all the people that were working there.

If someone was describing you, what would you want them to say?

Respectfully honest. It is business and sometimes you don’t always have the chance to give the answer that someone’s looking for, but if you try to be honest with them and do it respectfully, I think that’s important for everybody.

Pictured (L-R): Chris Stapleton, Morgane Stapleton, Julie Meirick, Mike Sistad at the Grammy Awards.

What are some of your favorite career moments?

Before it became CMA Fest, we used to have Fan Fare down at the old Tennessee state fairgrounds. It was basically the last event or show that we did as Arista Nashville before the merger happened.We have a group picture with a bunch of our artists and most of our staff. It’s got the grandstand full of people in the background off the stage, which is pretty cool. It was a bittersweet day, but at the same time, I think it’s easier to look back on it now as a wonderful time and a wonderful bunch of people to share that with.

Another time was when Chris Stapleton was going have his first year going to the Grammy’s as an artist. I took my wife, Julie, for the first time. We got to sit by Chris and Morgane and he got up to get his first and second Grammy award. [When I was a kid], to think about even going to the Grammy Awards, let alone being a part of it or seeing somebody’s career go like Chris’ has, would have blown my mind.

Those are things you don’t think about when you’re in the middle of it, but it’s pretty fun when those Kodak moments happen in life here and there. It’s fun to hopefully be a small part of these people’s worlds. I’m glad to see all the good things happen for them that they deserve.

My Music Row Story: MTSU’s Beverly Keel

Beverly Keel

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.

Beverly Keel is Dean of MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment and a music industry activist who works for gender and racial equality in the music industry. She is also an award-winning music journalist whose work has appeared in People, Parade, InStyle, New York, Rolling Stone, The Tennessean, and many other publications.

Keel has been a professor in MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry since 1995 and became chair of the department in 2013. She took a leave of absence to serve as Senior Vice President of Artist and Media Relations for Universal Music Group Nashville, where she was responsible for the media campaigns of projects, including Lionel Richie, Vince Gill, Sugarland, Shania Twain, George Strait and many more.

In her work as an activist, Keel co-founded Change the Conversation in 2014 to advocate for gender equality in country music. She also co-founded Nashville Music Equality in 2020 to help create an anti-racist environment in the Nashville music industry. Keel was recently named a national “Change Agent” by Billboard for her advocacy efforts.

The SOURCE Hall of Fame member also serves as publicist for Jamey Johnson and has been a consultant for various projects and artists, such as Richie, Alison Krauss, and Scotty McCreery.

Beverly Keel with Kenny Rogers. Photo: Courtesy Beverly Keel

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Nashville. I attended school with Ty Conley, Earl Thomas Conley‘s son, and Kelly Greenwood, Lee Greenwood‘s daughter, but we didn’t give country music much of a thought. We thought it was cool, but I also thought the daughter of the manager of the movie theater was cool as well. She got to go to all those movies and eat all that popcorn. So, although I grew up here, I might as well have been in another state in terms of the country music industry.

You dad, Pinckney Keel, was an editor at the Nashville Banner for more than two decades. Did he instill a love of writing in you?

My dad spent about 27 years at the Nashville Banner. He invented the Weekender Section at the Banner and his claim to fame is that he gave Elvis the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis.” Unfortunately he died when I was in high school, before I knew I had an interest in journalism, so he never knew that I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

How did you realize that you wanted to pursue journalism?

I originally thought I wanted to do broadcast journalism, I guess I thought it would be cool to be on TV. I majored in broadcast journalism, but I got a part-time job at the Nashville Banner and was immediately hooked with print. It was just in my blood—I don’t know that there’s anything more exciting than a newspaper newsroom. Early on I thought I wanted to do sports journalism because I was a pretty good high school athlete. I got a scholarship and played volleyball at MTSU and I was a sports editor of Sidelines, the school paper at MTSU. [I became] a sports intern under Mark Howard at Channel 5, but then I realized I’d have to work every weekend and holiday of my life.

When I started with Banner, I just went where they had an opening and it was the business desk. Then, when I graduated, they hired me full time as a state desk writer. I decided to go to graduate school, and the Nashville Banner paid my way with a full scholarship. I had to come back and work two years, but I ended up coming back and working five. When I came back, the opening was in the business department and I was covering transportation. That was in the early ’90s, when the Garth Brooks/country music boom happened. I started covering the music business from a business perspective, and that’s how I got into it.

George Strait with Beverly Keel. Photo: Courtesy Beverly Keel

Then you briefly moved over into a publicity role at a label, before coming back to journalism.

