My Music Row Story: Huskins-Harris’ Becky Harris

Becky Harris

The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.

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

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

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

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

How did you start your career?

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

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

What did you learn there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When do you feel most fulfilled in your role?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you most proud of in your career?

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

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

My Music Row Story: UMPG’s Troy Tomlinson

Troy Tomlinson

The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.

 

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

 

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

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

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

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

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

Pictured: Troy, asleep in the tape room.

Did you always want to work in the music business?

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

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

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

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

Troy with Reba McEntire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenny Chesney and Troy accept a BMI Award.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor Swift and Troy accept a BMI Award.

What are some of the best qualities about our industry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Music Row Story: ASCAP’s Mike Sistad

Mike Sistad

The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get to Belmont University? 

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

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

What was your first stop after graduation?

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

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

What happened to you when Arista closed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who have been some of your mentors over the years?

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of your favorite career moments?

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

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

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

My Music Row Story: MTSU’s Beverly Keel

Beverly Keel

The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.

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

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

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

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

Beverly Keel with Kenny Rogers. Photo: Courtesy Beverly Keel

MusicRow: Where did you grow up?

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

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

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

How did you realize that you wanted to pursue journalism?

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

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

George Strait with Beverly Keel. Photo: Courtesy Beverly Keel

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

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

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

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

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

How did you become so involved at MTSU?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lionel Richie with Beverly Keel. Photo: Courtesy Beverly Keel

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

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

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

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

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

What are you most proud of in your career?

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

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

My Music Row Story: Shane Stevens

Shane Stevens

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.

Shane Stevens is a Grammy and ACM nominated singer-songwriter who has written for a variety of country and pop acts, including Walker Hayes, Carrie Underwood, Lady A, Sara Evans, Kellie Pickler, Ronnie Milsap, Jo Dee Messina, Jordin Sparks, Fifth Harmony, Little Mix, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor.

The South Carolina native achieved his first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 2010 with “American Honey,” performed by Lady A and co-written with Hillary Lindsey and Cary Barlowe. After achieving much success in writing country music, Stevens wanted to broaden his songwriting horizon and moved to Los Angeles in 2014 to pursue a new direction as a writer, vocal producer, and artist developer in the pop and R&B world.

While in Los Angeles, Stevens contributed songs to several pop artists, such as “Super Bad” and “Goodie Bag” by Jesse McCartney, “Everlasting Love” by Fifth Harmony, “Paper Doll” by Bea Miller, “Step On Up” by Ariana Grande, “Love Me or Leave Me” by Little Mix, “Woman Up” by Meghan Trainor, “Nobody” by Selena Gomez, and “I’ll Chase The Sky,” “No Better Feelin’” and “Neighsayer” on the 2017 My Little Pony soundtrack.

Stevens’ most recent accolades includes selling a country music musical movie to Paramount Pictures for which he wrote all original compositions alongside childhood friend Karyn Rochelle. He also co-wrote Walker Hayes‘ blockbuster hit “Fancy Like.”

MusicRow: Where did you grow up? What led you into music?

I was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was raised in a little town called Calabash, North Carolina, right on the state line. My dad was a shrimper and my family worked in the restaurant business. My parents led praise and worship in church, so that’s how I fell in love with music. But I hated country music—because my parents loved country music!

My sister and I were obsessed with Michael Jackson. My fourth grade school teacher was the first person to ever play me George Michael, which became a massive influence for me. She said, “One day you’re going to be just like him. You’re gonna write songs!” She was talking to this little gay kid who was being cast out and bullied by everybody else, reassuring me that I was going to be okay.

When did you learn to love country music?

Around 1994, I was in high school. My best friend Tina got her driver’s license first, so I would ride with her in her Subaru to school. We had a deal that if she would listen to Mariah Carey, George Michael, Paula Abdul, and Whitney Houston on the way there, I would listen to her crappy country music on the way back. (laughs)

She turned me onto Wynonna Judd. She played me “Is There Life Out There?” by Reba, and some Dolly stuff. It’s Tina’s fault, because she made it cool for me. And then I became obsessed with the storytelling.

