Music Row was built, in significant part, on a legacy of women artists extending almost a century — a line that can be traced from Mother Maybelle Carter through Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton to the Dixie Chicks, the Pistol Annies and beyond.
But for an ambitious woman seeking a career in the country music industry 50 years ago, those opportunities largely began and ended at a microphone.
“There was still a lot of sexism in the industry, particularly at the labels and in the recording end,” said music historian Robert K. Oermann. “There were no women executives at the labels, radio would not play two female singers back to back, there were no women opening their own shows, and labels talked about their ‘female slot’ as if there was only room for one ‘girl singer’ at a time.”
In the 1960s, though, a small group of women began to chip away at the Row’s monolithically male power structure. At a time when 16th Avenue had its own version of the Mad Men mentality — going so far even as to exclude women from bastions of business dealing — these women parlayed their hit-making sense, their business savvy, and the smarts they’d acquired gaming the good ol’ boy system into careers that became legendary.
Recently The City Paper spoke to some of these trailblazing business leaders, whose names became synonymous with some of the industry’s biggest institutions — and who smashed the first cracks in Music Row’s glass ceiling.
Over the span of her 46 years leading BMI, Frances Williams Preston established a reputation as a brilliant businesswoman that extended far beyond her hometown, even overseas. When she was named a vice president of BMI in 1964, she was reportedly the first female corporate executive in the state of Tennessee.
But in those days, there were still places where that meant nothing.
“I had to attend a business luncheon that was taking place at the Cumberland Club downtown [a members-only private club since disbanded],” Preston remembered. “I got off the elevator with a bunch of businessmen, and walked to the reception desk to ask to be directed to the luncheon.
“It was being held in a private dining room, in part because women were not allowed in the main dining room. I knew that, but what I didn’t know was they not only could we not eat in the main dining room, but women were forbidden to even be in it! So to prevent me from walking through their dining room, I had to take the elevator down a floor, then walk up the stairs and be let in the back door. It was so humiliating.”
They’d learn. Preston would become inarguably the most powerful woman in the Nashville music industry, and a force to be reckoned with nationwide for the next four decades.
The same year she was named VP at BMI and snubbed by the Cumberland Club, Preston became the first woman to serve as board chairman of a six-year-old trade organization called the Country Music Association. At the time, the CMA too was headed by a woman: Jo Walker, who would later change her name to Jo Walker-Meador when she married Bob Meador.
Preston and Walker-Meador came to their posts by similar means via different routes. Between terms at George Peabody School for Teachers, Preston took a summer job at National Life Insurance — the owner of radio powerhouse WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. It wasn’t exactly a fast-track position.
“I was a messenger girl,” Preston said. “I took the mail to all the floors and what have you, and I always saw the 10th floor, where the executives were, and the fifth floor, where the radio station was.” On her rounds, she happened to notice that the receptionist at WSM was pregnant. Back then, that was a no-no.
“So I went and asked Jim Denny if I could have her job, because he was the manager of the radio station,” Preston says. “He said, ‘Well, if personnel will let you make the move, we’d love to have you here.’ So I talked to the personnel director, and I got that job.
“Then that got me involved in everything. I helped out with the public relations department at cocktail parties, meetings and things. I helped everybody with everything and got to know everybody coming to town.”
One of those people was Bob Burton, senior VP of BMI in New York, a member of the first CMA board and a frequent visitor to Nashville. Preston’s drive and personality so impressed Burton that in 1958, he tapped the young woman to open the BMI Southern regional office in Nashville. For a year, it was located in her residence at the time — her parents’ home. Its first actual office was in the L&C Tower, until a BMI building was constructed on Music Square East in 1964.
While Preston was drawn to the entertainment business like a moth to the flame, Jo Walker arrived at her post almost by default. Though she also went to Peabody, the self-described country girl wanted to be a high school teacher and basketball coach.
“Basketball was my life in the little town where I grew up,” Walker-Meador recalled. “But I got sidetracked and never did teach or coach. I ended up in the music business, but it wasn’t by any design. I just needed a job.”
A friend passed her name along to W.D. Kilpatrick, then manager of the Grand Ole Opry. He was also a member of the founding board of the CMA, which in 1958 was looking for an executive director but needed someone to man — or more accurately “woman” — the office.
