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The Country Music Association: What Is It Afraid Of?

Copyright ę 2024 Stacy Harris

Thirty-one years ago the "offending" article below resulted in the  Country Music Association's refusal to credential me for any of its events. Under the "leadership" of Sarah Trahern, to whom I have yet to be introduced, this blacklisting is still in effect.   

I have never understood this retaliation. Why? Because the CMA was hardly the subject of my contribution to a special issue of Country Fever; a magazine that not only no longer exists, the magazine's editor, LINDA CAUTHEN, perhaps not so coincidentally, also received an angry letter for publishing the article that angered Country Music Association Executive Director EDWIN BENSON JR.

Angered Ed, yes, but not to the extent that he ever sought a retraction for whatever it was that upset him, which is what is usually done. (Benson indicated that the references to CMA were inaccurate, which is curious because Ed Benson was not employed by the organization at the time the events I allude to occurred.)

Where was Ed at that time? According to Page 44 of the November 11, 2004 issue of Radio & Records, in an article titled Professional With a Personal Touch (the magazine's tribute to BMI's FRANCES PRESTON), Benson was "in the gospel and Christian music publishing business with my family's company."

Adding that "If it wasn't for Frances [sic], I might never have ended up at the CMA," Ed admits, "I was a little too rowdy and was thrown out of the gospel business.

"I was between gigs when I ran into Frances at a BMI function and she said 'Aren't you a management type?' I said 'yes, I'd been doing that as Sr. VP/Artist Administration at Benson.'  (Though the twice-married Benson, who named his only child Edwin Benson, III,  is a business and economics graduate of Vanderbilt University- my alma mater- his first job was with Benson Printing Company, one of his  family's businesses that also included The Benson Company, a gospel music publishing and record company.)

"She said 'You need to talk to JO WALKER at the CMA. There's an opening over there for an associate executive director.'

"I called, had several interviews, landed the job and started in the summer of 1979. It's quite possible that if Frances hadn't cornered me at that event, I might never have ended up here."

Imagine what the prospects would have been/would be for a woman who was a screwup after having been handed the family business on a silver platter...

Could it be it is lucky ol' Ed's own insecurities that drive Benson? His are not the actions of a man who is self-confident and is able to view the accomplishments of others as something other than a threat to himself.

Indeed, my experience as I have recounted it is supported in the following paragraph on page 52 of Michael Kosser's 2006 book, How Nashville Became Music City USA: 50 Years of Music Row. Kosser quotes Jo Walker-Meador on the founding of the Country Music Association: "The CMA had their first organizational meeting... in November, 1958, and I began work December 8th. I came as a gal Friday. There was nobody there but me, but I knew the board's intention was to hire a man as an executive director... and that's what I thought they should do."  

All of the above sufficiently embarrassed the Country Music Association's Board of Directors to the point where, following Benson's tenure, he was succeeded by TAMMY GENOVESE.  Genovese's chief claims to fame were her continued refusal to answer questions prompted by the CMA 's  990s after first delaying the availability of those public records and her inexplicable creation and execution, while in the midst of a divorce,  of the (TOM) COYNE PR- MARY KAY debacle.

Small wonder, the CMA Board lost no time replacing Genovese  with a supposedly "interim" head honcho, STEVE MOORE.   The job would have been Moore's for the asking had the concert promoter not indicated he did not want it, nor did several other Board members in the select circle of those with better jobs to whom the position had been offered.   Moore stumbled in the initial job search for his "replacement" forcing the Board to hire a New York headhunter and  redirect inquiries to him!

It soon became clear that the Board was going through a song-and-dance with its "nationwide search" and that it never intended to take the  headhunter's recommendations seriously once it became apparent that an appeal to Moore's ego, and an tacit understanding that WENDY PEARL would really pull the strings,  was all it would take to get Steve to stay on and to carry out the familiar tradition of incompetence by putting the best face on an industry as revenues continue to plummet amid hopes that no one notices the fiasco.   
Here's The Article, Published In Country Fever Presents The Women of Country, That's Made Me Persona Non Grata at CMA Since 1993!
Copyrightę1993 Stacy Harris
When Country Fever initially approached me with the assignment of profiling Nashville's women executives, I wondered if I should turn it down.