Shane Stevens, Karyn Rochelle

How did you get to Nashville?

I had started doing karaoke contests and stuff like that. I would sing Clint Black‘s “Put Yourself In My Shoes” and Alan Jackson‘s “Here In The Real World.” I just got really into it. I went to Opryland auditions in Myrtle Beach and I met who would become my best friend, Karyn Rochelle.

When I was done with school, she asked me if I wanted to go to Nashville with her. So I was 17 when I came to Nashville.

What happened when you got here?

[Karyn and I] were writing and I [decided to go] to hair school, for my “just in case career,” and ended up working for Earl Cox and their team at Trumps [Salon] doing hair extensions. We did Sara Evans, Tammy Wynette, everybody. All these women that I wanted to write songs for, I ended up being their hairdresser.

At the same time, Karyn had been at Crutchfield [Music Publishing] for three or four years, and then she got signed with Pat Finch over at Famous Music. By then I had several songs that I really was proud of and an artist project going. She took my music to Pat and I got a phone call from Pat. He said, “Come over, I want to meet you.” And then he signed me [to my first publishing deal].

After some time in Nashville, you moved to New York, before moving back to Nashville in 2006. What brought you back?

[While in New York], I ended up sending [a song I wrote] to my friend Beka Tischker, who worked at Major Bob. She gave it to Bob Doyle and then he wanted to hear more songs. So I sent some other songs that I had, he loved it, and then I got a phone call. I was sitting at the Good Enough to Eat [restaurant] on the upper west side, across from the bar that I worked in called The Raccoon Lodge. Mike Doyle called and said, “Hey Shane, this is Mike Doyle. I want to offer you a publishing deal.” That was in 2006, and that was the last time I did hair—other than for fun.

I was free as a bird in New York City. I got so much energy from it and I loved creating there, but I would come back to Nashville and stay for a few weeks at a time. Jesse Frasure was my day to day publisher, and they just put me with the right people.

Shane Stevens, Hillary Lindsey

You had your first country hit with Lady A’s “American Honey” in 2019. What was that like?

Blew my freaking mind. Hillary, Cary and I went to Gatlinburg together for the first time and we started writing that song there. We didn’t finish it, we just had a bunch of different ideas. We brought them all home and Jesse Frasure was like, “Y’all have got to finish that song. That’s the one.” That opened the floodgates and then everything really started to happen.

You co-wrote one of the biggest hits of 2021, “Fancy Like” by Walker Hayes. How fun has that ride been?

I knew [it was going to be a hit]. I knew it in my soul, and I knew it in my spirit. I told everybody in the room that day.

Walker says we wrote [“Fancy Like”] for people that go to strip malls; and we really did. We also wrote it for people like us, just normal country people [who feel like] going to an Applebee’s is an upgrade.

When you’re the songwriter, you’re not on the stage usually, so you’re not seeing the reaction of a crowd. But because of Instagram and TikTok, when a lot of that stuff can be so bad and hurtful, watching the joy from people and getting to experience it that way has been the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.

Selena Gomez & Shane Stevens in the studio.

In addition to your success in country music with songs recorded by Sara Evans, Carrie Underwood, Ronnie Milsap, and more, you’ve had a lot of success in the pop space as well, writing songs with and for Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Little Mix, and Jesse McCartney. Who have been some of your biggest champions?

Jesse Frasure, Mike Doyle, and Bob Doyle. Leslie Roberts gave me my first cut over at RCA, and then she went to BMI and she’s still been my champion. Whitney Daane really loves me and I really love her. Stephanie Wright and Allison Jones [are some more]. I have really great relationships with people. I’m not fair-weathered, I’m in it with ’em when it’s low, I’m in it with ’em when it’s high.

