My Music Row Story: UMG Nashville’s Stephanie Wright

Stephanie Wright

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.

Stephanie Wright has been an integral part of Universal Music Group for more than 20 years. As Senior VP, A&R, she aids A&R initiatives for Capitol, EMI, MCA and Mercury, including talent recruitment, artist development and oversight of respective recording projects for UMG artists Sam Hunt, Jordan Davis, Maddie & Tae, Parker McCollum, Little Big Town, Mickey Guyton and more. Her artist signings include Hunt, Davis, McCollum, Kacey Musgraves, Kassi Ashton, and Catie Offerman. She was promoted to her current role in 2018.

A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright came to the music business through her cousins, the Platinum-selling sibling trio SHeDAISY. Since, Wright has been instrumental in critically-acclaimed albums, including Lee Ann Womack‘s Call Me Crazy, Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park, and Hunt’s Montevallo. She serves on the T.J. Martell Foundation (Southern Region) board of directors and is a member of the ACM, CMA, Recording Academy and N.O.W. In addition to Rising Women on the Row, Wright has been honored multiple times as one of the Nashville Business Journal‘s Women of the Year.

Wright will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Utah in a town called Magna that’s about 20 minutes outside of Salt Lake. We called Magna the armpit of Salt Lake. It was close to the Great Salt Lake and the Great Salt Lake stinks. It’s sort of centered in between the lake itself and then this big copper mine that’s there. Copper smells and the Great Salt Lake smells, so we called it the armpit.

Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Wright

What did you want to do when you were growing up there?

I didn’t really know. After graduating high school, I started college to be an interior designer. The creative side of that was great. My cousins are the girls from SHeDAISY. Kristyn and Kelsi had moved [to Nashville]—I don’t think Kassi had moved there yet—but they were pursuing a career and trying to get a recording contract. Kristyn and I were really close. She would call me and tell me all about what was going on here in Nashville. We had a lot in common in that I was the kid at the record store that would go in Tuesday to find the albums that had just released.

The reason I ended up moving here was because my starter marriage. My son’s dad wanted to come to Nashville or to Iowa. He wanted to become a dentist and he wanted to go to Meharry [Medical College School of Dentistry], so that’s the reason we ended up here. We ended up buying a house right next to where my cousins were living. My first trip into Nashville was the weekend Kristyn signed her record deal. I flew in and she said, “I have a busy schedule, but we can at least look at a few different houses.” I met Dann Huff that weekend because they were in the process of recording. I met Randy Goodman, Shelby Kennedy, Connie Harrington, Bonnie Baker and more. I didn’t know who any of those people were, but looking back on the magnitude of what that is, I had no idea what a blessing it was.

Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Wright

Did you join the music business when you got here?

When I got here, I ended up going to work for a company that was buying up small mom and pop heating and air conditioning companies in Maryland Farms. I had a young son, so I needed to figure out how to make an income. I took that job immediately but really hated it. I started going to some of Kristyn’s business meetings. I really did not know anything about the background of what happens in the music business other than what she was doing, but the more I was in these meetings, I started thinking maybe management would be kind of cool. I also thought working at a record label seemed pretty interesting. But I found out really quickly that if you did not go to school here and you did not go through the networking process of meeting people, you were definitely an outsider. I would go into interviews and they’d be like, “So are you trying to be an artist?” [Laughs]

I probably went on 10 or 15 interviews. I got to a place where I felt like this must not be the right path for me. No one wants to let you in if you’re not already in. Then I saw this advertisement in the newspaper for an executive assistant position for a CEO of a major record label. At this point, I’d had at least enough experience to know that is not how those jobs come about, but in this particular case, it was. I had to go through a staffing agency. I had to go in and take a type test and go through several interviews. The job was to work for Capitol Records for Pat Quigley. I think the only reason I got the job is because I talked fast and he wanted someone that had not been in the music business. He wanted someone that had really just done executive assistant work outside of the business. It was a big blessing and a really great overview of structure of the label, how it all worked, and all the different departments. He was an interesting person to work for. He was also an outsider and he relished in that.

Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Wright

How did you become interested in A&R?

I found myself really watching the A&R department at the time when Larry Willoughby ran it. Molly Reynolds was there as well. Larry was really good about coming in and playing songs. He would say, “Wait until you hear this new Keith Urban track we just cut.”

One day Pat came in and said, “There’s a meeting happening. I think I’m going to be let go. I have a contract, you do not, so you need to go find another job.” I didn’t know enough about the music business to know that this was not uncommon, so I was completely panicked. Larry came to me and said, “You should probably reach out to Mike Dungan because that’s who is going to take this job.” I felt like that would be a betrayal to Pat—I didn’t know how to navigate that.

Haley McLemore had been working with me at Capitol under the finance department. I called her and she said, “I think there might be a job opening in the A&R department. Why don’t you come over? I’ll introduce you to Gary Harrison and Carson Chamberlain and you can see if that’s something that might be interesting to you.” Gary Harrison and I spent the afternoon talking. I came back in for an interview and they offered me the job, thankfully. It was a lot less than what I had been making, but I needed a job and I didn’t want to not be in this anymore. Little did I know how that would greatly affect the rest of my life and where I am today.

What was one of your most memorable experiences from that time?

I was in the studio when Alan Jackson recorded “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” It was so fresh. We were finishing up the Drive project and it was the second to last song that we recorded that day. He came in and said, “I want to play this for you. I woke up last night and finished this song.” We all sat there just completely blown away by what it was. Then the musicians all just quietly and very reverently got up and started playing music. Right after we cut that song, he forgot he had to do a song for a ZZ Top collaboration record that they were doing. We were having to shuffle from this big reverent, somber, heavy moment to ZZ Top. (Laughs)

Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Wright

What was next for you?

There’s been several mergers that have happened and different labels that have been brought under the umbrella of Universal. Gary and Carson left and they brought in Mary Martin. I got to work with her for a year and a half, which was extremely educational and very helpful. Then we merged with MCA and at that point, David Conrad came over. I was his executive assistant, but I found myself liking more of the recording admin. and I also was starting to like the creative stuff. At that point I had been divorced and I was a single parent, so I looked at the person that was in the spot I wanted and they’d been there for 28 years. So I really dug into what that process was and following up a project from start to finish. David was great about it. He said, “As long as you can take care of me or train someone to take care of me, I’ll let you have some of this.” I was still going to the studios. I was still seeing how Mark Wright, Richard Marks, and Byron Gallimore worked in the studio.

Next, we merged with DreamWorks. Then it was James Stroud and Luke Lewis that were the head of the label. James came in and said, “I want everybody in here, no matter what you’re doing in this department, to be creative.” So I started begging people to come in and play songs for me. People like Jeff Skaggs, Kerri Edwards, Cris Lacy and Cyndi Forman who I’d met booking appointments for David or for whoever else at the time. I even reached out to someone like Brandy Clark, who was just starting to come up through the ranks. I had her pitch group—which was all songwriters—come in and play for me in my little tiny office. I would have them all take turns at the CD player. I was taking notes and was really dedicated to trying to figure out how to make it work.

When did you start to have success as a creative A&R executive?

During that time, Erin Enderlin came in and played a song for me called “Last Call.” It was a song that her and Shane McAnally had written together that Lee Ann Womack eventually cut. I remember being really brave that day and I walked into Brian [Wright]‘s office saying, “This is a really great song for Womack. I know she’s looking.” It ended up getting cut. Through that, I realized I really loved this.

Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Wright

During that time, we had changed buildings again. I think we had moved downtown at this point. I had met with Alicia Pruitt one day and she mentioned something about Kacey Musgraves. They had just signed her. She played me a couple things and I knew I had to reach out. I cold called her one day. I didn’t really have the ability to sign anybody at that point. I went and met with her and we had a great conversation. I came back to Brian and I said, “I don’t know what goes into signing someone, but I know that I sat across from someone today that’s magical and mesmerizing. If there was a sheet of things that you should probably have [to get signed], I think she has all of those things. She has vision. She’s unique.” It took a long time to convince people that I was serious, but I finally talked Brian and Luke into meeting with her and signing her.

It comes full circle back to Mike Dungan. When we merged with Universal, Mike and I went to breakfast one morning, which is what he was doing with everyone when we merged. He said, “I think you should be doing creative full time and not the other stuff.”

We will be honoring you tomorrow at Rising Women On the Row. If someone were to ask you what success meant to you, what would you tell them?

Where I feel like the success comes in is when you see the satisfaction of an artist when a crowd reacts to a song. You see that crowd sing a song back to the artist, and them get emotionally overwhelmed at what’s happening, that’s pretty magical. I still live for those moments. Those moments are super precious and the ones that keep me interested in trying to continue to do this for other people.

I think I take the things that I don’t have success at a whole lot harder and they stick with me a lot more, so I think learning from the mistakes I’ve made along the way is so much more of a motivator for me. I don’t do a lot of thinking on success, so that’s why these interviews are a little bit difficult because, while there is a lot of that, I think that there’s still much more to accomplish and more people to help.

My Music Row Story: City National Bank’s Mandy Gallagher Morrison

Mandy Morrison

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.

With over 18 years of music industry banking experience, Mandy Gallagher Morrison’s specialty is helping her clients meet their financial goals. She joined City National Bank in 2011 to help launch its Nashville office, which made her the youngest relationship manager in the bank’s entire Entertainment division. Morrison was promoted to vice president in just two years, and has played an integral role in the bank’s growth story as it has become one of Nashville’s premiere entertainment banks. During the pandemic, Morrison quickly pivoted to helping clients secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to help them survive the uncertainty and build their businesses for the “new normal.”

