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  • BUD WENDELL: COMPANY MAN
  • Copyright 1999 Stacy Harris

  • All Rights Reserved

    Bud Wendell has a winsome grin, a firm handshake and great eye contact.He exudes enthusiasm and in an age where companies and employees no longer feel a traditional loyalty toward each other, Wendell's career path has proven by example that once-conventional two-way loyalty can still be upheld.

    When Earl Wade Wendell was born on August 17, 1927, his sister, close in age and unable to pronounce "Earl," began calling her little brother, "Buddy."

    "As I grew up that kind of stuck. My father's name is also Earl (though father and son do not share middle names) so it made more sense to stick with "Bud."

    And, as he grew from Buddy to Bud, Wendell rose through the ranks of boy scouting, becoming an assistant scoutmaster. Only the rank of Eagle Scout-the Boy Scouts' highest achievement award- eluded him.

    "I discovered girls before I could become an Eagle Scout," Bud explains, but even with that uncharacteristic diversion from Wendell's life-long pattern of working his way to the top, in retirement Bud has managed to earn the Silver Buffalo Award: the highest honor Boy Scouting can bestow on its volunteers.

    A graduate of Akron, Ohio's public schools, Bud came of age just as World War II was winding down, fulfilling his military service obligation via a stint in the Navy that allowed Bud to go on Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio (about 40-50 miles from Akron) under the G.I. Bill. (The G.I. Bill of Rights- also known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act- was enacted by the United States Congress June 22, 1944. The bill financed college educations for millions of U.S. war veterans.)

    Wendell graduated from Wooster in 1950 with a B. A. Degree in economics. Then, as his father before him, Bud went to work for the National Life and Accident Insurance company. (C.E. Craig, a distant relative of bandleader Francis Craig (of "Near You" fame), bought an insurance company in 1901. C.E.Craig created National Life in 1902.)

    While Earl Wendell worked as a manager for the National Life's Akron office, Earl's son got around company rules that discouraged nepotism by beginning his career in Hamilton, Ohio; as a door-to-door salesman: "Each salesman had a small geographical area and you sold insurance by so much a week. They'd buy a $500 policy for a quarter a week, or 50 cents a week, depending upon their age and so forth, and [I'd] go around door-to-door and collect the premiums. I'd knock on new doors and try to sell to the next-door neighbor.

    "It used to be very, very common. In industrialized areas, where people got paid by the week, they paid a lot of their bills or obligations by the week and insurance was one of them. It's not the easiest way to make a living. I think it's a lot harder than what people seem to do today with all of their mass-telephoning, which really gets to me. You had to hone your craft and salesmanship and be willing to take a lot of "noes," but that was the way you made a living."

    In 1952, Wendell was transferred to Charleston, West Virginia as a staff manager supervising five or six salesman.

    "I did that for a number of years, assuming a similar position in Logan, West Virginia and then I was transferred back to Chilocothe, Ohio where I had a little larger route (another supervisory position)."

    Along the way, Bud married (Wendell and his wife met at Wooster College) and he and Lila started a family that would eventually include four children: Lindy, Danny (now TNN's and CMT's operations/production manager), Andy and Beth Anne.

    Then, in 1962, National Life again transferred Wendell, this time to its home office in Nashville where he became an agency supervisor. Not long into that job, Bud received another opportunity when WSM, Incorporated executive George Reynolds died suddenly of a heart attack.

    At that time, what later became self-promoted as the WSM-pire included both a radio and television station bearing the WSM call letters. The radio and TV stations were owned by National Life and the station's call letter stood for National Life's slogan, We Shield Millions.

    When Reynolds died, National Life began looking within its ranks to fill the position of administrative assistant to WSM Radio's president Jack DeWitt. Company man Wendell agreed, when askrd Broadcasting acquired "Acuff-Rose[Publications] from Wesley [Rose] and Roy [Acuff], neither of whose children were interested in taking over."

    Bud says Rose and Acuff "were increasingly concerned" about the future of the company" but felt it would prosper under Gaylord's administration. [Gaylord renamed Acuff-Rose Publications Opryland Music and made it a part of Gaylord's Opryland Music Group before reverting to the original Acuff-Rose name in 1998.]

    Bud credits Wesley Rose's interest in expanding Acuff-Rose's influence worldwide as a factor in the eventual international focus of Country Music Television.

    "Wesley had always been a believer in the international arena. He had the Everly Brothers contracted overseas and so forth, the Hank Williams catalog and those that were very marketable (internationally). He had an office in London and he had some publishing arrangements in Italy, Germany, Scandinavia,(the) Benelux (countries), Japan (and) Australia that gave us an opportunity to have our finger on the pulse of country music and its success around the world.

    "As the years have gone by, we've seen a tremendous growth in the popularity of our music around the world through our publishing company. We could see it growing. The overseas royalties in the Acuff-Rose catalogue are greater on the international side than they are on the domestic side.