In ’94, they were reviving Polydor Records in Nashville. I went over to work in the publicity department with Wes Vause. It was a disaster and I was so miserable. I would just go home and stare at the ceiling at night. (Laughs)

I had been an adjunct of MTSU, so I went full time in ’95 and started a freelance journalism career from scratch. I wrote for MusicRow, doing album reviews and features, and spent 10 years as the Nashville correspondent of People.

What are some big stories that you remember covering in the music business at that time?

I worked on the People magazine cover story when Tammy Wynette died. One week in ’98 was particularly memorable because I interviewed Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash all in the same week.

How did you become so involved at MTSU?

I served as an adjunct from ’90 to ’95. I started teaching media writing in the journalism department. I created an entertainment journalism class in the recording industry department. Then, when I was doing publicity at Polydor, I started teaching music publicity. I’m teaching that course tomorrow—I still teach that course 20-something years later.

I’m really proud of how well my students have done. The best part of my life is getting to know our students and seeing them succeed.

Beverly Keel interviewing A&R legends Martha Sharp and Mary Martin. Photo: Courtesy Beverly Keel

You have become a mentor for so many, including myself. Who have been some of your mentors?

Ruth Ann Harnisch, many people remember her as Ruth Ann Leach. I believe she was the first woman on TV in Nashville as an anchor. At one point she was on TV, had a radio show, and had a Nashville Banner column. My father was her editor at the Banner and I actually met her at the funeral home when he died. She took me under her wing then and still supports me to this day. Jane DuBose was my editor at the Banner. She really nurtured and guided me.

Patsy Bruce has been a long time mentor, Lura Bainbridge. Women have been so supportive of me, so I want to pass that on.

You became the Dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU in 2020. What are some of your goals for the program?

Quite simply to become the biggest and best possible program. We are the only College of Media and Entertainment in the world. Our recording industry program is ranked consistently on both Billboard and Hollywood Reporter‘s list of the best music or music business programs worldwide. So we keep raising our standards.

Everything’s changing: the music industry is changing, journalism is changing. Digital animation is a growing area for us, and we have a huge TV and film production major. So we are exploring. We want to be the leaders of the conversation and training in media and entertainment.

You’re also really well-known for your advocacy efforts. You co-founded Change the Conversation to advocate for gender equality in country music, and co-founded Nashville Music Equality to help create an anti-racist environment in the Nashville music industry. Do you feel that we’re moving in the right direction when it comes to race and gender in country music?

What is it that they say, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem? I think that’s where we are.

Through Change the Conversation and Nashville Music Equality, we’ve raised awareness that the problem of sexism and racism exists, but the problem still exists. Last week I was driving from MTSU to Nashville, listening to a country radio station during drive time. I didn’t hear one female voice. Driving back at 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., I heard two songs by women. So, we have a long way to go. But keep in mind when we first started, people said there wasn’t a problem. The conventional wisdom now is there is a problem, so we’re getting there.

When it comes to racism in country music, the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last several years is it’s not that Black artists were not interested in performing and recording country music, it’s that the doors weren’t open for them. Now that we have raised awareness, we are seeing the needle move in terms of artists getting signed. You just saw Warner Music Nashville announce they have signed Breland; Big Machine has signed Tiera Kennedy; Brittany Spencer—who is one of our graduates—has exploded this year. So whether it is female artists or artists of color, all we’re saying is give them an even chance. The problem is the music is not getting heard. We’re trying to find ways to get their music heard.

Lionel Richie with Beverly Keel. Photo: Courtesy Beverly Keel

It takes a lot to get to the position you’re at. Do you have any scars that you’ve earned along the way?

I am blessed with a short memory. I am ridiculously positive. Not only is the glass half full, it’s a gorgeous glass.

Not everyone loves an outspoken woman. I’ve had to learn it’s okay not to be liked. When you speak about what you believe in, you sleep well at night.

If someone says “old school Music Row,” what do you think of?

The good old days. It was two or three No. 1 parties a day. It was before there was so much pressure on the artist to look perfect in designer clothes and to have perfect bodies. It was still an age of innocence. There was a lot of money flowing, there were a lot of albums being sold. It was a community. It was before email, so we had time. Email and cell phones took away our time. Now people do the jobs of two or three people. The pressure is relentless and it can be not a lot of fun. Back then, it was just fun and the music was so great.

What are you most proud of in your career?

The success of my students. That is the joy and highlight of my life. The success of my students has brought me more rewards and satisfaction than anything I’ve done. Whether it’s seeing Brian Wright become Executive Vice President of A&R at UMG, or Daniel Miller and Aaron Tannenbaum succeed. Erin Enderlin played “Monday Morning Church” for me and my faculty office, and it became a nominated song for Alan Jackson. I remember seeing Hillary Scott in the student grill after Victoria Shaw had introduced her to me.

It is a privilege to be able to get to know these people and just share a little moment of their lives.