“I started as a Gal Friday,” Walker-Meador remembered. “I set up the office, did the administrative work, correspondence, memberships. There were several applications for executive director, all of them men. Harry Stone actually got the job at the suggestion of Ernest Tubb, but he only stayed about 10 months because there just wasn’t the money to pay both of us. And since I was making lots less, they kept me.
“Plus I could type, and Harry couldn’t.”
Walker-Meador continued typing, organizing, recruiting and organizing for nearly four years with no title, until another woman finally spoke up for her.
“The board kept talking about men they wanted to hire,” she said, “until finally Minnie Pearl said, ‘Why don’t we name Jo the executive director? She’s doing all the work anyway.’ So that was late 1961, and we didn’t even hire another person until 1963.”
The CMA’s first awards show was in 1967 at Municipal Auditorium. Helping to organize it was another woman emerging as a power broker on the Row — Maggie Cavender, who became the first executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1967. Where Preston and Walker-Meador were all gracious charm and warm hospitality, Cavender (who passed away in 1996, well after she left her post) was often politely referred to as a “character” and could be a polarizing figure. But she beat the drum loud and proud for the men and women who wrote the tunes on 16th Avenue.
For many years, performance rights groups, trade organizations and publishing companies were more accessible to ambitious women than record labels — particularly when the women were on the ground floor, as Preston, Walker-Meador and Cavender were.
“Back then, the music business in Nashville was like a cottage industry,” said journalist and historian Oermann, who with his wife Mary Bufwak wrote the acclaimed history Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music 1800-2000. “Frances, Jo and Maggie built their companies from the ground up — they were virtually start-ups.”
Taking that path in 1979, Dianne Petty, a Nashville native who got her start in publishing, joined SESAC, another performance rights organization. It was Petty who led the effort to move the headquarters from New York to Nashville, which took place in 1985. Petty helped establish SESAC as a major player on Music Row, competing for writers and publishers with the much more high-profile BMI and ASCAP.
Performance rights companies and publishers walk hand in hand. Few did so more professionally and personally than Connie Bradley and Donna Hilley. The young women met and became fast friends at Bill Hudson and Associates, an advertising and PR firm with strong ties to the music business. Both were secretaries; Hilley worked directly for Hudson. Prior to that, she had worked at WKDA, the Nashville radio station run by Jack Stapp. When Stapp founded Tree International Publishing, he lured Hilley away from Hudson. In 1978, she was named Tree’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
Bradley’s career in the entertainment business also began in broadcast journalism — the Shelbyville native’s first Nashville job was as receptionist at WLAC-TV. Besides Hudson’s firm, she did secretarial jobs at RCA and Dot Records before moving to ASCAP in 1976 as their first female membership representative. In just four years, she was the woman in charge, appointed ASCAP’s senior regional director and overseeing a 20-state area.
“Hal David used to come to Nashville to write,” Bradley remembers, “and when he became the new head of ASCAP, he came to the office a lot. On one of those trips, he told me he wanted me to run the Nashville office. I was the low man on the totem pole, and I told Hal I really didn’t want to do it. I told him I didn’t have the background, I’m not good at telling people what they want to hear, and I’m not very political.
“I told him all the reasons I didn’t want to do it, and why I shouldn’t. So he listened, and when I was finished he said, ‘Well, I think you can do it and that you’ll be good at it. So let’s give it a try and see if it won’t work.’ ”
Bradley wasn’t the only one skeptical.
“It shocked everybody,” she recalled. “I remember Charlie Monk saying, ‘This will never work.’ I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to work either. I was scared to death. I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t know anybody.
“But Hal wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he just basically said, ‘Well, you’re going to try it, and I think it will work just fine.’ And it did. Everything worked its way out. Yes, I had to work harder, but I just acted like everyone else. I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder or anything. I just rolled up my sleeves and went to work.”
Bradley’s ascension meant that in 1980, all three performance rights organizations were run by women, as well as the CMA and the NSA (now NSAI). To be sure, theirs was a small group, far outweighed by the good ol’ boy network that still ruled on Music Row into the ’70s and ’80s. But even that nick in the glass ceiling shocked many who moved to Nashville from more metropolitan areas, including Oermann.
“When Mary and I moved to Nashville from Pittsburgh in 1978, we presumed we were moving to a conservative, traditional town and a relatively conservative, traditional segment of the entertainment industry,” Oermann said. “What struck us both was that two of the biggest and most powerful organizations, BMI and CMA, were run by women, as was NSA. A couple years later Dianne Petty took over SESAC, Donna was running Tree, and Connie took over ASCAP. I was amazed that this conservative brown-shoe town had all these strong women leaders who were thriving.”