Pictured (top row, L-R): Bob Doyle (Owner, Purplebeat), Eric Daigle (Co-Head of Creative, Purplebeat), Mike Doyle (GM Purplebeat); (bottom row, L-R): Graham Kothman (Artist Relations Coordinator, Purplebeat ), Shane Stevens and Andy Friday (Co-Head of Creative, Purplebeat)

Now you’re back with Bob Doyle at Purplebeat.

Now I’m back with Bob. He hired my husband, Eric Daigle, to help run Purplebeat. It feels like I’m back with family and having this ride with “Fancy Like”—which came out the week that I signed my deal at Purplebeat. So we’re all winning together. It feels good to be on that team.

What is one of the proudest moments of your career?

There’s just too many. Most people would say their first No. 1 party or something, but I sang at Carnegie Hall a long time ago. I sang a solo on the stage of Carnegie Hall and Elaine Stritch introduced me. There was a snowstorm and what’s so crazy is I had holes in both bottoms of my shoes because I couldn’t afford to get new dress shoes. They were super cute, you would never know, but my socks were soaked. And I was singing this beautiful song on the Carnegie stage. That probably sounds silly to most people, because I had nowhere near made it, but being on a stage of that size was the biggest dream come true.

My Music Row Story: CRS’ RJ Curtis

RJ Curtis

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.

RJ Curtis is a 44-year radio veteran and music industry professional who started working in radio as a teenager, eventually logging 30 years in major market radio (Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio) in program director, operations manager, music director, and on-air talent roles.

In 2007, Curtis segued to broadcast and music industry trade journalism, reporting on and providing analysis for all aspects of the radio and record label industries. His 13-year tenure in this sector included oversight of trade journal brands Country Editor, Radio & Records Magazine, and contributor to sister publication, Billboard Magazine. He also served as VP, Radio of All Access Music Group and VP, Radio of Country Aircheck.

Curtis currently acts as Executive Director for Country Radio Broadcasters, Inc. (CRB), an industry service organization responsible for staging the annual Country Radio Seminar (CRS), a three-day educational event which gathers key business leaders in various radio and music industry fields, featuring presentations on best business practices, emerging technology, personal career development, and new music showcases. In February of 2021, CRS successfully pivoted to a virtual event due to the pandemic. CRS 2022 will return to a fully live, in-person event Feb. 23-25.

Curtis, a recent Country Radio Hall of Fame inductee, recently spoke to MusicRow about his journey and some of his favorite career moments.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up? How did you become interested in radio?

We moved a lot when I was a little kid, but we got to Southern California when I was 10. So that’s my growing up experience. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, which meant Los Angeles radio.

I was always a radio listener. I grew up listening to some legendary signals, like KHJ. As I got older, I segued to the FM part of the dial, like KMET, KLOS, KFI, KABC…all of these big signals in Los Angeles with great personalities. So I really loved radio, but when I got into seventh grade, I met a friend named Rick Minyard. His dad, Ken, did mornings at KABC. I got to know Ken and I thought, ‘That’s a cool job.’ So it really started in seventh grade.

I’m very fortunate because I knew early on that that’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t have any distractions about that. I was narrowly focused on radio.

RJ Curtis with Eric Church at CRS 2020.

How did you start your career in radio?

I started my radio career in Los Angeles. It was my first semester at Valley College, working at the campus radio station KVCR. For a project, I had to go visit radio stations, so I would leave my name and number [at the stations].

KBIG in Los Angeles is now an AC station, but at the time it was a beautiful music station—beautiful music was a big format in the ’70s. A lot of people would call it elevator music because it’s all instrumentals. I got a job there when I was 18 years old working what was called the music line. There was no back-selling and jocking as it were in radio, there were announcers. They didn’t pre or back sell any music, so they hired college-aged kids to come sit by the phone and answer listeners who asked, ‘Hey, what was that song?’ That’s when I learned all about the core artists for beautiful music.