A year after joining City National, Morrison helped to start the Troubadour Society, an organization for young professionals that supports the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. As one of the founding leaders, she spearheaded the collaboration with the Hall of Fame to launch the organization, and is still a member today. She is currently a member of the nonprofit SOURCE, of which she sat on the board for eight years including as board president, past president and program committee chair. Morrison is also a member of the Gospel Music Association’s Business Advisory Council. She is heavily involved in Leadership Music after graduating from the program in 2015.

Morrison will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Altamont, Tennessee, which is about an hour and a half from Nashville going towards Chattanooga. It’s a very small, rural town in Grundy County.

Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Morrison

Were you musical? Did you have aspirations of being in the music business when you were growing up?

No. It’s a total God thing, when you look back at your life. When I graduated, I wanted to go to the University of Tennessee but I ended up getting a scholarship at MTSU. So obviously the wise decision was to go to MTSU. I knew I wanted to do business, but I didn’t know necessarily what I wanted to do. My next door neighbor back in Grundy growing up was very high up at SunTrust Bank. When she found out I was going to MTSU, she said, “We’re always hiring college kids to be part-time tellers. Would you be interested in a job?” So my freshman year of college, I got a part-time job at SunTrust. In the summers, I would work there full time. Throughout that process, I decided to go the marketing route, so that’s what I ended up graduating in.

What did you do after college?

After I graduated from school, my manager at the time at SunTrust said, “I know you graduated in marketing and you’re probably going to be looking for a marketing job, but you are really good at your job and I think that you need to try to move up within our company until you find something that you like. There’s a position open at our music industry office in Nashville that I think you would be a great fit for. I think you need to go interview.” It wasn’t necessarily what I was planning on, but it sounded like a great opportunity. I wanted to make some more money and move up at the company while I could. So I went and interviewed. Beverly Templeton was the manager at the time, and Brian Williams managed the whole office. One Friday morning I came in and interviewed with Beverly. She called me on Monday and offered me the job.

I moved and started working at the SunTrust Entertainment Office. I probably wasn’t there for a month before I was like, “This is the coolest thing ever.” I’m in the music industry, but not in the music industry. It’s a different side of banking. You’re getting to work with artists, songwriters, business managers and publishers. Diane [Pearson] and Lori [Badgett] were there. After seeing what Beverly, Brian, Diane and Lori were doing, I knew I could actually make this a career.

Mandy Morrison, Diane Pearson, Lori Badgett. Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Morrison

What was your path at Sun Trust?

In the banking world, there are so many avenues that you can go down—especially when you were at SunTrust. You could get on the mortgage team, you could go investments, you could go into business banking, et cetera. I just knew I wanted to be Lori and Diane one day. [Laughs] I eventually wanted to be a relationship manager or a private banker.

I started as what they call a financial service representative and I did that for a few years. After that I became the assistant manager. Then my area manager at the time was like, “In order to move you up within the entertainment division, we’re going to have to move you out of the entertainment division.” So I actually went and worked at the West End office for about a year and a half, outside of entertainment. I hated it the whole time.

After that, they had a business banking position come open at the entertainment office and they immediately took me back. So I moved back to business banking for about another year and a half. Then the management position came open for the retail side of the entertainment office. So at that point, I was managing the whole team downstairs: the tellers, the financial service representatives, the assistant manager, and the retail office of the entertainment business. I loved it.

How did you get to City National Bank?

Me and Diane Pearson went to Vegas for an awards show. Diane said, “Mandy, I have an offer for you. I’ve been talking to City National Bank. They’re coming to town. I would love for you to come and be a junior relationship manager under me.” That’s what I wanted to do from the very beginning. But at first, I wasn’t sure. I had been working at SunTrust since I was 18. It sounded exciting, but it was very scary. My dad worked at Carrier for years because it was a company that was good to him. My parents instilled in me that you stay with companies that are good to you, there’s no reason to move just to move. SunTrust has been great to me, so at first I started back paddling but we talked about it again and I started feeling good about it.

I remember walking in and telling my manager at the time that I was leaving. My heart was pounding. I was taking a big leap of faith. It was like nothing that I’ve never done. I was scared to death. But Diane was coming and Lori was coming, so at least I knew that I was going to be surrounded by amazing people that could help me and cheer me on. 11 years later, here we are.

Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Morrison

What were those first years of building the Nashville branch of CNB like?

Hard. [Laughs] We had to figure out the systems of CNB. Diane and Lori had been at SunTrust pretty much their whole career as well. We were all trying to figure it out together. We were all in it together. The LA teams and the New York teams were so helpful. CNB is an incredible company, especially when it comes to entertainment.

11 years later, what all does your role entail?

I describe myself as the quarterback for my clients. My book of business is a lot of songwriters, so I deal a lot in songwriter markets in addition to business managers, producers, et cetera. I help them with, ultimately, whatever they need. If they need a mortgage, then I’ll get my mortgage advisor involved and we’ll get a mortgage. If they’re looking at investments, I get my investment guy and we talk through everything. You never really know what’s going to happen day to day. It’s really just continuing to grow my book and elevating and helping my clients financially as as much as I can.

Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Morrison

You’ve talked a lot about Diane and Lori, what are some things you’ve learned from them?

Those two are two of the hardest working women. I could cry talking about them. They are so inspiring. They’re very humble. They’re just great leaders in their own unique ways. They both bring so much to the table.

Do you think that having women in your life like that impacted your experience as a woman in the music industry?

100%. Diane took me under her wing when we were in SunTrust and really helped me along way. I remember when I had to go out to the West End office, I asked her if that was a good move. With her experience, she guided me in that decision and really helped me understand that. They’re brilliant bankers. Lori, for example, is incredible with catalog loans. The knowledge that they bring to the table is wonderful. Having mentors and grabbing them early is such a key to succeed.

Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Morrison

You’re super involved in philanthropy efforts as well. What have been some of your proudest accomplishments over the years?

I would say one of my proudest is the Troubadour Society with the Country Music Hall of Fame. I helped start that from the ground up. It has been really rewarding seeing it become what it has become. SOURCE has also been a great one that I’ve loved to be part of.

Starting so young in my career, I was able to get involved with SOLID at the very beginning. Then I sat on the board of SOLID. I went from SOLID straight into SOURCE. Then I was able to get into Leadership Music in 2015. All of that has been rewarding.

You will be honored at MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row breakfast on Oct. 20. If somebody was to ask you what success for you, what would you tell them?

During that process of transitioning from SunTrust and CNB, I actually got my master’s at Lipscomb. They have an MBA on leadership. I took a class on leadership over there and something in that class hit home for me. The professor had a deck of card that had all of these adjectives on them. You had to go through the deck four or five times and pick cards that you felt were meaningful to you as a person. Once you got down to five cards, she said, “When these five values are coming out of your job, that means that you’ve found the job that is true to yourself.” So to me, success is defined when you are being true to who you are and your values are pouring out in what you’re doing. My five values were faith, family, service, trust, and legacy.

My Music Row Story: UMPG Nashville’s Missy Roberts

Missy Roberts

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.

As Vice President, A&R for Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville, Missy Roberts represents a catalog of writers that include Brandi Carlile, Ingrid Andress, Caitlyn Smith, Paul DiGiovanni, Justin Ebach, Jamie Paulin, Derrick Southerland, Shane Minor and more. After an internship in marketing at Sony Records, Roberts was hired by the A&R department as assistant to industry vet Tracy Gershon.

She launched her publishing career at Island Bound Music. From there, she moved to Disney Music Publishing where she helped start the Nashville office. Since then, Roberts has held posts at Stage Three Music and EMI Music Publishing, before joining UMPG Nashville in 2012. She was promoted to her current position at UMPG in 2021. Roberts has been a part of numerous cuts and No. 1 hits throughout her career, including “The Climb” (Miley Cyrus), “The Truth” (Jason Aldean), 2014 ASCAP Song Of The Year “It Goes Like This” (Thomas Rhett) and 2020 CMA Song Of The Year Nominee and MusicRow Song Of The Year award winner “More Hearts Than Mine” (Ingrid Andress).

Roberts will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a little town called Downs, Illinois, which is right outside of Bloomington. 500 people, corn and beans. I hated it as a kid but I’m very thankful for it now. It was a really great way to grow up.

Photo: Courtesy of Missy Roberts

Were you musical?

I was not musical, but always very drawn to music. My uncle on my mom’s side, who I’m still really close with, did lighting and sound in the ’80s for all the big arena rock bands like Rush, Damn Yankees and Bad Company. I was very drawn to and connected to him. If he was on tour within three to four hours driving distance of where I grew up, my mom would take me and drop me off with him at the venue and I would run around with him all day. I became so fascinated by what is it about songs that get a person to connect to an artist or get a crowd to react.

Did you know you wanted to be in the music business from then on?

I did. I have said since I was a kid that I was going to do music business, but I ended up getting really active in sports. That really took over, especially from junior high into high school. I toured the country playing softball and ended up getting a scholarship for it. So I thought that was my path for a while, though I was still very drawn to music. I was the kid in school that everybody came to for new music. If I wasn’t practicing softball, I was in front of a radio just taking in music and making mixtapes.

Photo: Courtesy of Missy Roberts

How did that shift from softball back to music business?

I had gotten a scholarship to play softball and was majoring in sports psychology. A year into it, my family went down to Florida where my uncle was for Christmas break. He was running The Wildhorse Saloon that was at Disney. The whole Christmas break, I hung out with him at the Wildhorse. I was hanging out with the bands and just back in in that world. I thought, “What am I doing? This is what I’ve always said I was going to do from the time I can remember talking.” But who would be crazy enough to tear up a scholarship and this whole plan that you’ve established? Who would be crazy enough to give all that up and walk away? Two days before I was supposed to go back to school, I sat down with my parents and said, “I’m not going back. I quit.” That was not easy. I think they thought I was having a midlife crisis. [Laughs]

I gave up the scholarship. I went to Southern Illinois University, and worked two full-time jobs and a part-time job. Southern Illinois, at the time, had a music business program, but it was half of a true music degree and half of a business degree. It wasn’t really music business. I ended up going to one of my professors and said, “This isn’t really music business. There’s a whole side of the industry where people don’t play instruments and they don’t do recitals. That’s what I’m looking to get into.” I ended up creating my own curriculum of marketing and music business. They gave me a professor as a point person and before every semester, I would go and present to them what classes I thought I should take and why.