    "It's growing to that extent, so I've been a big believer in the overseas opportunities. As we were developing CMT, to me it was only logical to put this thing up around the world. Why not? It's another gamble, but I thought there was real potential and there is real potential.

    "Where I made a misjudgment, however, was that I thought that it would be a [more salable], well-received [venture] in the UK [and nearby countries] than it has been.

    "There is a growing basis for it. More and more artists are going over there...We're getting a greater amount of acceptance. The working relationship is better between the Nashville record companies and their counterparts."

    Not long ago, it was difficult to "promote, merchandise and market" country music in Europe. "You couldn't even get shelf space over there.

    "There has to be commitment on the part of the record industry. [American country artists] are playing smaller venues, but it's going to grow just phenomenally."

    CMT International was launched in Europe on October 19, 1992, in the Asia-Pacific region on October 4.1994 and in Latin America on April 1, 1995.

    All of these launches involved "separate signals, separate networks," and Wendell sites "overexpansion" as the reason for canceling CMT's European signal.

    Still, Bud believes CMT's markets in "Brazil and South America are growing by leaps and bounds." Wendell voices similar enthusiasm for CMT International's future in Europe, Australia and Latin America.

    Last year "Kenny Rogers and Reba toured Australia. [Reba] was so pleased she's going back alone.  Garth [Brooks]and Alan [Jackson] are going to Brazil. The Mavericks, Trisha- you can just see those things are happening.

    "It's no secret that country music has plateaued in this country right now. So where's the growth potential?  If it's not in this country, it's the rest of the world. It's a great investment but it could bring great benefits."

    Wendell says Cindy Wilson, CMT International's vice-president and general manager (who is also a member of CMA's International Committee)is "the strongest supporter [of expanding country music's impact internationally] of anybody in Nashville."

    [CMT International is now a subsidiary of Idea Entertainment, Gaylord's  music and entertainment division. Idea Entertainment also overseas Idea Sports, Idea Films, the Word Entertainment music group, Blanton/Harrell (a Christian artist management company).]

    In 1994, Bud Wendell's work of a lifetime was honored by Gaylord Entertainment as the new E.W. Wendell Building became the edifice housing all of Gaylord's corporate departments. (Coincidentally, that same year brought about the revitalization of downtown Nashville which, with the renovation of the Ryman Auditorium and the opening of the Wildhorse Saloon, gave the area a look and feel Wendell could not have envisioned when he was worried about muggings and murders some two decades before.)

    Three years later, Bud Wendell stunned Music Row with the announcement of his retirement, but again, professionally, Bud determined that his upwardly mobile career had gone about as far as it could go: "Ed Gaylord has passed the baton on to his son. It was time for me to step aside."

    But even in retirement, Wendell has continued his philanthropic work which ranges from his many civic and charitable endeavors to leading a $15 million fundraising effort for relocating Music Row's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to a larger facility to be built in downtown Nashville.

    In 1998 Wendell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Fellow Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Dickens presented Bud with a Hall of Fame medallion, given only to members of their select group, on a telecast TNN telecast honoring Hall of Fame members. Titled "An Evening of Country Greats," the program (taped in September, it aired December 1) gave Bud the opportunity to express his gratitude for receiving the country music industry's highest honor.

    As he glanced into an audience that included Lorrie Morgan (there to accept a medallion on behalf of her late father, George Morgan) and Lorrie's mother, Anna, Wendell reminisced about Lorrie's Opry debut at age 13 and then told those watching that 'Anna makes the best strawberry shortcake. George used to bring it down to me (at the Opry) because I was a strawberry shortcake freak."

    Marty Stuart, who first met Bud Wendell during the early '70s when Stuart was Lester Flatt's teen-aged mandolinist told viewers that his friendship with Wendell was so strong that back in 1990 the 1992 Grand Ole Opry inductee bought a used car from Bud.

    Wendell has kept his friendships with other Opry artists, many of whom are like Bud, avid hunters and fishermen.

    In fact, the desire to be able to do more hunting and fishing was one of the reasons Wendell decided to retire- at least to the extent that anyone as active as he is in his community is able to slow down.

    Beyond that, "I'm 71 years-old" and Bud would like to be able to spend more time with his wife, Janice (whom Wendell married "about 15 years ago") and his family, which now includes six children (Bud is now stepfather to Janice's daughter Lisa and son Eric) and nine grandchildren.

    A millionaire, E.W. Wendell certainly has no need to be on anyone's payroll. At the time he left Gaylord Entertainment he was one of Nashville's most highly-paid executives.

    Pointing out that he is in good health and that "ultimately as WSM, Inc. evolved into Opryland, Gaylord and so forth, we became bigger than the National Life and Accident Insurance company," this company man has worked long worked hard enough and long enough for one lifetime and is more than entitled to some time to call his own.

    -30-

    An edited form of this article first appeared in London-based Country Music People's June, 1999 issue.



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