So that was my first job, and I got to know all the announcers. I made some great connections there. Then after that, I got a job outside of Los Angeles in San Bernardino on the air.

What brought you to Nashville?

I was in radio from 1977 until 2006, so for 30 years. In 2006, I was programming KZLA in Los Angeles. It was owned by Emmis and they flipped the format to a rhythmic AC format called Movin’. It was supposed to overtake radio, but it didn’t. [In the meantime], I had been thinking, ‘Am I going to keep doing this? What’s next?’ I had a really great contract and I was compensated for the next six months, so I had time to really think about it.

Radio & Records [Magazine] had undergone a sale. Billboard bought them in the summer of 2006. Lon Helton left R&R after 25 years and they didn’t have a country editor. So I was contacted by Erica Farber, who was running R&R then. We got together and within a few months I was working at R&R as a country editor. I did that for three years. What brought me to Nashville was when R&R shut down, Skip Bishop and Butch Waugh from Arista reached out. Butch said, ‘Have you ever thought about record promotion?’ They moved me out here in 2009. I did promotion for about 18 months and didn’t like it. I kind of knew I wouldn’t, but I’m glad I did it.

It seems like your time at R&R opened the door for you to become VP, Country at Country Aircheck and then the Nashville Editor for the All Access Music Group.

When I was at Arista, I didn’t love record promotion and I didn’t miss radio, but I missed writing about it. I had really taken to it. When I left to KZLA and then ended up at R&R, I didn’t know what to expect from writing about it but not being in radio. But it was such a seamless, smooth, good transition. I enjoyed being exposed to [the whole industry]. When you’re at a radio station, you’re dialed in on that thing. You’re looking at your own station, your own market, and your own team, and you can miss a lot of things that are happening out in the world.

I went to Aircheck in the early part of 2011 and did that until Joel Denver called and asked if I wanted to run the Nashville office for All Access. I had a great time working with Lon and Chuck [Aly], but it was an opportunity to be the editor.

RJ Curtis with Carrie Underwood at CRS 2020.

In 2018 it was announced that you would be succeeding Bill Mayne as the Executive Director of Country Radio Broadcasters/Country Radio Seminar. How did that come to be?

It’s interesting because that journey really started when I first started going to CRS in 1985, although I didn’t know it. I went there as a radio person in 1985. Bill Mayne, who was my program director at KZLA, took me. I went the next year too and started getting involved in helping out with sessions, doing room counts and all those kinds of things. I did that for a long time and then I got on the agenda committee for two years in the late ’90s.

I was elected to the board in 1999. I was 20-year board member, so I became super involved in the format. I became a member of the executive committee, and when you’re on the executive committee, you’re privy to everything. Within three years of being on the board, I was elected president of CRB. So I was a three-year president, a vice president, and then I chaired the Hall of Fame committee. Unbeknownst to me, it prepared me for this role. So in 2018, when Bill Mayne decided to retire, I said ‘I’m stepping up for this. I’ve taken all the steps necessary to be qualified for this.’ The transition from a board member to the executive director has been very seamless.

Next week is the 2022 Country Radio Seminar. How would you describe the work that goes into planning that conference?

I don’t know if it’s the greatest analogy in the world, but I remember growing up in Southern California and watching the Tournament of Roses Parade. Bob Eubanks and Stephanie Edwards would host the parade and they’d say, ‘Right after the parade ends, starting tomorrow, they start planning for next year.’ I thought that was ridiculous, it was a year away! But [what we do is] similar to that in that CRS ends, the staff takes a few days off, we come back in the middle of the following week and [review]. We break down this seminar into certain segments such as registration, sessions, and other things like that. We spend a few weeks deconstructing each of those components and then we start working on how to improve it the next year. So it really is a year long process—except we don’t have a parade at CRS—maybe we should?

When do you feel most fulfilled in your new role?