Photo: Courtesy of Missy Roberts

How did that lead you to Nashville?

Stan Marczewski, who is at Broken Bow now, was a year ahead of me at SIU. He had just gotten a job at a management company and had stayed in touch with the recording engineering professor. Stan called in one day and said, “I’d love to help somebody from SIU. Do you have a student that would be interested in internship?” The next day the professor told me, so I cold called Stan and we talked on the phone. I came down for my spring break that year and spent time helping him at the management company. My classes ended on Thursday, so I’d drive the three hour drive from SIU to Nashville. I’d help out at Mission Management on Fridays, I’d go out and meet people on Saturday, and then I’d drive back to SIU on Sunday nights and go back to being regular college student for four days.

The summer going into my senior year, he helped me get an internship at Sony in marketing. About a month into that, my supervisor in marketing had been begging me all day to come see this band that she was friends with. She was trying to get Tracy Gershon, one of the heads of A&R, to come out and see them. I’d been out with the interns the night before and all day I was like, “I can’t do anything else. I’m so tired.” At the last minute, I changed my mind. Tracy came with us and when we were driving to the show, Tracy said, “I don’t know I’m going to do. My assistant just told me she’s quitting. She gave me two days notice.” I made it a point to make a connection with her that night. As soon as she got in the office the next morning, my little intern desk phone started ringing and it was her. I went and sat down in her office and she said, “I sent an email out this morning asking the staff if there’s an intern that I should hire since I’m in such a pinch for somebody. There’s only one name that came back from everybody in the building and it was yours. Do you want a job?” Two days later, I was working for Tracy Gershon in A&R.

Photo: Courtesy of Missy Roberts

When did you decide you wanted to be in publishing?

Tracy was so, so great. My desk was outside of her office and she would leave her door open, so as publishers came in and met with her, I got to sit outside of her office and just take all of that in. I remember one day sitting outside of her office going, “Wait a minute. So these publishers come in here with songs that they love and they play them for her and tell her why she should love them? Because I was that kid in high school. Everybody piled in my car on Friday nights. It was me with my mixtape and a captive audience going, “Here’s why you need to like this song. Check out this artist; this is why they’re great.”

When Sony merged with RCA, Tracy left and went to Warner Bros. and couldn’t take me with her. That’s when I got into publishing and I’ve been in it ever since.

What was your path from that point?

I went to a really small publishing company here in town for about a year called Island Bound Music. The only writer that they had at the time was Steven Dale Jones. They closed that down and turned it into day-to-day management, so I was back in the management thing where I first interned and just not where I was supposed to be. I found out that Disney Music Publishing was starting an office in Nashville. Philip White, who was a really good friend of Steven Dale Jones, was in our office one day writing with Steven. He was like, “You should call Disney and see if there’s a position open.”

I helped start the Nashville office from scratch [with Lisa Ramsay]. Disney had never had a Nashville publishing company before, so there was no design of how it works. We had this blank slate. Lisa was really great about trusting me to figure it out. That accelerated my learning way more than it would have if I were to stay where I was.

Photo: Courtesy of Missy Roberts

Next I went to a company called Stage Three. It was me and Tim Hunze. I was there for five years and had a really great run. BMG bought us and then Ben Vaughn called me. He had just started running EMI. I went to EMI and got to work very closely with Ben and learned a lot in that process. That was a pretty scary, big change. All my publishing experience to that point was indie, small publishing companies where you’re really close with your writers. You see them every day and you talk to them every day because you’ve got the time to. That’s the foundation of how I learned publishing and getting thrown into a major for the first time is a major learning curve.

What got you to UMPG?

I was at EMI for two years and we sold to Sony. When we merged with Sony, there we now had like 180 writers. In my head I was going, “This just isn’t for me. This isn’t how I learned publishing.” I was looking to make a move back to the indie world.

Then Kent Earls called me. He had just taken over UMPG Nashville. When I met with Kent, I realized how different Universal is. We operate so differently from the other majors. It really is about time and intention—it’s an indie mindset for a global company with global access. I’ve been here for 10 years now. Troy Tomlinson has been an incredible addition because he is an amazing leader, but he’s kept all the great things about it and just made better some of the things that needed to change. It’s been the perfect blend.

Photo: Courtesy of Missy Roberts

When do you feel most fulfilled in what you do?

When I feel like there’s been an impact made, whether I’ve had an opportunity to make an impact on a songwriter or an artist, or if somebody’s made an impact on me. That’s truly what fulfills me. At this, this point in my career, I have been very blessed that I’ve pitched or facilitated number ones and some songs of the year and helped artists get record deals. But the whole thing is for me, did that help somebody? Did that make their life better? Did that help a dream of theirs come true? That’s what motivates me. That’s what moves me.

You will be honored at MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row breakfast on Oct. 20. What are you most proud of when you look back on your career so far?

I’m most proud that 18 out of my 19 years in town have been with what, to me, is the foundation, root and lifeline of this business: the songwriter. Getting to work with them every day is something that I’m really proud of.

My Music Row Story: BBR Music Group’s JoJamie Hahr

JoJamie Hahr

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.

JoJamie Hahr serves as Senior Vice President of BBR Music Group, where she guides and supervises day-to-day operations of the label group, its imprints and its roster of artists, including ACM Artist of the Decade Jason Aldean, as well as Dustin Lynch, Chase Rice, Craig Morgan, Blanco Brown, Jimmie Allen, Parmalee, Lainey Wilson, Jelly Roll and more.

Hahr began her career in radio in Florida before moving to Nashville to work in promotion at WSIX. Her career stops include time at MCA Records and the The Valory Music Company. BMG acquired BBR Music Group in 2017 and Hahr was promoted to Sr. VP of the label group in November of 2020.

Hahr will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Inverness, Florida. It was a really small town in Citrus County, Florida that was about two hours from Orlando. I went to college in Orlando at the University of Central Florida.

Photo: Courtesy of Hahr

How did you start your career?

I went to college early. I was 17 and had done two years of dual enrollment in school. I was already taking PR and advertising classes for my major in my first semester. One day I was walking in the communications hall and saw a flyer. It said “If you love country music and want to have fun, call Mike Moore at K92 FM.” I called him and got an interview for an internship. I remember for two weeks leading into my internship interview, I wouldn’t let any of my friends change the radio station. I wanted to know everything that was going on and study.

My last day of my internship, I remember all day I was trying not to cry because I did not want to leave. I loved it so much. Mike called me into his office and he was like, “We’re able to hire you part-time, but we can only give you like six hours a week.” I just started bawling. He said it was the first time somebody has cried when he hired them, not fired them. [Laughs]

Those six hours went up to like 14 hours, then 16 hours and 20 hours. Throughout college it went up to 39 hours. They put me on the morning show when I was like 18 or 19. I was the events coordinator in the promotion department. I was working two other jobs and going to school full-time at the same time.

Did you know then that you wanted to stay in the music business?

Yes. I wasn’t one of those kids that wanted to be in the music business—I didn’t even know this existed growing up. It’s like the flyer said: “If you love country music and want to have fun…” I just fell in love with the business.

Photo: Courtesy of Hahr

How did you get to Nashville?

Mike Moore, who my story starts with, left and went to Hartford to be the program director. I stayed in Florida. We stayed really good friends because he’s really more like family to me. Right after Hartford, he went to WSIX in Nashville. He was asking me for months to come to Nashville. At the time, my family was all in Florida and I just wasn’t quite ready to leave.

The morning after a Tim McGraw concert in Orlando, I was the only person out in the garage and I was unloading the promotion truck. I thought, “It’s time for me to grow.” I called Mike from the garage and was like, “Hey, I’m ready to come.” That was May of 2003 and I was here by Memorial Day Weekend. I took over the promotion director job at 23.

What was next?

I was at WSIX for a little over a year and then Mike left again. He went to Portland, Oregon to be the program director there. By that point, I knew I wanted to be on the records side, probably as a regional promotion rep. I was meeting with people all over town to try to get my foot in the door at a label.

I met Jimmy Harnen and he gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten. He said,”In your free time, sit and think about what you would do if you were a promotion rep at Broken Bow or MCA. Put together those ideas and start sending them to the VPs of the labels.” I was like, “I can’t do that. What if they think I’m stupid?” He said, “They’re not going to think you’re stupid. People see initiative or an idea much more than they see a resume. I’ll also look at your ideas before you send them out.” He was such a big mentor.

Scott Borchetta hired me at MCA as the promotion coordinator. I did that for almost two years. Then Jon Loba hired me to be promotion regional at Broken Bow. We had Craig Morgan, Megan Mullins and this new guy Jason Aldean, who nobody knew. Jason didn’t do a traditional radio tour, but he went and played full band shows for radio. I remember the first show I took him to, he played for three people in Alabama.

Photo: Courtesy of Hahr

Then you went to Big Machine.

I was at Broken Bow for two years as a regional and then Jon and I both left and went to Big Machine to help start The Valory Music Co. We were there the opening day in 2007. I was in southeast promotion and Jon was VP of Promotion. Three years into that, Jon left and came back to Broken Bow and opened all of BBR Music Group. I stayed another three years, so I was at Big Machine for six years. We started with Jewel and Justin Moore [on Valory] and then we signed Thomas Rhett and Brantley Gilbert.