A "woman of country" since I arrived in Music City n 1972 as a Vanderbilt student/published country-music writer, I am, by nature, more outspoken than some of my colleagues. I dreaded the prospect of regurgitating the same self-serving slop a few well-insulated female execs have repeated for publication on those rare occasions when they have dared to be quoted on the subject- statements disavowing knowledge of often-documented instances of gender-based discrimination in pay and opportunity, sexual harassment, etc. that fly in the face of my own experience and what I know to be true for others whose jobs are potentially on the line.

The facts are that women are grossly underrepresented on the Country Music Association and Country Music Foundation Boards and, as reflected in the 1993 edition of Music Row magazine’s  In Charge, less than 80 are women. (The editorial staff of In Charge is, by the way, all male.)

In the hope that things had changed since I (once a freelance writer/clerical worker for the CMA) was denied a "promotion"  positioning me as the heir-apparent to the CMA’s executive director, (the specific job title no longer exists) only "because we would rather have a man," I recently sought the counsel of one prominent exec, profiled by the Nashville Banner last year as the penultimate example of a mentor to Music Row’s women. Not only do I not know of any women whom she has mentored, when I asked her for an appointment she said she was  "too busy" (permanently, judging by the tone of her voice).

Still, I will concede that the prospects for women on the Row have increased with time, and that while women tell dramatically different stories on-and-off the record, I haven’t found that to be true of those whose remarks follow. And if their life experiences differ markedly from mine (as in the case of women who arrived here after I did), it doesn’t make them any less valid.

Sherry Bond, the Nashville Entertainment Association’s Executive Director (who, for several years also published the songpluggers’ monthly Country Chart Analyst) says she hasn’t noticed any changes in the prospects for women over the decade she’s been in Nashville. Bond feels there is an equality of opportunity and influence among men and women, pointing to such executives as "Connie Bradley, Frances Preston and Donna Hilley" who "head the major companies." Further, Bond cites Source, "an informal group of female executives such as Dale Franklin, Connie Bradley, Donna Hilley and Karen Conrad" and the broader-based Women in Music and Entertainment (WMEN) as groups through which women mentor and provide mutual support.

Sony/Tree’s Senior Vice President/CEO Donna Hilley, a 21-year-veteran of the company, lauds Source as "a great source of information" (hence its name). Source, in fact, resulted from a discussion between MCA Records Senior Vice President/Promotions Sheila Shipley and her luncheon companions, ASCAP’s Pat Rolfe and BMG Music’s Judy Harris. Shipley’s realization that that "men network better than women" and that she knew many of the names but not the faces of the women on the Row, convinced Rolfe and Harris that a professional women’s upper-management networking organization was missing from Music Row, "and they kind of took the idea and ran with it."

Sheila, who also credits early mentoring she received from her employer of five years, BMG/RCA Records President Joe Galante and her participation in Leadership Music for her success, says Source began "as a support group" of "about 75" execs who use the group as a forum where participants "treat a lot of the issues confidentially, where people can speak openly. If they have an opening in their company, someone can say ‘Well, this person’s really great, ‘ or ‘I’ve worked with that individual and they don’t follow through,’ keeping that candor within the group. Membership is purposely kept "manageable" with new members joining primarily when others "fall out." Source meeting topics have included music marketing, promotion, sexual harassment in the workplace and copyright infringement.

Shipley, who began her career on Music Row in 1976 as a Monument Records receptionist, has noticed "tremendous changes" since. Then there were no females holding record-company positions. Those who eventually did "seemed to break out of the publicity area. I knew a few [well-placed] women in publishing. Publishing seems to have a little bit wider door [for women] than some of the other companies. Sheila says often when they don’t advance, "the women did it to themselves. Someone made this point very clear to me early on, and that was if you said ‘Hi, this is Debbie at RCA,’ you were known as ‘Debbie at RCA.’ You weren’t known for you first and last name. That went on for years. I think the ones that learned that early began to build a reputation for themselves as being professional.

No one has ever called public-relations consultant Mae Boren Axton, a part of the Music Row community since 1951, anything but professional." At 79, the cowriter of "Heartbreak Hotel," whose many hats have ranged from music publisher to country-music series talent coordinator is affectionately known as "Mama Mae’ to generations of the women of country who have sought her counsel. Axton, one of the CMA’s founders, says the common thread of frustration among these women has been "I know I could do that, but I don’t have a chance because the men dominate. I have to be a receptionist, a secretary or a gofer." That is, until the last few years, when greater opportunity has made the issue "How do I do it?"