It’s not the only day [I feel this way], but there is a moment when New Faces ends and I’m with my team. I make it a point to say, ‘Hey everybody, after New Faces and after we do the pictures with the artists and all that stuff, we’re meeting in the bar and I’m buying everyone a cocktail. We’re gonna raise a glass.’ It is very satisfying.

Also the following morning, we typically have a board meeting and we spend three hours deconstructing on the immediate takeaways of the seminar. That’s always fun. Hearing feedback and talking about the event is very fulfilling because it’s a lot of work to get to that point. When it’s done and we know some things have gone exceptionally well, that is a great feeling.

RJ Curtis at the Country Radio Hall of Fame induction dinner.

Who have been some of your biggest mentors?

Bill Mayne is a huge influence on my life. I met him when I was in my 20s, he was my program director for a while at KZLA and he recognized something in me as a programmer and a leader.

He handed me off to Larry Daniels at KNIX. I left KZLA to go work for Larry in Phoenix. He was an amazing example and mentor, he was terrific. He referred to me for my six years at KNIX as ‘his project.’ He was great: an amazing programmer, a fantastic manager, and a great person. In the same organization, Michael Owens was our general manager. He was an amazing broadcaster and incredible business man.

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

It’s not so much advice as it is examples of how to handle or approach certain things. Bill Mayne gave me some great advice.

Larry and Michael taught me this overall style and approach to radio of being prepared, taking care of every detail, and more. And in terms of the artists, it was treating every artist that came through the radio station with respect. No matter if [they had a label deal or not], any artist that came into the radio station was treated with a lot of respect.

What has been one of your proudest moments in your career?

It was in October, being inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame. I’ve been involved with that event for a long time. I’ve been on the selection committee and I’ve produced the dinner since 2007. To then be on the other side of it as an inductee was really wild. It blew my mind to be nominated and then to be selected… I’m really proud of that because when you look at the criteria of it, it’s about making a significant contribution and furthering the country music industry. To be considered one of those people, it’s still hard to think about because of the people that I know in the Hall of Fame—it’s hard for me to put myself in that category. It was a very wonderful night and really a proud moment.

My Music Row Story: KP Entertainment’s Kerri Edwards

Kerri Edwards. Photo: Angelina Olivia

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 the founder and president of management firm KP Entertainment, Kerri Edwards is a key figure in the careers of country stars Luke Bryan and Cole Swindell.

The West Virginia native started her career as an intern while studying at David Lipscomb University in Nashville. Edwards interned at Arista Records, and was eventually brought on to the staff who helped guide the careers of Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Pam Tillis, Diamond Rio and other ’90s country greats.

Edwards later joined EMI Music Publishing, followed by the High Five video production house, and then took a job with producer Mark Bright, before landing at Murrah Music. That’s where she met Luke Bryan, a staff writer at the time, and would start working with him to help further his career.

Now a decade into management, Edwards is the ultimate insider, involved in the touring, publishing, branding and business decisions for some of the genre’s most-sought-after performers. She spoke with MusicRow about her journey to the top, and the special moments along the way.

Pictured (L-R): Former Arista Records head Tim DuBois, Kerri Edwards. Photo: Courtesy KP Entertainment

MusicRow: You started your career at Arista Records. Tell me about those days.

Arista then was ran by Tim DuBois and it was a smaller label. What was awesome about that was you learned a ton of stuff because you heard everything that was going on—whether it was somebody calling a radio station or the mail room guy getting the stuff that was shipping out for somebody’s next single, you just overheard everything. I interned there probably a year and a half and then graduated and they found a job for me there as an A&R assistant.

I have never been in an environment like that. We were so tight. I don’t know that it would ever be repeated, to be honest. It was just a great era.

After Arista merged into RCA, you went into publishing where you met Luke Bryan. How did your relationship start?