What brought you back to BBR?

After my last part of my contract was up, I called Jon Loba and I called John Esposito in March. Espo didn’t have anything for me until October, and Jon created a VP of Promotion job for me, so I came back over here.

Now you’re Sr. VP of the label group. In your experience, how has the label changed over the years?

We have always felt like Broken Bow/BBR Music Group was the little label that could. We just kept chugging along. We have had so much heart. We have been that label, I hope, that has done well by everybody. We’ve made friends, we’ve built relationships. We haven’t always had the biggest artists. We’ve always had Jason and his trajectory has just been so big, but for a long time we were just known as the Jason label. Within the last two to three years, we feel so proud that we’ve also become the Jimmie Allen label, the Jelly Roll label, the Lainey Wilson and Blanco Brown label. On and on.

Photo: Courtesy of Hahr

How do you think you guys were able to grow like that?

We always go back to the artists. It’s about the artists that we’ve been able to sign and promote their work and vision. That also goes back to BMG acquiring us. We had a lot of heart and a lot of soul—we probably could have continued to chug along, but when BMG acquired us, it gave us resources and more global reach. It’s given us a diversity of resources which has led to a diversity of roster.

What was an early career moment you’ve had that you’ll always remember?

Jason was up for ACM’s New Male Vocalist and Craig Morgan was too. Benny Brown, our owner at the time, had paid for everybody at the label to have a ticket to go to the awards since it was our first nomination. Every single person. Our seats were literally the very last row all the way at the top, but we were so happy to be there. Jason won and I just remember everybody standing up and holding hands. It’s so cheesy, but I feel like that’s the epitome of Broken Bow. From then to now, I feel like we’re all still arm in arm.

Photo: Courtesy of Hahr

You will be honored at MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row breakfast on Oct. 20. What is some advice you would give young women who are starting their careers?

Woman or a man, I go back to the advice that Jimmy Harnen gave me. Depending on the job you’re looking at wanting to do, don’t just send a resume and hope that someone sees you. Think as if you were doing that job and come up with ideas to present yourself in that way. Mine were silly radio promotion ideas that I was sending every week, and it took me about eight months to get noticed, but I persevered. I find that people, especially young people, are so worried about looking stupid. Luckily I’ve never cared about looking stupid. [Laughs]

What is your definition of success?

Happiness, passion, and excitement. We all get bogged down in the pattern of life, but if I ever get to a point where I’m not excited or I’m burned out, I don’t want to do this anymore. To me, my version of success would be being happy and excited still to come to work every day.

My Music Row Story: FBMM’s Jen Conger

Jen Conger

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.

Jen Conger quickly moved up the ranks to become a business manager at FBMM after becoming the first female associate business manager in the firm’s history and doing so at a record pace of under 10 years. In Conger’s almost two decades of experience within the music industry, she has mentored a broad list of accomplished artists who have collectively received 17 Grammy Award wins, along with many ACM, CMA, Billboard and Golden Globe awards. She is a member of the ACM, the CMA, SOURCE, The Recording Academy and The Country Music Hall of Fame Troubadour Society, as well as an alumna of the Society of Leaders in Development (SOLID) and a member of the Leadership Music’s Class of 2020.

Conger played an integral role in the development and execution of seven sold-out concerts held at Bridgestone Arena, in which the proceeds—over $4 million to date—benefited the Country Music Hall of Fame. For the last nine years, she has organized a clothing and instrument donation on behalf of her clients, with donated items totaling over $110,000 given to the W.O. Smith Music School, and in 2018, was involved in the preparation of a sold-out benefit concert in October of that year, which raised over $700,000 net for various music industry-oriented charities, including MusiCares.

Conger will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small town called Greensboro, Georgia. I went to high school in Athens, Georgia. My parents would drive an hour each way to take me to school there. I ended up going to college in Nashville at Vanderbilt.

Photo: Courtesy of Jen Conger

What did you study?

I studied U.S. history and English and minored in film studies. I wanted to be in film director. I got accepted to NYU, but my parents didn’t want me to go too far away. I came here and didn’t know anything about the music industry.

What did you do after graduation?

I had gotten an internship at a music video production company. They made music videos for country artists. I had been the executive assistant to one of the owners and the bookkeeper left soon after I started. I raised my hand because I was a struggling kid right out of college trying to make ends meet. I thought, “I don’t necessarily know accounting, but I’m good with math and money, so how about I try out this whole bookkeeping thing.” I just fell into it, but had a knack for it. I thought if this was something I was interested in, I needed to focus on a place that actually does this.

Is that how you ended up at FBMM?

Yes. A friend of mine let me know about a job opening at FBMM. That was 18 years ago, I’ve been here ever since. I fell into it, went back to school and got my masters in accounting, and just have been learning as I go along the way.

What did you learn right away when you fell into business management?

People need financial advisors. Unfortunately, you’re not being taught this in school. So often we have musicians who suddenly have all this fame, but the reality is that the money comes long after the fame. Having a team in place that’s being a good steward to your money is so important. So is having people on your team who know the music industry versus someone who is not well versed on royalties and touring, et cetera. It can get artists in a lot of trouble.

Photo: Courtesy of Jen Conger

Since you didn’t originally set out to be in the music industry, when did you feel like you were in the right place?

Probably two years into working at FBMM. I went out on tour with a client and loved it. I loved seeing how the bills that I was paying were reflected on tour. The video bill, the trucking bill, the bus bill… Seeing it coming together live. That’s when I realized this was going to be a career for me.

Business managers are unsung heroes of the music industry. What are some of your proudest moments that you’ve worked on behind the scenes?

We’re not in the limelight and that’s okay. We get the work done. I think sometimes we make it look too easy. We’re getting the work done so that the artist isn’t having to worry about it, but the artist isn’t seeing the mountains that we’re moving every day to get those things done.

I have one client in particular that has put on multiple shows benefiting the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’ve been at the forefront of that, organizing it and haggling with vendors to try to get as much money to the Country Music Hall of Fame as possible. At the end of the night, being able to let the Hall of Fame know that we’ve got three quarters of a million dollars heading their way is pretty cool.

What advice would you give a new business manager?

The devil is in the details. It’s important to check your decimal points. (Laughs) Be accountable. When you screw up, chances are you’re going to think that it’s way worse than it actually is. There’s probably a long line of people who’ve made the same mistake, so be accountable and own it. Most importantly, learn from that mistake so you don’t repeat it. I tell new hires some of the really big faux pas that I made moving up. [Through my errors], they’re able to understand that even though I may have made a huge error, I’m still here because I learned from it and I grew from it versus trying to be defensive.

Who have been some of your mentors?

From a personal standpoint, my mother is amazing. Her sacrificing for us and being our chauffeur. (Laughs) She had cancer in her early thirties with two young kids; and she sacrificed and did what she needed to do for her family. From a personal level, I’m always trying to emulate that. I’ve got two kids and try to be a fraction of the kick ass mom that she was.

Professionally, Chuck Hull has been a great mentor. He is a tour manager for one of my artists. He’s been in the business for 40 something years. He has worked with some no names you’ve probably never heard of like Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, and John Hiatt. He has taken me under his wing for the last 20 years and has educated me about the touring world—both the historical side of things and how things have changed over time. He’s like a surrogate father to me.

Photo: Courtesy of Jen Conger

What do you think are some of the best qualities about our industry?

That it’s constantly evolving. The technology is constantly evolving. The revenue streams are constantly evolving. There’s not a cookie cutter idea of what an artist should look like anymore. It used to be cookie cutter but we’re definitely moving away from that and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

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

I got a shout out at an award show when my client won Entertainer of the Year. Business managers are never in the limelight, and we’re definitely never mentioned in acceptance speeches, so that was a big deal. [Laughs] And then meeting Dolly Parton.

What is something people might not know about you?

I know a lot of film trivia. My favorite movies are Goodfellas and The Godfather: Part II. My favorite Christmas movie is Die Hard.

You will be honored at MusicRow‘s Rising Women on the Row breakfast on Oct. 20. What has your experience been like as a woman in the industry?

Being a woman in the music industry is not easy. It’s still very much a good ol’ boys club. Again, I think we’re moving away from that, which is wonderful.

As women, we have to look out for each other. I’ve seen too many times this hazing mentality of, “It wasn’t easy for me, so I’m not going to bend over backwards to help this next generation.” We need to erase that mentality from our brains because it’s not helping. It’s only making the issue worse. We have to all work with each other and cheer for each other along the way.

My Music Row Story: Girlilla Marketing’s Jennie Smythe

Jennie Smythe

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.

Jennie Smythe, the CEO of Girlilla Marketing, began her career in the mid-1990s working for Elektra Entertainment, Spivak-Sobol Entertainment, Disney’s Hollywood Records and more. In the early 2000s, she moved to YAHOO! Music as Director of Marketing and Promotion, which eventually led her to move to Nashville to work for Warner Bros. Records’ New Media Department and then as Clear Channel’s Senior Director of Content and Marketing. In January of 2008, Smythe launched Girlilla Marketing, which celebrated its 10 year anniversary in 2018.

Smythe serves on the boards of Country Music Association, CMA Foundation (2019 Chair Person, 2022 Chair Person) and Music Health Alliance. She is also a former board member of Academy of Country Music, a graduate of Leadership Music (class of 2010), a member of SOURCE and a proud supporter of St. Jude. Smythe has been featured in Billboard, MusicRow, Fast Company, People, HITS, The Tennessean and has been included for 3+ years as a recipient of the Nashville Business Journal’s Women in Music City Awards.

Smythe will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow‘s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

Denver, Colorado. My dad was a marketing guy for an oil company, so we moved around quite a bit towards the later end of my childhood. I ended up in high school in Phoenix and went to NAU at Flagstaff because I figured I would just go snowboarding during class, but there was no snow. (Laughs)

Since you couldn’t go snowboarding, what did you do?

