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NASHVILLE'S NEW WAVE
In the Land of the Titans, the Playing Field is Being Leveled

INTRODUCTION

I’m not a fan of making professional distinctions between gender, race, sexual orientation or libation of preference.  That was my response when Holly Gleason pitched the following to me. But arguing with Holly is usually ill-advised, and she ultimately convinced me: In 2018, the women mentioned in this piece are doing more than just changing the conversation—they are changing the landscape.

Just look through the acts on the country charts and note how many are repped by women. This changing of the guard is undeniable, and it’s clearly female.

I kinda love saying this: Gents, don’t get your panties in a wad. We feel you.

Clint, Clarence, Jason: you are some of the hardest-working managers (people) I have ever met and deserve ever single bit of success you’ve had and are continuing to have. Danny, the things you’ve done with Dolly’s career are unprecedented. Zach/Clay, your work with the Stapletons is mind-blowing. Bruce and George, what you’ve built on both the management and the label fronts is changing the game. John, I remain in awe of the house that you and Eric have built. Pete, the course corrections you’ve made at the ACM make me proud to be a member. Seth/Chief, your efforts establishing the Big Loud empire are daunting. Brad, you and Sam pretty much define “out of the box.” Will Hitchcock, Matt Graham, Todd Ramey, Chris Kappy, we smell what you are smoking, and we aren’t the only ones. You’re not just great male executives—you’re great executives, period.

Even so, we are witnessing extraordinary change, and it would be foolish to ignore how female managers, gate-keepers and advocates are re-shaping the game.

I’ve always trusted Holly’s instincts, and as usual, I’m glad I did. Also, she told me I’m her favorite male trade weasel. She said the same thing to Lenny BeerTodd

 

Once upon a time, in the American South, there was a music industry ruled by women. It sounds like a Grimms’ Fairy Tale, a Greek myth or some kind of Hans Christian Anderson fable, but it actually happened.

Country Music Association leader Jo Walker-Meador and longtime #2 Helen Farmer, BMI’s eventual global head Frances Preston, ASCAP’s Connie Bradley, publishing behemoth Donna Hilley and indie pioneer Ree Guyer, songwriter champion/Nashville Songwriters International Association head Maggie Cavender, Bluebird Café founder Amy Kurland, manager Louise Scruggs, whose name is on the Country Music Hall of Fame’s annual female executive award, and Ryman Auditorium general manager Lula Naff set the tone and course for country music, nurturing talent and building the business for the largest radio business in America.

Click images for a larger view.

Sometime in the ’90s—with notable exceptions like Alan Jackson manager Nancy Russell, PR powerhouse and onetime Asylum head Evelyn Shriver and promo domo Shelia Shipley, who helmed Decca’s rebirth—the double-X chromosome coalition constricted. We can’t say for certain that’s how the stage was set for bro-country—or #TomatoGate, for that matter, but as women exited positions of controlling the talent and the gateways, things got decidedly male-dominant.

Ironic in the wake of #MeToo, when you look around Nashville’s music business, the percentage of dynamic women leaders has quietly swelled to a level almost unseen. And it’s not just top jobs at major organizations—though, hey, Cindy Mabe, we’re looking at you, and ditto for CMA head Sarah Trahern—there have never been so many women managers, guiding talent from supernovas Carrie Underwood (Ann Edelblute), Luke Bryan (Kerri Edwards), Dierks Bentley and Elle King (Red Light Nashville head Mary Hilliard Harrington) and Miranda Lambert (Shopkeeper’s Marion Kraft) to breakout stars Thomas Rhett (Virginia Davis), Maren Morris (Janet Weir), Jon Pardi (Melanie Wetherbee), Kane Brown (Martha Earls) and Americana/indie forces Jason Isbell and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats (Traci Thomas), Sam Outlaw (Michelle Aquilato) and John Prine (Fiona Whelan Prine).