Photographer Beth Gwinn, a part of Nashville’s music industry since 1980, says that when she arrived, "There were not a whole lot of women in the business, period. There was always Frances Preston and there were always the women who were secretaries and who had the support positions- they’ve always been around- but in the position of executives, the people who make the decisions, women have only been doing it for about the last five years. Even today, you don’t see any women who are heads of record companies, though there are a record number of label vice-presidents. I think there is an awareness that women have been overlooked."

Beth credits her initial acceptance by the industry to those women who, during the early ‘80s, were new to "their positions as publicists with record labels." In fact, this year’s annual SRO Awards all-female list of nominees for its "Publicist of the Year" category includes such major players as Jennifer Bohler (Reba McEntire), Cathy Gurley (the Liberty Records roster), Pam Lewis (not only publicist but comanager for Garth Brooks, Nancy Russell (Trisha Yearwood) and Evelyn Shriver (Randy Travis).

When SESAC Vice-President/Creative Dianne Petty became a part of Music Row in 1969, "There were two women executives in the whole industry: Frances Preston {BMI] and Jo Walker-Meador [CMA]." Juanita Jones, "who headed up the ASCAP office and later the *Cash Box* office was certainly a senior management person, but not positioned visibly the way Frances and Jo were. I admired what Preston was able to do, starting from scratch with that operation of BMI here. The major publishing companies, with the exception of a couple, are run by women. In 1977, I was the first female vice-president of a major music publishing company in America. [The publishing division of ABC Records, where Dianne got her start as a secretary.] We get the positions, we get the titles, we sometimes even get the boardrooms, but we don’t get the salaries. When I came into the business, there were no schools where you could go and get a degree in the music business. The only way you got into this community was to be brought in by somebody who was already positioned."

Who do the powerful women cite as role models and mentors? The name that comes up most often is that of BMI CEO Frances Preston, who came up through the ranks of the organization in Nashville before taking the top spot on the national level. Petty credits the late independent promotions specialist Georgia Twitty as helping Dianne to secure her position at ABC Records, where she in turn mentored K.T. Oslin and songwriter Susan Longacre. Donna Hilley, who says that in 1972 women rarely rose above the secretarial pool, cites "Renee Bell, Martha Sharp and Margie Hunt" as among the women who today hold coveted "creative positions." Donna is also proud to have been a mentor for others such as "Pat Huber, who now holds the NSAI [Nashville Songwriters’ Association International] as the successor to the songwriters’ greatest advocate, Maggie Cavender" and "Meredith Stewart- I feel that I was instrumental in having Meredith secure the top job at Curb Music." Hilley says she feels a responsibility to mentor other women and adds that "I have counseled with and helped a large number of women."

ASCAP's Southern Regional Executive Director Connie Bradley has different priorities:. While Connie, whose industry presence dates back to 1968, suggests that "only in the last decade have women come to the forefront." She says that rather than having the obligation to mentor others, "I think that men or women in the music industry have the responsibility to do their best."

Loudilla Johnson, a part of the music community since 1963 (when she and her sisters founded Loretta Lynn’s fan club) feels that "while there are no existing aspects of the business where women fear to tread these days, women still are challenged to a far greater degree than men to prove themselves in the job market. Her sister, Loretta, who along with their third sister Kay, relocated to Nashville in 1991, says "Levels of opportunity and influence do differ for women and men. There’s still a lot of ‘good ol’ boy’ politics, the ‘buddy system,’ a great deal of who you know over what you know! It would be na´ve to think because we’re good at a job we will automatically be promoted and paid in direct proportion." Kay, who shares with her sisters the presidency of the International Fan Club Organization, notes that today "there are more women who own their own businesses, including Cathy Gurley, Betty Hofer and Mae Axton, one of the women in country whom I most admire. On the subject of mentoring, Kay adds, "I don’t want to be somebody’s full-time crutch, but I surely feel good about being someone they can reach out to once in awhile!"

Prospects for the women of country may brighten as country’s female artists become more numerous and powerful. Dianne Petty speaks of the country songwriters’ community in which males outnumber females by a 10:1 ratio. But as female songwriters are becoming increasingly empowered and are getting cuts on songs that echo the feminine perspectives of the female artists who perform them, Donna Hilley says the results will filter into Music Row’s executive suites. As Hilley puts it: "The more [female country artists] achieve in the sale of albums, the quicker you’re going to see a woman head a record label. I’m just waiting to see who that person’s gonna be in Nashville. Sony has already given Polly Anthony her own label [in New York], and I hope the trend will start here soon.

"I think we’ll see it within the next five years."

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