I always knew I wanted to be in the music business, but I didn’t know anything about the music business. I would tell people that I wanted to work at a record company. I had no idea what department or specialty, I was just obsessed. When I found out that you could do that for a living, there was nothing more that I wanted to do. I ended up dropping out of college and going to a music conservatory because they had an intern program. That is how I ended up at Elektra in LA when I was 19. When I arrived in Hollywood at 19 and had my internship, I already thought I had made it. Anything past that point in my life has been like a bonus.

What did you do there?

After my internship, they hired me as a receptionist. If somebody else went on maternity leave or got sick, I would cover their desks, so eventually I ended up working in every department. I eliminated things that I didn’t really want to pursue or that I felt like maybe I wasn’t talented enough in.

What was next?

I just started taking jobs. I was at several record companies, including Disney and Hollywood Records. I was at several management companies.

Then I took a huge jump to go work at Yahoo. Even though I was still in the music business, I was at a tech company, so I had to learn how to be less of a music business person based in the United States and more of a global content person that was a citizen of the world. That literally changed the path of my life personally and professionally.

Girlilla Marketing’s Ashley Alexander, Stevie Escoto, Jennie Smythe

How did you get to Nashville?

I had to cover country music at Yahoo, so I had to learn country. I came to Nashville for CRS and literally could not believe what I had seen. I was like, “Wait a second. Are you telling me that for a week out of the year, everybody comes together to see each other all at once? They have shows and celebrate each other, and they all get along well enough to do that?” I walked away from my first CRS a little shell shocked because I was overwhelmed, but in the back of my mind, I thought “That’s how this is supposed to be.”

Country music online at that time was always just a smidge behind all the other genres. I was able to contribute by accelerating that a little bit. Bill Bennett was running Warner Bros. and he called. Lynette Garbonola was literally the only digital person at Warner Bros. and she needed help. I packed up my stuff and I moved to Nashville.

I thought I’d be here for a few years and then probably end up in the Bay. I had no idea what was in store. The DSPs didn’t exist, Facebook was just for college students, and Instagram was never even in my mind. I went from Warner Bros. and then helped Clear Channel start the iHeart brand. Then I started Girlilla in 2008.

Jennie with her children, Chess and Daphne

What was your biggest hurdle working in the digital space in country music when you started?

The biggest fight was explaining to publishers that the internet wasn’t 100% evil and that there were opportunities there, even though artists aren’t compensated nearly what they should be. Because there was so much illegal downloading going on at the time, the value was really based in the information, not the strategy to stop the internet. We had seen that already with Napster, so being in that hybrid space of time between Napster and before a platform like Spotify, that was a very murky area in the music business.

No one knew how to put the parameters around it legally or explain to consumers what a download was versus a stream. That was actually a really difficult consumer messaging situation, especially in country. With country radio being the biggest driver of country music, [teaching country fans what streaming is] was hard. That was definitely a challenge from the marketing side.

What pushed you to start Girlilla Marketing?

It was really simple. I felt the need to advocate on behalf of the artists that I loved and respected to help them navigate the waters. They were complicated then, but not nearly as complicated as they are now. Now, I’m doing the same thing, it’s just 10 times more layered than it was 10+ years ago.

Members of the Girlilla Marketing team

It’s been 14 years since you started your company. What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of sharing my life with some of the people that I work with. When we started, we were single, some of us had college debt, we didn’t have houses, or any of that. Sometimes when I’m walking through the building, I get overwhelmed at the idea that these people have children and houses.

I’m extremely grateful for my clients and for the work, and I still passionately love what I do. There’s nothing that gets me out of bed faster than a good idea. But it’s the idea that I’m building and have built something with them that they share in.

Who have been some of your mentors?

Jay Frank, was 100% the MVP of my professional life. I miss him every single day. Sarah Trahern and Joe Galante are some. My office mates, Ashley Alexander and Stevie Escoto, mentor me as much as I mentor them.

You will be honored at MusicRow‘s Rising Women on the Row breakfast on Oct. 20. What has your experience been like as a woman in the industry?

Amazing. I literally created the company that didn’t exist when I was coming up. I just look around at the office sometimes and take it in. When they forget that I’m there and they are playing music and laughing, talking about snacks and what they’re going to do together outside of the office, I lose it every time. I hate their music choices, there’s definitely a generational gap. (Laughs) But just the idea that there’s a room in the world where those awesome, smart, talented, funny people get together and their common ground is marketing and music, and they feel comfortable enough to let their hair down… I’m good.

My Music Row Story: Rob Hendon

Rob Hendon in his studio

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.

Rob Hendon is a Nashville-based artist whose work hangs all over Music City and beyond.

He started his career in the music business at Capitol Records, and held several executive positions within the Nashville music industry. Having painted off and on since childhood, Hendon returned to painting after a lapse of several years. Through his use of vivid color and extraordinary texture, he quickly garnered the attention of Nashville art lovers. Initially painting beautiful flowers in vases and fields, Hendon found much success and notoriety when he chose guitars as his muse.

Hendon’s name is synonymous with guitars in the art world. His guitar art can be seen in lobbies and conference rooms at companies such as Bridgestone Arena, Warner Brothers Records, Warner Brothers Studios Nashville, Sony Records, Sony Music Publishing, Oceanway Studios, Big Machine Records, BMI Nashville, BMI New York, SESAC, and more. He painted the artwork for Luke CombsWhat You See Is What You Get album, as well as the artwork for the framed SESAC award.

Rob Hendon, Charlie Daniels

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

North Canton, Ohio. I moved here to go to Lipscomb in ’85. By ’87 I was interning at MCA records. I interned for two years at MCA and Universal Records. I was interning for Jimmy Bowen and James Stroud. Bowen took over Capitol about the week that I graduated from college and I ended up with a full-time A&R job.

What did you do?

I was the tape guy. Then I got to start listening for songs. I went out every night, I loved seeing music. I’m a guitar collector and fanatic, as well as a music fanatic, so the whole thing was right up my alley. My parents weren’t quite sure with my career choice—they may not be still. (Laughs)

What was next?

I had a great run with Bowen and got to be really good friends with James Stroud, too. When I was kicked out of Capitol, which ended up happening to most people, I found Stroud within about a half hour of getting fired. He had left and started Giant Records and he said, “Do you know anything about music publishing?” I said, “I know great publishers and I know great songwriters.” He said, “Let’s start a publishing division of Giant Records.” We started Giant Publishing and signed a couple writers like Daryle Singletary and Tim Johnson. We had success.

Rob Hendon, Garth Brooks

How did you start painting?

I’ve always had the bug for music. When we had our son, I didn’t want to go out as much. The jobs I was getting offered weren’t nearly as fun as some of the others. I had started painting out of stress and frustration from the business changing and me being a little older. I literally just started painting in the middle of the night one night. I was driving my wife crazy because I couldn’t sleep well for a couple of years. I’m a worker, I just love working, and business was happening slower. The singles were going up the charts slower and we were going through a whole thing. I was losing my mind. So I did flower paintings for a couple of years. I gave some away, then I started selling paintings and working with a couple galleries.

You’ve become known for your iconic guitar paintings. What inspired that?

I had a bunch of my guitars set up in my studio. I was experimenting with these varnishes and my Les Paul was sitting there. I realized the varnish looked like a guitar varnish. It was the middle of the night and I did one guitar. Now I’ve done thousands of guitars.

It’s really been cool to be in all the lobbies, conference rooms and studios.

Rob Hendon at Bridgestone Arena

You and Brad Paisley painted a mural in Bridgestone Arena together.

I say I discovered Brad as a painter. We were at a charity thing and Brad and I were standing at the back. I had presented a painting for the charity. After I presented it and came back to the back, Brad said, “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s going to be 72 and sunny. I’ve been saving this wall for you by my home studio.” The next day, I loaded up my old Escalade and went over there. We were looking at the wall with Brad, Kim and the boys. He had done this giant T-Rex on the wall with spray paint. I decided to add the guitar so the T-Rex was chomping at the guitar because it wanted a Tele. (Laughs) Brad started helping me. He was so good.

Bridgestone had been asking me to come down and do a wall. I’d been down there twice, looking at walls and talking about it, but I’m not really a spray paint artist. That night after Brad and I painted [the wall in his house], I emailed the Bridgestone guys and said, “I’ve got an idea. How about Brad and I do it?” I showed him the picture of the painting we did. We scheduled it when he could go down there. It was the greatest day. We must have painted for about five or six hours. And that thing has become a classic—it’s wild!

You also got to do the artwork from Luke Combs’ What You See Is What You Get album. How did you get to know him?

Luke came over here. He called me up and I remember where I was standing in the studio. I hadn’t heard of him because he was on his first single. He said, “I just had my first hit and I’ve been waiting to get your art.” I said, “That’s great! You’ll have to come to my studio sometime.” He said, “I’m actually in Green Hills right now.” He came over in five minutes. We just had this great thing. He bought something for him and something for Kappy that day.

That’s the only person I’ve ever painted. I tried to make it funky because I wanted it to be my style and not like a portrait—I can’t do that anyway. I only had about a month to do it. It’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame right now.

What is your favorite part of the process?

I’m always kind of nervous in the creation, but that’s probably what keeps me going. I want them to all be different but all have my style. But the finished product is my favorite part. Seeing it when it’s done. It used to be a little tricky for me to know when to stop. I’m sure record producers deal with that. I could tweak forever on a painting.

In January, you will celebrate 20 years of painting. You’ve done projects for people all over town, from executives to artists to Titans players. What have been some of your most exciting recognitions?