“Women trust our gut instincts, and all the women I know are super-smart,” says Kraft, who also co-manages, with Crystal Dishmon, buzz-inducing newcomer Tenille Townes. “And they listen to their instincts. It doesn’t have to do with money, but what the music requires and the artist needs. Country fans see something authentic, and they know. Women understand that, so they let the artist lead and let the commerce follow. [At Shopkeeper], we don’t do any marketing until we hear the music; what does it say, how does it sound.”

“I think female managers are naturally problem solvers,” adds Hilliard. “If a door gets closed, we’re going to start looking for another way in. Maybe it’s a window, but the way women have come up through the system—especially here in Nashville—if you went away every time someone said no, you’d never get anywhere.”

Hilliard, who started and later sold indie PR firm The Green Room, expands on the notion of adaptability: “There’s a flexibility you need, and a desire to find new ideas. I think we create what we have to do to get what our artists want, or need. We have the ability to stay at it when a lot of people would walk away. I’m lucky. Dierks isn’t the kind of artist who wants to flip a switch and go. It takes looking at things from a different perspective instead of doing what’s been done. But it also gives him the ability to match what we do to the project he’s releasing.”

“It’s an exciting time, and I can’t quite explain why we’re here,” says Grand Ole Opry SVP Programming & Artist Relations/GM Sally Williams, as she packs to inspect construction on the third iteration of their Blake Shelton-branded outpost Ole Red in Gatlinburg, Tenn. “It’s really happening. It didn’t happen overnight, but these women in my world who’re kicking ass, there’s a critical mass of us, and that breeds more of us.”

Williams, the first woman to Chair the CMA Board in more than two decades, points to great mentors, male and female, but especially the partnership of then-PACE Concerts regional VP Ali Harnell and Ryman Auditorium GM Pam Matthews as a catalyst. Slightly under the mainstream radar, they recognized the Opry’s original home was meant for more than acoustic shows and theater. “They realized it’s a great venue for music, period, and brought in Coldplay and Ani DiFranco, which set the stage for everything to come.”

With Girlilla Marketing founder Jennie Smythe and CMT’s Leslie Fram, there’s also a fresh energy around women in the delivery business. As Trahern says, “All these women are innovative thinkers with a strong creative vision. Each is a passionate proponent for their individual businesses, their colleagues and the industry. With that degree of energy and dedication, good work is bound to follow.”

Prine, formerly U2’s Windmill Lane Studios manager, made her husband’s label and career truly a family business. “Women can be good observers, astute listeners and are often intuitive when it comes to guiding an artist in the right direction,” she notes. “It’s really important to understand what drives an artist; to appreciate and respect the integrity of the work and where to draw the lines in terms of exposure and where they are in the arc of their career.”

John Prine has not only made two Grammy-nominated albums of duets with country and roots female vocalists, his opening acts have been distaff-leaning as well. Margo Price, Amanda Shires and Lee Ann Womack have all been part of his Tree of Forgiveness touring. As Fiona says, “John puts his commitment (to women) on the road.”

It’s not that this upheaval is tearing out the playbook as much as it’s expanding the possibilities. Virginia Davis believes in inclusion and attraction. “Having more women in power, we have more women who understand what it takes to keep women in the music business. We have a greater pool of talent, more ideas, more equitable distribution of knowledge. I also tend to find, in working with women, that we’re more collaborative and seek a greater good for the whole. Ego seems to be less of an issue; finding the win-win is front and center.”

“The feeling I got from those relationships led me to manage from a team perspective,” agrees Melanie Wetherbee, whose Pardi merges Dwight Yoakam’s traditional with more contemporary sounds. “I am very aware this is a team sport, and we all need to be on the same page or it negates what you’re trying to achieve,” she asserts. “I try, too, to instill ownership and inclusion in everyone on our team, which keeps people more involved and motivated to win for the artist.”