It felt natural for A&R to switch sides to publishing, so I stayed in publishing probably seven years or so. During that seven year period, I met Luke at [Murrah Music], the company where he had just gotten signed to his first publishing deal. I really wasn’t trying to get into management at all, I was just trying to help him find his way in town and figure out how to help him eventually get a deal. I was still pitching songs and working with the other writers.

I went and saw him do a show in Georgia and was truly shocked. I think I’d focused so much on writing and the books and all that, I just wasn’t expecting what I saw on stage. Looking back, he was still obviously very green, but he just had this thing about him.

But even at that point I wasn’t trying to be his manager, I really was just trying to help him. I started calling in favors from writers, begging them to write with this guy. That’s how that started and then we just kept working together. I introduced him to Jeff Stevens, who ended up being his producer. Then we got in with Larry Willoughby, who at the time was an A&R at Capitol. Larry [suggested to Jeff for Luke to keep singing demos]. That’s how all the pieces started falling together.

Pictured (L-R): Kerri Edwards, Luke Bryan. Photo: Courtesy KP Entertainment

What pushed you into officially becoming Luke’s manager?

Three or four years later, [Mike] Dungan had agreed to sign him. So I took him around to manager meetings, I thought that’s the next step you do, right?

While we were doing that, he had asked me a few times, “Why don’t you just do it?” I was like, “No, I don’t know how to do that. I’ve never done that nor do I think I want to do that.” But then I thought, if I don’t do this, I wouldn’t be working with him anymore—and that kept haunting me. I called Mike Dungan and said, “Luke keeps asking me to do this, but I won’t do it without your blessing. You’re taking a risk on him and I do not want to walk in and you be in a panic that now he has a brand new manager.” So we talked it out and he graciously gave me the nod. Then I just started trying to stay above water.

When did you feel comfortable in your new role as a manager?

I guess when I truly took a breath was with “Do I.” That felt like a big moment for [Luke]. And then “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” felt really different.

Truthfully, there’s still always a weight in this business no matter what level you’re at. It’s just a different kind of weight. So it’s not like I felt like we had made it, not at all. But I felt like I could breathe for a second at that moment.

Pictured (L-R): Waylon Weatherholt (KPE), John Esposito (WMN), Cole Swindell, Kerri Edwards (KPE), Michael Monaco (FlyHi Films), Jacoby Plyler (KPE), Luke Bryan, Caroline Bryan. Photo: Courtesy KP Entertainment

After Luke became established, you added Cole Swindell as a management client, who had worked for Luke for years selling merch. What made you decide to take him on?

He obviously didn’t want to sell merch for the rest of his life. His dream was to start writing songs, so Luke and I tried to help him get a publishing deal. Once that happened…when I say workhorse, that guy started writing and writing. To this day, he is probably one of my favorite writers.

One day he calls and he’s like, “Where are you?” I was like, “I’m in the office.” He goes, “Can I play you a song?” So he comes by and he had “Chillin’ It.”

He was pacing. In that moment, with someone staring you down, listening to your song [he was nervous]. I turned it off and he’s like, “Okay, well I probably just got excited.” I just looked over and said, “Cole, do you really want to do this artist thing? Then that’s it.” He was like, “Oh God, I thought you hated it!” (laughs)

Now KP Entertainment has grown to include Dylan Scott, Jon Langston, CB30, DJ Rock and Whitney Duncan. How did you build your team?

I had teamed up with Red Light and Coran [Capshaw] on Luke early on. I still had a standalone office, but I didn’t really have that many employees. I was still doing most of it by myself. Then Waylon Weatherholt came on the team from Capitol Records. He’s been with me 12 years now, but it was he and I forever. It was just so busy, I couldn’t stop to even realize I needed more people. But once I did start hiring a few people, it was obviously life changing. I have great people here. They’re so awesome.

When do you feel most fulfilled in your role?