I got contacted by Les Paul. Somebody sought me out from Arizona and bought a couple pieces. They said, “Does Les know about you?” Because I was really just doing Les Paul’s from my Les Paul guitar. They called me back the next day and said, “He wants you to present him a guitar and the Iridium Jazz Club where he plays on Monday nights. He’s 92, so he doesn’t go every week. You might actually go to New York and he not be there.” We went and had a great time. He did a show, then he had a long break, and then he did another show. We took the painting to him and I must have talked to him for an hour. I told him about my grandpa giving me my first real guitar, a Les Paul.

My Music Row Story: Neon Coast’s Martha Earls

Martha Earls. Photo: Angelea Presti

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.

Martha Earls is the owner of management company Neon Coast, and personal manager to Platinum-selling artist Kane Brown. Signed to Neon Coast is country band Restless Road along with other music and non-music clients. Together with Brown, under the Neon Coast name, she started Sony joint venture record label, 1021 Entertainment, and production company Demasiado.

Demasiado has produced award-winning music videos, awards show performances and television commercials. More recent signings to the management company include Nightly, Dylan Schneider and Feather. Earls started her management company following a successful run in music publishing. She has been honored multiple times by Billboard and the Nashville Business Journal.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I was born in Ohio, but grew up in central Pennsylvania. I obviously had no idea about the music industry. I was good at playing the piano and I was good at track and field. I got a really great college scholarship based on my piano playing, so I went to a small music school in New Jersey. That’s where I met Mike Molinar and how we became friends. He’s from El Paso, but he moved up there to go to this music school.

What a coincidence. Did you know what you wanted to pursue while in college?

You had to declare a major and I didn’t know what I wanted my major to be. I didn’t want to be a teacher and I didn’t want to be a performer. I didn’t even really like playing the piano that much, I just got this great scholarship. While looking at majors, I found one and was like, “Oh my God, that job only works twice a week and makes a full salary. I’m going to major in church organ!” [Laughs] It was so ridiculous.

Two or three weeks into it, I was miserable, but I toughed it out for a year. The school was really small with only around 350 students, but there was one girl there who was graduating and going to NYU for law school. She said she was going to be an entertainment lawyer. That opened my eyes to the entertainment industry. Over the summer after my freshman year, I started looking online and discovered MTSU and Belmont. I knew I wanted to move out of the northeast, and being from a small town, country music was massive. I came down here to visit and just loved MTSU.

Pictured (L-R): Martha Earls, Kent Earls, Chuck Wicks, Luke Bryan, Rusty Gaston

How did you start your career while at MTSU?

I started interning at Warner Chappell. Dale Bobo was there at the time. Him and Michael Knox hired me for my internship. Tim Wipperman ran the company and he was amazing. I was in the catalog room, which was the last stop writers would make before they went out the side door into the parking lot at Warner Chappell. They would always drop by and hang out. I loved it. I really fell in love with the creatives. That was the start to my music industry career.

I interned that summer of my senior year and then told them I was having such a great time and didn’t want to leave. They let me do another internship. They didn’t have the budget to pay me but I didn’t care. Then the receptionist left and they offered me that job. I was still in school and taking a decent number of classes, but I was like, “Yes, absolutely.” In March of my senior year, they promoted me to a full time position in the tape room.

About a year later, they promoted me to a junior song plugger. I found during my time at Warner Chappell that I really liked working with the artists-songwriters even more than the regular songwriters. I really enjoyed taking the meetings with artists rather than going and meeting with other A&R people. For whatever reason, I could really dial into the artists. I got to work with Jason [Aldean] early on and Little Big Town.

What was next for you?

Next, I went to BMG publishing. At the time, Karen Conrad and Ron Stuve were there. That was great because it was different than Warner, where we had like 100 songwriters. At BMG, Ron and Karen ran it more like an independent—they only had about 20 songwriters. And again, I kept [being drawn to] signing artists. We signed Jake Owen, Chuck Wicks, and a couple other guys.

Pictured (L-R): Braeden Rountree, Martha Earls, Kane Brown, Liz Kennedy, Randy Goodman

Then you started a publishing company with Mike Molinar.

I felt a constant pull to do more. Mike was working for Cal Turner at the time. We decided we needed to start a company. I always felt a desire to have my own company and Mike was ready to spread his wings. We went around town and pitched our idea to start a publishing company to everybody. Nobody was really into it. We finally found an investor and he really believed in Mike and I.

He invested in our company and it was very family-oriented. Mike and I signed three or four songwriters. We had some success, we had some big cuts, and we got it going. The investor ended up buying us out, which was great. It gave us the capital to start the 2.0 version of the company, but it was all very bare bones.

When we started building the next version of the publishing company, I started feeling like I wasn’t maximizing myself. I always felt like the shoe didn’t quite fit. So when Mike and I started the 2.0 version of the company, we decided to sign more artists and producers. We signed an artist named Greg Bates, who was at Belmont at the time. Jimmy Harnen heard about him and invited him to come to Big Machine. He played at Big Machine and Jimmy signed him. Then I just started handling everything for him.

So that’s how you got into artist management.

I don’t even know if she knows, but Kerri Edwards is such an important example for female managers in the music industry. At that time, I was thinking, “Kerri started working with Luke [Bryan] out of the publishing company. I’m just going to follow that mold until it doesn’t work anymore.” It came so much more naturally to me to manage an artist’s career than this literal decade of publishing experience. That was what got me into management.

Things were going well with the company that Molinar and I started. Scott Borchetta didn’t have anything like that, so our company became what is now the publishing company that Mike Molinar has. He’s done such amazing things with it. I was able to be at Big Machine for a year while we transitioned that company over, and that was amazing. Even though everybody knew I was going to do management full time, I got to learn so much. It was right when Taylor Swift was releasing Red and making her jump from being a huge country artist to being a global superstar. That’s what I got to witness.

Fast forward to now, with what I’m doing with Kane, that experience was such a gift. It was placed in front of me for me to learn anything is possible. Scott had no fences built around anything.

What did you do after your time at Big Machine?

I knew I wanted do management full time, but I felt like there was more to learn. I went over to Sandbox and was there for two years. That was a whole different experience. They released Kacey MusgravesSame Trailer, Different Park album on a Friday and I started on the next Monday. It was really interesting to watch an artist blow up without having the traditional country radio piece.

At the end of that, I was asked to be a consultant for Michael Blanton and his company. In exchange for two hours of consulting a week, he gave me an office. Jay Frank, who had his own digital marketing company, called me and asked me to run his independent label. I had never done anything for an independent label before, but he needed somebody to oversee it. That was crazy, too. I learned how to make a music video for $5,000, how to get vinyl pressed, and all that kind of stuff.

Pictured (L-R): Kane Brown, Martha Earls

How did you end up working with Kane?

One day Jay said, “We have this guy that somebody on our staff found online. He’s country and we signed him to a management agreement if you want to help out with that.” I don’t think Jay really knew what he had with Kane at the time. I met Kane and I was like, “Jay, all this other stuff you’re working on is nonsense. This is the thing. Kane is the thing.” I just jumped in feet first with Kane.

In 2016, it became just me and Kane. We’ve just been building what we’re doing ever since. It’s kind of a mixture of the tenacity that Scott had that says we can have great success and do anything, and then also the understanding of you don’t have to do things the traditional way. From having created my own publishing company and really struggling, I didn’t get defeated by anything.

Now Kane is a multi-Platinum superstar, but what were those first few years like?

[The first thing we did] was put out an EP called Chapter One that had “Used To Love You Sober” on it. Florida Georgia Line and Seth England could see things early with him, so they put him on tour. He was first of four and got to play for 15 minutes, but it was amazing. We were having trouble at country radio with “Used To Love You Sober,” and there was a lot of preconceived notions about who people thought Kane Brown was, because of how he looks. He’s biracial, he had tattoos, he had success on social media.

Kane met Dann Huff. Dann cut “What Ifs,” a song that Kane wrote. “What Ifs” wasn’t a single yet, so we put that [Kane Brown] album out with no single on the radio, and it still did really great. In 2017, we got a new radio guy at RCA when Dennis Reese came over. He’s been Kane’s biggest champion at the label. He’s such a wonderful guy. He came from the pop world, so he didn’t have any boundaries. [With Dennis on board], “What Ifs” became an eight-time Platinum single. It’s one of the biggest songs in the history of country music. That got things going and we’ve just been building on that ever since.

Pictured (L-R): Clay Bradley, Michael Giangreco, Ernest, Rusty Gaston, Kane Brown, Stevie Frasure, Jesse Frasure, Kent Earls, Levon Gray, Vanna Moua, Martha Earls, Spencer Nohe, Dennis Reese. Photo: Steve Lowry

In the last few years, your company has grown substantially. You and Kane have built a joint venture record label with Sony Music Nashville, as well as a publishing company with Sony Music Publishing.

We were out in LA for for the “Saturday Nights” video shoot. I was feeling like it was time to start growing. I asked him, “How do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as an artist who tours six months out of the year and then takes six months off and chills with his family? Or do you see yourself like a Florida Georgia Line, who when they’re not touring, they’re still writing, producing, signing artists, running a publishing company and a clothing store?” He said, “I want to be like that. I don’t know how long everything will last.”

That was when we decided to expand the company. I saw all these different verticals. I could see a joint venture label, where we sign artists, as well as a publishing side of things. We started a production company and signed other management clients, too. Kane gets a taste of all of it because I want him to feel invested in everything.

If someone were to ask you how to be successful in this industry, what would you tell them?

That’s a great question. You can measure success so many different ways. I feel like what it is is being comfortable, satisfied and proud of the work that you’re doing. Owning your space and acknowledging to yourself that you deserve to be there.