Martha Earls laughs a bit, not sure what her gender has to do with it. “I am motivated, because I know what it feels like to be underestimated. My personal satisfaction comes from not only exceeding people’s expectations but breaking longstanding stereotypes.”

Jennie Smythe, who navigates tech in a song-driven town, concurs: “The ability to multitask and tap into emotional intuition in a tech space that is often cut-and-dried has been a constant advantage. Personally, over the years, I’ve had to work on cutting to the chase without the fear of being called bossy. Now, when someone calls me bossy, I say, ‘Thank you.’”

Leslie Fram, an acclaimed progressive-rock-radio veteran tapped to run CMT: Country Music Television’s artist relations’ department, is a big believer in proactivity and empowerment. Beyond co-founding the nationally acclaimed Change the Conversation with publisher/A&R exec Tracy Gershon and MTSU Recording Industry Management Dean Beverly Keel to keep the issues facing women in the spotlight and support dialogue, she puts CMT initiatives in action to get female artists in the spotlight.

“CMT recognized the need to support female voices in 2013, when women started disappearing from playlists,” Fram points out. “Next Women of Country is a franchise that expands on exposure for female artists all the way from on-air content to the stage. Our Next Women Tour gives female artists the opportunity to be on a real tour and have a stage to play on with the proper support.”

Marion Kraft acknow-ledges the radio issue, but also acknowledges that her job is making it happen. Citing an eight-to-10-year cycle for most superstars to develop, she focuses on what she can control. “If radio programmers won’t play females, it’s hard to get to where you have a shot to research. But Kelsea Ballerini got through, and so did Maren Morris.

“With women artists, you have to make a longer-term investment, commit to the long view and figure out how to build it by taking the music directly to the fans,” Kraft explains. “I have incredible amounts of patience, and there are so many variables that can fall in or out of place. If you stay focused on the artist, though, you can find those right things. If you stay clear on what you’re building, it makes it a little easier to navigate.”

“Figuring out how to write the narrative is over half the artist-development game, especially here” Mary Hilliard says. “I’m not wired to just get the box checked, because that’s ‘how it’s done.’ The time-and-space challenge, with social media all the time, who’s hot and the sheer volume of stuff competing for people’s attention, makes it tricky for an artist—or manager—to find their voice and stand out.

“People aren’t lining up to give you a slot,” she continues, “but when they do, being ready is everything. Chris Stapleton’s CMA performance [with Justin Timberlake] is a perfect example. Everyone in Nashville loved him and respected his talent, but then you took that huge voice, a great song and an electrifying performance, and all the faith and work to get there paid off.”

Hilliard cites Maren Morris and Jon Pardi as two individuals working specific plans to great ends. For Weir, Morris’ genre-busting is the payoff. “Having a #1 at Country radio for ‘I Could Use a Love Song’ and a #1 at Pop radio for ‘The Middle’ says the walls are coming down in many ways, and it’s great to see the genres continue to blend together.”

Creativity is the one word the women rarely say out loud, but it defines their strategies, long-range planning and the ability to take unique artists and find them paths that work to their strengths. Streaming, social media and direct-to-fan communication is a piece of it, but so is—as Weir points out—seeking what’s not been done before, especially by developing artists.

“Marion is one of very best managers I’ve ever worked with in any genre,” says CBS EVP Specials, Music and Live Events Jack Sussman, who oversees the Grammys and Academy of Country Music Awards for the network. “She has a clear vision for her artists, and works hard to deliver it. Mary Hilliard, too, is as good as any man or woman at the top of their game. They realize it’s a matter of factors, how their artists are seen and really delivering in the moment.”

Sally Williams also subscribes to that theory. “My objective was to work really hard and do creative things,” she says. “I wanted to create a great environment for the people I work with and around, and keep the focus on the music. A larger percentage of women in executives’ roles in this industry—and I know a lot of men who do this because they love the music—all really love the music. I see that passion for the music in all of them. It’s an absolute. That’s undeniable.”

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