Still, Oermann said, Music Row was a difficult place for a woman to gain a toehold, even with strong role models arriving on the scene. Joe Galante, who was transferred (some might say exiled) from RCA Records’ New York office in 1973 to its hillbilly music division in Nashville — and who nine years later was heading the label — saw that firsthand.
“It was a man’s world back then, particularly at the labels,” Galante said. “The highest-ranking female executive we had at RCA Nashville when I joined the company was Dot Boyd, who was in charge of scheduling. We’d have sales meetings trying to figure out how to appeal to women, and everyone at the table was a man! Almost everyone coming through the doors in those days was a man.
“Women like Frances and Jo, they were the first ones in their particular doors. They opened those doors, they worked hard and proved themselves. But it wasn’t easy. They must have felt like they were running for office.”
In 1985, Nancy Shapiro was a candidate for the office of executive director of the Nashville chapter of National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She had recently moved to the city from Memphis with her husband, and was looking for work.
“Steve was the primary income, but I wanted to work,” Shapiro remembered. “My daughter was 9, and I wanted to a good role model for her and my son. Salary wasn’t my main consideration; I wanted something exciting, that I could feel passionate about. Every job I applied for up until NARAS wanted to know how fast I could type. It was so offensive. The man I interviewed with at WSMV told me he needed someone who could type his letters and bring him coffee. I told him I did too and walked out.“
The NARAS interview went much better. She went before a selection committee headed by board member Ralph Murphy in a suite at the Spence Manor Hotel.
“It was all men except Jana Talbot,” she remembered, “but they were all so laid-back, joking, having fun. I had no idea how the interview went, but I sent them a thank-you note. When they told me I had the job, I was elated. I think that getting the job was luck, but keeping it and running the chapter has been hard work.”
While Shapiro was settling into her new office, Preston was transitioning to hers. In 1985, she moved to BMI’s New York office, becoming senior vice president for performing rights, and president and CEO the following year.
As Nashville record labels and publishers became more profitable beginning in the mid-’80s, the professional landscape changed. “Things began to shift,” said Oermann. “More women were being promoted to executive positions at the labels, and women who were already executives in New York and L.A. began coming to Nashville. Women were gaining power and prominence at publishing companies; Donna was running Tree, Celia [Froehlig] was running Screen Gems. Karen Conrad was a major player, Judy Harris.”
Today, women like Ree Guyer Buchanan and Jewel Coburn own and run very successful independent publishing companies, and female vice presidents at record labels are not the rare birds they once were. Five of the 11 VPs at Sony Music are women, as is half of Capital/EMI’s senior executive roster. All were hired by the men running the label. What remains elusive: a female head of a major label.
That, some say, is more a reflection of the fact that decisions on hires at that level are made at company headquarters, wherever that might be. Bradley considered that question for a moment, then said with a laugh, “I think we can blame that on the men in New York and L.A. They just don’t get it!”
Walker-Meador retired in 1991 and was succeeded by Ed Benson; the current executive director of the CMA is Steve Moore. Petty left SESAC in 1995 to launch her own publishing company. She passed away in 2007. SESAC’s current president/COO is (Mr.) Pat Collins. Preston retired in August 2004. Del Bryant — whom Preston hired in 1972 — assumed the role of president, and Jody Williams (another Preston hire)
currently heads the BMI Nashville office. Hilley, who had been in poor health for some time, retired from Tree (now Sony/ATV) in late 2005. Troy Tomlinson now runs the publishing giant.
In February 2010, Bradley left ASCAP, though she is quick to point out that she is not retired. “I’m still involved, but I just didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing,” she said. “I was there for 33 years! I wanted to do something else.” Bradley was succeeded by industry vet Tim DuBois, who in December turned his office over to Marc Driskill.
Shapiro remains at NARAS, though she was promoted eight years ago to VP of member services, a national position based in Nashville. Susan Stewart took her place as Southern regional director. Sitting in her office, Shapiro said she is grateful for all of the women who came before her.
“Those women were great friends and mentors to me,” she said. “I remember the first time I met each one of them. They were so accessible and generous, they never said no when I needed help or advice. When you have big dreams and want to move forward, having women like them sign on is so important. I hope I’ve been able to do the same.
“I didn’t realize I was the last woman of that era. But I am grateful to have known them all.”