When someone like Frances Williams Preston dies, it’s like a library burning to the ground.
The Country Music Hall of Fame member passed away Wednesday morning, June 13, at home of congestive heart failure at age 83. She was a founder of Nashville’s entertainment industry, a lifelong champion of copyrights and a shoulder to lean on for Dolly, Johnny, Kris, Willie, Loretta and just about every other musical icon this community has witnessed. She was also one of the most influential global music executives in history.
When she established the Nashville office of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) in 1958, there was no “Music Row.” Nashville had two record-company outposts, a pair of recording studios and a smattering of song-publishing shops.
In the days before mainstream financial institutions took notice of this fledgling industry, Preston and BMI were the “bank” of the Nashville music business. Her office loaned countless entrepreneurs the money to start publishing companies. Publishers watered the fields that grew songwriters, singing stars, record companies, booking agencies, broadcasters and the tourism industry.
This founding mother’s accomplishments have been well documented. She was a secretary at WSM who answered fan mail for Hank Williams. Then BMI, which distributes royalties to songwriters and publishers, hired her. She initially ran its pioneering Southern branch out of her parents’ garage. BMI appointed her a vice president in 1964, making her the first female corporate executive in Tennessee.
She built its Nashville headquarters — solidifying Music Row as an entertainment district — created Nashville’s first music awards banquet, helped lead the Country Music Association and championed the creation of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Preston stepped up to BMI’s national presidency in 1986. From that position, she knit together music creators throughout the world. Wherever they reside, their royalties are now distributed from Nashville by BMI, Music Row’s largest employer.
More important than all of this was the sheer force of her personality. She was absolutely devoted to mentoring songwriters, and she accepted them for who they were, no matter how eccentric. She was as warm to the lowest unknown as she was to a superstar. She inspired everyone who knew her. Find a music maker in Nashville, and you’ll find a Frances Preston story.
She did it all with immense grace, genial humor, true Southern hospitality and effortless class. Hers was a life well lived, and then some. Think of this woman and bow your head. We will not see the likes of Frances Williams Preston ever again, here or anywhere.