My Music Row Story: Music Health Alliance’s Tatum Hauck-Allsep

Tatum Hauck-Allsep. Photo: Ashley Hybert

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 Health Alliance Founder/CEO, Tatum Hauck-Allsep, established the music industry’s first non-profit resource for healthcare in 2013, which has gone on to serve over 18,000 industry professionals and saved them over $84 million in healthcare costs. Allsep’s career also includes time with MCA Records, artist management, and the launch of the Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Music Industry Relations Department. In 2021, Tatum was named CMA Humanitarian of the Year for MHA’s COVID Relief efforts. Her additional awards include MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row, Nashville Healthcare Hero, Women of Music City, Nashville Post’s Top Non-Profit Leader, National Healthcare Innovation Award, and numerous honors from Billboard.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

I grew up deep in the piney woods of south Mississippi. I went to junior high and high school in Sumrall, Mississippi. We did not even have a stop light, we had a caution light. We would hang out at The Handy Pantry on Friday nights after football games. It was just a teeny tiny town. It was safe and nobody left.

MCA & Arista promotion teams in 1998

What did you want to become then?

The music industry wasn’t even on my radar. I thought that I wanted to go into medicine. I came to Nashville to go to Vanderbilt in 1993. I focused on medicine and I got weeded out my junior year of college pretty quickly by organic chemistry. It just did not make sense to me. My major at Vanderbilt was Human and Organizational Development.

I had always worked in healthcare in the summers. I worked in an emergency room in Mississippi and volunteered at the children’s hospital at Vanderbilt. When it came time to intern, I thought, “I’m in Music City. I’ll just see what’s happening in the music industry.” I ended up with an internship at MCA Records and I felt like I had found my tribe. I thought, “Oh my gosh. I’ve never felt so at home anywhere. Not in college, not in high school, and not at home in Mississippi. These are my people.”

Did you change your major?

Nope! I stayed Human and Organizational Development and it’s really been an asset. It was psychology combined with sociology combined with business. Having that real, tangible experience in the setting that eventually became my career was invaluable.

The head of my department at Vanderbilt had been a songwriter. He understood that if you stepped out [of healthcare], it would be really hard to step back in. He let me create independent studies every semester, so I was able to intern in every department at MCA and Decca.

What did you do after graduation?

The second semester of my senior year, right before I was about to graduate, I got hired because Scott Borchetta got fired. Who gets to say that? (Laughs) Obviously, he has done just fine. Everybody at MCA loved him and cheered for him, it was just time for him to spread his own wings. When he left, everybody in the department bumped up and I became the receptionist of promotion at MCA Records. I felt like I had arrived.

MCA promotion team with Reba McEntire in 1999

What were your goals for your career then?

I was watching artist managers take risks early. Erv Woolsey took a risk early with George Strait and there were so many stories like that about the greats in our industry. I really thought that I would end up either staying and climbing the ladder at the label or going into management.

I had a starter marriage in the music industry, which I don’t recommend, but it gave me my greatest life lessons of all time. I met my future husband, moved real fast and left MCA. I went to Atlantic for a hot minute with Barry Coburn and then left to build a management company with my starter husband. I got pregnant quick, right after we got married, and got divorced within a year.

In the divorce, I inherited some artists. (Laughs) The Derailers were one of them. I learned a ton and they’re still really good friends. I thought management was phenomenal—I loved the negotiating piece and I loved understanding contracts, but I couldn’t be on the road with twin boys, so I to needed to make another career change.

What happened next?

I went into pre-term labor, and it ultimately led to Music Health Alliance. By that point, I was 26 or 27, so I understood the value of benefits and health insurance. When I left employment with benefits, I made sure the first thing I did was get health insurance. When I went into pre-term labor, I was in the hospital for six weeks on bedrest. The boys were born at 28 weeks, so three months early. They each weighed two pounds and were in the NICU for nine weeks. Fortunately, they are great now, but I left the hospital with two sick babies, a half million dollar bill, and a marriage that was imploding.

I didn’t know that you could negotiate medical bills and I didn’t know that you could challenge decisions by health insurance companies. I liquidated every asset I owned and talked to my grandfather, who was a businessman, and asked him to co-sign a loan with me. He did and it took me 10 years to pay off.

I also learned that my story was not unique. It was happening all over the music industry. Every five minutes there was a benefit where we were passing the bucket for somebody. That really resonated because at my darkest hour, when I was a single mom with infant twins on heart monitors and oxygen, it was the music industry that made me feel so safe and so loved. It was a much smaller industry then, but everybody operates the same way today. This is a really precious family.

Tatum with infant twins, Rex & David, in NICU in 2001

How were you able to move on?

Vanderbilt Medical Center wanted to start their first department of music industry relations. I ended up getting hired for the job. They really wanted to be fundraising and I said, “Everybody goes to the music industry with their hand out. We’ve got to make this medical center valuable to the music industry.” The person I reported to had built a committee of music industry executives—Joe Galante, Kix Brooks and more. One day Kix said, “If you can figure out how to bring health insurance to the music industry, then they’ll come use your facility.”

That’s all I needed to hear. It gave me permission to understand this crazy thing that almost wrecked my life. So I started meeting with health insurance companies. I met with about 17 of them and after every one of the meetings, I felt like I needed a shower. It was so gross. All they saw were big numbers and big money. It was way before the Affordable Care Act had passed, so about 35 cents of every dollar went to commission for health insurance. It was big money at that point. I met a guy who had been in the music industry who was an insurance broker. He wasn’t held captive by any one company. We started what was CMA Sound Healthcare. I left Vanderbilt after three or four years to build Sound Healthcare.

When did you decide to start Music Health Alliance?

The Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010 and that opened up this enormous opportunity for the music industry to have access to healthcare like never before. My whole goal with Sound Healthcare was to build a nonprofit and my business partner did not have any interest in that. He was a businessman, which is totally fine. Sales were his mechanism. We decided to amicably part ways. My family and I moved to Montgomery, Alabama and that was what allowed me to clearly see the path that needed to be taken to build what became Music Health Alliance.

Tatum with with patient, Dalton Waggoner at the 2nd Annual Miles & Music For Kids benefitting Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in 2007. Photo: Susan Waggoner

My husband had been an attorney before he became a professor. One night at 3 in the morning, I woke him up and I was like, “I had this dream! Look at this dissolution agreement. Is there a non-compete?” He was like, “Oh my God. It’s 3 in the morning. There’s no non-compete.” I wrote the entire business plan for Music Health Alliance that night.

I had this dream about what it should look like and insurance had to be a component. It had to be a part of it, but just one small part. In the United States, that’s the primary mechanism to gain access to healthcare: health insurance. But I had to figure out a way to remove the profit motive. With the profit motive, it skews the objectivity. We need to make sure if you walk in and you have a healthcare issue, the payment mechanism that we pick for you is going to be what meets your needs, not my needs.

When did you get to start helping music industry folks?

The first client that called to ask for some help was Cowboy Jack Clement. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer and just needed help navigating it. I hadn’t even come up with the name Music Health Alliance yet, but the whole template of how we navigate came into play when we helped Cowboy Jack walk through his liver cancer. He said, “I’m going to have a living wake. I think it’d be really cool if it benefited this nonprofit you’re building.” That was in January of 2013 and that was our first public facing event where we launched.

How did you start building your team?

Kimberly Dunn was my right hand and sounding board starting Music Health Alliance. Herky Williams was our first development director. When he went on to pursue other things, I looked in MusicRow and I saw that Sheila Shipley Biddy was leaving the label where she was. She had been one of my greatest mentors when I was an intern.

Tatum with Dukes of Hazzard cast at Vanderbilt Children’s 2006

I called her and said, “I don’t know what your next step is, but I’ve started this nonprofit. I can only pay you a half salary for now, but this is what I need: an advocate. Someone who can study and understand Medicare, someone to help us bring organization to this non-profit.” So Sheila became the first full-time, salaried hire and now she’s our CFO. I feel so honored to get to work with her every day and learn from her. I’m a bulldozer and a big picture person. She can take the big picture and help bring the execution to it.

Music Health Alliance became even more life-saving during the pandemic. What was that like?

Overnight, the phone calls went from, “I’ve got a new diagnosis and I need help finding a doctor and navigating medical bills,” to, “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to afford formula, diapers and food.” Because we’ve been able to be nimble, it allowed us to shift gears really quickly and figure out how to meet that need. We went online to try to get gift cards from Walmart, Kroger and Trader Joe’s, but you could buy one gift card a piece. We called our banker at City National Bank, Lori Badgett, who has been a champion for us since the beginning. We said, “We need to come cash a $60,000 check and I’m going go buy gift cards at these stores.” She said, “Alright. Let’s make it happen.” So my son—who served as my bodyguard—went with me into the bank to get $60,000, put it in my little purse, and go to Walmart and buy gift cards. (Laughs)

Pictured (L-R): Hunter Phelps, Hardy, Tatum Allsep (Founder/CEO, Music Health Alliance), Jameson Rodgers, Randy Montana at the inaugural “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda” event benefitting Music Health Alliance. Photo: Hunter Berry

People would come to us to get gift cards, but then we would talk to them about their secondary needs. Is it help with your rent? Is it help with diapers and formula? Some people would call back for help for a second month, about 40% would call back for a third month, and about 3% to 5% called back for a fourth month. It was amazing to see people figuring out how to navigate it. Our industry is so resilient.

Then it was following the virus. What do all these vaccinations mean? How do we differentiate fact from fiction? So we found the facts and then we would assimilate them out to industry leaders. It wasn’t coming from us, we were just sourcing them so they could see the facts.

What’s your proudest accomplishment at Music Health Alliance?

I didn’t know Beverly Keel—I had just revered her because she is an icon. Somebody called and said, “Beverly’s sister is in liver failure and they’re telling her to go home and get her affairs in order.” The Hippocratic Oath hangs in my office. It says, “I will practice my craft, the art of medicine, not based on profit, but because it is the right thing to do.”