I truly still pinch myself that I get to work in music every day. I really do love it. The minute that I walked in that Arista door, not even understanding what I was about to get into, I’ve never not felt that. Luckily that feeling has truly stayed this whole time.

Pictured (L-R): DJ Rock, Waylon Weatherholt (KPE), Kerri Edwards (KPE), Dylan Scott, Jacoby Plyler (KPE), Dustin Eichten (KPE). Photo: Courtesy KP Entertainment

What’s something that people may not know about you?

I still do publishing stuff. I’m not in it every single day, because I can’t be, but I love it. It’s not something I’ve hung a separate sign for, but we have seven writers under our umbrella and it’s still something I’m super passionate about.

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

I just go to community. We’re competitive, but we would kill for each other. Even our artists do that with each other. They’re competitive, they don’t want to lose to the other one, but they also are truly great friends. I think that is a special thing in the country music industry.

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

I go back to something my parents have said about finding that thing that makes you happy. I do truly feel like I was blessed to find that and fulfill it. I surround myself with artists that I’m super proud to represent. Not to sound cheesy, but I really do feel like I have the best staff. It’s all mind blowing some days with some of the things that they have accomplished with our clients. I guess it’s just surrounding yourself with the people that keep you going and bring out the good in you.

My Music Row Story: The AMG’s Rob Beckham

Rob Beckham. Photo: Courtesy The AMG

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 Beckham is the co-founder of the Artist Management Group (The AMG) and currently serves as its President and Chief Execuitve Officer. The AMG is an independent, full-service entertainment company that supports artists in all career stages and offers a range of services including management, publishing and records. Notable clients of The AMG include Brad Paisley, Chris Young, Kameron Marlowe, Kat & Alex and Payton Smith. The AMG is also home to several rising stars including Jordan James, Chris Colston, Essex County, Grey Zeigler, Liv Charette and Nolan Sotillo.

Beckham has spent the last three decades shaping the careers of some of country music’s most successful artists and has received some of the industry’s top honors. The well-known industry veteran has been named CMA Touring Agent of the Year, TJ Martell Ambassador of the Year and honored by the Nashville Association of Talent Directors at their annual gala.

Prior to forming The AMG, he was a Partner at WME and Co-Head of the agency’s Nashville office.

Beckham recently spoke with MusicRow about his journey to The AMG, building artists’ careers, and The AMG’s success over the last few years.

How did you get into the music industry?

In college, I ran student activities. It was called ASUM in those days: Association of Students from the University of Montana. They had a famous industry program to get into the entertainment space, especially into the agency space. My first show was Poison and Warrant—in ’89, that was a really big deal.

I got turned onto country when I booked The Judds farewell tour, where Garth Brooks was the opening act. He and I struck a relationship there. The last [country] show I did was Reba, Clint Black and Vince Gill. That’s where my relationship started with Trey Turner and Narvel Blackstock. The on the job training that I got [while in college] was pretty extraordinary.

What happened after graduation?

The last show I did [in college] was Scorpions and Great White. The promoter of that show was from a Seattle promotion company. They liked the job that I did on the show, and offered me a job. I ended up taking it and moving to Seattle. I was there for about two years and got to work with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Queensrÿche, Alice In Chains, and bands like that. One day out of the blue I got a call from Rick Shipp at Triad [which would later become WME] and he offered me job in Nashville.

That would have been 1992. I was there through [the transition from] Triad, to William Morris, and to WME. It’s interesting, I moved to Nashville to be Greg Oswald‘s assistant, and then he and I would end up running the office together for a number of years.

Pictured (L-R): Bill Simmons, Brad Paisley, Rob Beckham. Photo: Courtesy The AMG

After over two decades with WME, you left your position as co-head of the Nashville office to form The AMG with Bill Simmons. What went into that decision?

It took me a minute to figure out what I wanted to go and do. I had a great run at WME and I wouldn’t change anything for it, but it was time to do something where I could be more creative. I always thought I was really good at artist development throughout my years of doing that, and I wanted to be more hands on with the artists.

