Louise Scruggs, the force of nature who aggressively represented husband Earl Scruggs, created opportunity where none existed, recognizing markets that most in bluegrass and country music didn’t notice, or couldn’t crack. Just as importantly, the tireless Scruggs unabashedly championed talent, reputedly owning the first Bob Dylan album in Nashville and emphatically telling Roy Acuff to record with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

Given Scruggs’ history, the selection of UMG Nashville President Cindy Mabe as the 2018 recipient of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Louise Scruggs Award is a couture fit. Mabe, 44, came from a North Carolina town with a love for country music and the will to make a difference for the artists she loves.

With stops as an intern at Arista, then Joe Galante’s RCA and Sony Music Nashville, Mabe was courted by then-Capitol Nashville/now UMG Nashville Chairman Mike Dungan through blind texts. At their first breakfast meeting, Dungan informed the five-months-pregnant Mabe, “I don’t care. It’s fine. You’re having a baby; you’re going to live.”

And so, the woman who’d stood up for the trajectory-changing “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishing Song)” for a then-flagging former classmate named Brad Paisley and the engine behind Carrie Underwood’s enduring post-Idol ascendance found herself changing lanes. That steel will and unabated passion for making a mark has driven Mabe since she was six years old and the only girl on a little boys’ baseball team. It was on full display in a particularly candid interview with the Hall’s Abi Tapia in the intimate Ford Theatre

  Back Row L-R: Gary Scruggs, Dave Berryman, Sarah Trahern, Nancy Shapiro,
  Bonnie Garner, Kay Clary, Abi Tapia, Kyle Young; Front Row L-R: Liz Thiels, Cindy Mabe

Dungan was on hand for the honor, as were several previous recipients: manager Bonnie Garner, NARAS vet Nancy Shapiro, artist advocate Kay Clary and Network Ink founder/Exit In owner/former Country Music Hall of Fame Communications head Elizabeth Thiels. Also in the room were CMT’s Leslie Fram, Change the Conversation founder/Change the Conversation co-founder Tracy Gershon, Warner Bros. Director of Artist Development Emilee Warner, NPR’s Ann Powers and Jewly Hight, and Country Music Association leader Sarah Trahern

Mabe was in classic form—candid, funny and deeply committed to the people whose lives have crossed hers. With a strong sense of artist first, she described Galante as “intense,” and cited his advice, “Be close to artists. The artists aren’t going anywhere, and we drive the company around them.” 

Confessing, “I will knock down doors for them, but I’m not the most important person,” Mabe took the collected audience on a prop plane to Athens, Ga., to see relative unknown Luke Bryan topple a massive audience of young people. “Then I helped him make more CDs to hand out for free to his fanbase, these rabid fans, these college kids who probably don’t listen to Country radio.”

Laughing at herself, Mabe acknowledged the need to recognize each artist for who they are, what aspects of their music work and the best ways to connect those things instead of relying merely on the standard Country radio delivery system. Embracing that strategy, she teamed with Spotify to help break Sam Hunt; quarterbacked the Little Big Town “Girl Crush” trucker cap campaign, which flew in the face of “the lesbian song” controversy the song had faced; and leaned into the Christian marketplace for Lady Antebellum member Hillary Scott’s solo project; engineered widespread TV for Kacey Musgraves' singular songwriting. She also used Chris Stapleton’s broad-spectrum impact on most of modern Nashville’s artists as a songwriter, guitarist and vocalist as a foundation for the CMA Awards, which catalyzed on the 2015 telecast with his jaw-dropping performance with Justin Timberlake

“Sometimes we don’t dream big enough,” Mabe said of the biggest roadblock. It’s also her greatest motivator. When she approached manager Erv Woolsey about the 60 by 60 concept of 60 #1s by George Strait’s 60th birthday, she was given 15 minutes to explain it all to the taciturn icon. When she got her time, she not only stressed the radio success, she also lobbed the notion of going for Entertainer of the Year as the cherry on top of what was being billed as his Farewell Tour

“You’ve got your work cut out for you,” Strait informed her, when she refused to accept his explanation that his “time was over.” And when one sees his acceptance of his third CMA Entertainer of the Year, there’s a wry smile as he thanks Mabe, saying, “That’s one bad girl!” 

As Lucian Grange told all of his affiliated labels shortly after Mabe’s arrival, “You’re breaking global artists.” At the same meeting, Norway and Sweden reached out for Lady A’s “Need You Now.” Since then, UMG’s investment in the CMA’s U.K./ Ireland C2C Festival and various outreaches in Australia lead the industry. 

At a time of #MeToo, Country radio’s continued issues getting women on the air—which she addressed early in the conversation—and Neil Portnow’s “step up” gaffe, the blond in the grey pantsuit was a composed, thrilled example of what a woman in power can do. Rather than clinging to what is, Mabe has sought new modalities, better dynamics and unthinkable ways to expose her artists. With more certifications than any label, as well as total dominance of the awards—most recently taking all four Country Grammy categories—Mabe proves this is a world where real musicians still have a place. Be it Brothers Osborne, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Keith Urban or her recently reunited Carrie Underwood, Mabe sees each as unique and strives to create the best possible exposure.

The kids are almighty. (8/2a)
Not your father's Columbia (8/2a)
Happier days are here again. (8/2a)
Look at the guns on these giants. (8/2a)
It's high time for Justice in the Academy. (8/2a)
From tender shoots to mighty oaks.
Let's do the numbers.
It is not the name of a Henry Miller novel.
Could be. Dunno.

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