In the U.S., you can’t get on a transplant list if you are not fully insured. I understand that, from the business sense, but not from the human sense. Especially not at a nonprofit, faith-based hospital. We were able to go in and navigate and find loopholes. The transplant gave her five more years. That’s one of the cases that means the most to me.

My Music Row Story: Sony Music Publishing Nashville’s Rusty Gaston

Rusty Gaston

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.

Respected music publisher Rusty Gaston took the reins as CEO of Sony Music Publishing Nashville in January 2020. In this role, he leads all creative and operations, including the signing of new songwriters and development of strategies to exploit its catalog. As a lifelong country music fan, Gaston is focused on continuing Sony’s legacy through songwriter empowerment.

MusicRow: Where are you from?

I am from Van, Texas. It’s little town in east Texas. There were about 1,000 people there when I was growing. I knew nothing about the music business or how to get into it. I didn’t know anybody in the music business.

My mother was a huge George Strait fan, so there was a period of time where if he played anywhere in Texas, my mom and my aunt would go. Lots of times, I would go with them, because it was a Saturday and nobody was around to keep me. I’ve slept through more George Strait concerts than most people will attend in their whole life. (Laughs) I was a little kid. I would get tired so we’d pull some chairs together for me to lay down. By the middle of his set, I’d be asleep.

Rusty Gaston

Were you musical?

Growing up in such a small town, I spent all my time in the record store, going to the music department of Walmart, and sitting in my room and reading liner notes for hours on end. I was super lucky to have some defining moments in life. I remember being in the locker room in elementary school, standing on a bench and looking down on some friends of mine who were singing a new Beastie Boys song. I remember thinking to myself, “Why are y’all just now singing that? I played that for you last school year.” I don’t know why that stuck out to me as a moment, but it did.

I noticed the songs that I was always attracted to on these records I would buy, eventually became popular. I didn’t know those were called singles or what they were, but I had somehow pieced together, “Somebody has a job figuring out which songs on this record should be played on the radio. That’s what I’m good at. How do you do that?”

What did you do with that realization?

I was in choir and drama in school. One weekend during my senior year of high school, some friends of mine who were in college said, “We’re going to Dallas to Six Flags Over Texas to audition for performer jobs. Do you want to go with us?” So we rode two hours away to Dallas and auditioned for performer jobs at Six Flags Over Texas. Long story short, I got the job and none of them did. So, my senior year of high school, they let me graduate early and I moved two hours away to Arlington, Texas and performed, sang, danced and played guitar at Six Flags.

I was planning to go back to east Texas to go to college. There was another performer in my show and he was an alumni of a college in Fort Worth called Texas Wesleyan University. He said, “My buddy is the dean over there and they’ve got some scholarship money. You’re pretty good at this. You shouldn’t move back, you should stay here and keep doing this.” I went and met with this dean at Texas Wesleyan University and he gave me a full scholarship. I stayed there in the metroplex and worked for three years as a performer at Six Flags.

Rusty Gaston, Ben Hayslip, Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins, Ben Vaughn

How did you go from being a performer to being in the music business?

While at Six Flags, I had another real defining moment. I saw an interview on TNN with Trisha Yearwood. She said she was an intern at a record label and that she went to Belmont. I asked another performer on my show, whose full-time job was as a school teacher, if he had ever heard of an intern. He said, “It’s where you work for free and you get experience.” I was like, “I’ll do that in a second! How do I do that?”

I ended up cold calling the production company in Dallas that produced my show for Six Flags and asked to be their intern. I had no interest in being a performer or being an artist, but I wanted to be in the music business. This was my only way to try to figure out how to get into the music business.

That production company still operates today in Dallas. The guy that runs it, Mark Brymer, he’s the number one print arranger in the nation for Hal Leonard Music Publishing. He arranges music into choral arrangements, so when The Lion King would come out, they would send the music to this guy in Dallas and he arranges it into choral arrangements that they could sell to churches, choirs, and show choirs. So I started learning about print publishing that way. He produced Looney Tunes records—like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck—so I got to be around the studio aspect. I learned about live stuff and print publishing.

What was next?

There were some people from Sony coming to Six Flags to see a singer in our show. After that performance, we got to have a meet and greet with these music business executives. One of them was a publisher named Jerry Smith. Jerry had a joint venture at Sony called Fire Hall Music. His venture existed for him to sign singer-songwriters and get them record deals. The first three people he signed were Terri Clark, Rhett Akins and Lonestar. The rest was history.

He and I met at that meet and greet and he started explaining to me what he did. I had this God moment, thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is it. This is what I’m supposed to do.” He had told me he was leaving Sony and he was starting a new company with Warner Chappell. Off the cuff, he said, “If you ever come to Nashville, call me up. You can help me.” I took that as an invitation. I left all my family, I left a full ride scholarship to college, I broke up with my girlfriend, I quit my job, and I packed it all up and moved here. It was August 17, 1996.

I enrolled at Belmont. I took my classes early in the morning and late in the evening so I could work for free all during the day. Jerry was the best boss for me possible. He had an office inside the Warner Chappell building. We had seven or eight songwriters. He had a filing cabinet behind the desk that had all the contracts he had ever been involved in. He told me I was free to go through them and check out anything I wanted. He said, “Whatever you want to do in this business, I’ll help you do it, just help me build my company.”

Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols, Chris Young, Rusty Gaston

Where did you go from there?

I worked with Jerry Smith for about five years. One day I got a cold call from a producer named Byron Gallimore. He had a company with Warner Chappell. This was when Byron was really busy with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. They were firing on all cylinders.

He called me and said, “I’ve got this publishing company and people tell me you’re the guy that should run it. Would you be interested in talking about it?” I said, “Yeah, absolutely. When do you want to get together?” He said, “Right now. I’m at the Waffle House on 65 and Harding.” For five years, I ran that company called Song Garden Music. We had some wonderful songwriters and had some big hits.

How did you start THiS Music?

During that time, both of the companies I’d worked for were joint ventures at Warner Chappell and, contractually, they just weren’t set up for success. Even though both companies were having success on paper, it wasn’t looking that way [behind the scenes]. I was at a point where I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a family and I could really risk taking a chance on myself. I had approached Warner Chappell about an idea I had and to my complete surprise, they did not laugh at me and shut the door. Fast forward six months or a year later, Tim Nichols‘ Warner Chappell deal was up. He was wanting to do something different, so he and I got connected. Tim and Connie Harrington had just written two big hits together. We all got together and started the idea of THiS Music.

We started THiS Music in January of 2006. The first writer we signed from was Ben Hayslip. As good as we laid out the business plan of THiS Music on paper, it went better. What started out with me and three writers ended up being me, three or four other employees, and a dozen songwriters. We ended up having 50 to 60 ASCAP and BMI-award winning hits. It was incredible.

Mike Molinar, Jeff Stevens, Rusty Gaston, Luke Bryan

Then Sony Music Publishing called. You started your current role as CEO of the Nashville office in January of 2020. What went into that decision?

Jon Platt cold called me on June 19, 2019. I was at a Thomas Rhett and Dustin Lynch concert in Charlotte. I was standing backstage and my phone rang and it was Jon Platt. At this point, he had became the chairman of Sony, but he had only actually been on the job about three months. We knew each other and it wasn’t weird that he would call, but he never calls. (Laughs) I’ll never forget looking at my phone and thinking, “My God, this is weird. I better answer this.” I answered it and he just said, “Hey man, can you come to New York next week?” I said, “Absolutely.” He said, “I’ll make all the arrangements. Don’t tell anybody you’re coming, just your wife.”

I flew to New York a few days later, not having any idea what was going on. He laid out his idea and said, “I’ve watched you build a destination that songwriters want to come to and a culture that writers want to be a part of. That’s what we need.” I just started laughing. I thought, “What are we talking about? I’m a kid from Van, Texas. How am I in New York City overlooking this park?” I’ve never been accused of having a lack of confidence, but Jon Platt makes me feel that he believes in me more than I do. He didn’t just make me feel that way, he backs it up every day. He’s a fantastic leader.

Needless to say, it was a no-brainer. Especially in Nashville, Sony is the premier legacy of the history of country music. When I moved here, this building was the hottest place in town. If you were a writer, you wanted to write over there. If you were recording, you wanted to be in that studio. If you were a song-plugger, you wanted to work there. I worked right across the parking lot, so I saw it every day. You couldn’t get a parking spot in this lot because it was packed. The idea of helping be a part of bringing that legacy back to life is overwhelming and the biggest honor I could think of.

Cole Swindell, Rusty Gaston

You’ve talked about some defining moments you’ve had in your journey. What are some of your proudest, now that you’re on this side of your career?

When I lived in Texas and was just dreaming of this, there was an article in the Dallas Morning News about a local realtor who had written a No. 1 song. His name was Tom Douglas. He had just written “Little Rock” for Collin Raye. I had read this article in the paper and didn’t know about publishing or anything like that, but was enamored with songs. I knew this song because I just worshiped country radio.

I went to my grandparents’ house and by the telephone, they had a Yellow Pages and a White Pages [phone book]. I pulled out the White Pages and looked up Tom Douglas. I just cold called this guy up. He answered and I just said, “Hey, could I come talk to you? I’m interested in being in the music business.” He invited me to his house. I sat with him for an afternoon and talked to him about songwriting.

All these years later, technically I’m now Tom’s publisher and get to work with him… It goes to show God’s plan is bigger than your plan. I am a big dreamer but I never dreamt this big.

I grew up in a town of barely a thousand people. I never met a soul in the music business. It was nothing more than I’m a kid that loved music who wanted to chase this down. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody if you’re willing to put in the work and be nice to people.