Larry Fitzgerald [who managed Brad Paisley and Chris Young with Bill Simmons] was retiring and he had been a superstar manager for many decades. And Bill and I are very dear friends. I’ve been with Brad for 22 years and with Chris, at least more than 10. So with Larry retiring and Bill and I creating our partnership, it just turned out to be a perfect move.

How has The AMG grown since it opened its doors in 2019?

We have 26 on staff now. We started very small and as we started growing, COVID allowed us to have some luxuries to bring in people that we probably wouldn’t have been able to bring in.

Pictured (L-R): Chris Young, Rob Beckham. Photo: Courtesy The AMG

Chris Young had a great year last year, in-part due to the success of “Famous Friends” with Kane Brown, which earned the distinction of being the most-played song on the Billboard Country Airplay Songs chart all year. What was that like?

[Prior to “Famous Friends”] Chris’ “Drowning” was such a monster song, but it was a casualty of COVID. The radio stations didn’t want to play that with COVID going on. So we pivoted really quick and set the launch up for “Famous Friends” brilliantly. And it’s an undeniable hit—when it’s an undeniable hit, it has a life of its own.

It’s an amazing song. He did a great job on it, and the video turned out great. We performed that song on all the different awards shows, so it got a massive look for him and really re-centered him in the country music lane as being a superstar.

In addition to navigating Chris Young and Brad Paisley’s career, you’ve had success with new artist signings such as Kat & Alex, Kameron Marlowe, and Payton Smith. As a manager now, where are you looking for potential new clients?

We found Kat & Alex on an online talent show. My assistant at that time set up a meeting for me to meet with them. As soon as they walked in the door, you just knew. It didn’t take me three minutes to figure it out. They’re the fastest thing I’ve ever seen happen in Nashville.

Pictured: Kat & Alex with Rob Beckham. Photo: Courtesy The AMG

Right before that was Kameron Marlowe. Kameron was the second fastest thing I’ve ever seen happen in Nashville. Organically, he happens to write this breakup song, “Giving You Up,” and submits it to the Spotify editorial team, not knowing anyone there. John Marks fell in love with that song and blew it up. It’s at about 250 million streams right now and is going to be a monster song at country radio.

How have you guys navigated the pandemic as a new management company?

We were fortunate in the sense that Brad was one of the first tours out, with Kameron as support. They got through his entire tour with no issues and no problems. The only problem that we ran into in late summer, early fall was [the COVID protocols]. At Bridgestone arena, for a while you either had to show a negative test or you had to have a vaccine card to get in. As these stipulations are going away, then you can start to see the world coming back to normal.

A lot of people thought that there was going to be a tremendous amount of demand for live music. What most of us in the industry didn’t count on is all 8,000 artists going on tour at exactly the same time. So for us, Brad was able to get through. We pivoted on Chris a little bit and moved it to March and April, just hoping the world is a little bit less crazy by then and a lot of these rules and regulations at local municipalities will all go away.

Pictured (L-R): Kameron Marlowe, Rob Beckham. Photo: Courtesy The AMG

When do you feel most fulfilled in your role?

Having a multi-week No. 1 song with Chris; and putting together a plan last October and actually seeing that plan far exceed our goals in what we thought it was going to be was really cool. I got to be a part of all the different award shows, which was super cool. In my previous role, I just went backstage, shook hands and went away.

I also realized how glamorous our jobs as managers [seem], but it’s really just hurry up and wait. You go and do a sound check at 9:30 a.m. and you don’t do a show until 8:00 o’clock at night. It can be pretty taxing and draining, but seeing the success of Chris, being a part of Brad’s career his whole life, seeing Kameron and Kat & Alex explode are all fascinating things to watch and be a part of.

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

Never assume. Never assume that something’s ever going to be done. Early in my career, I would make assumptions on things and normally they were wrong. (laughs)