BOBBY KARL WORKS THE ROOM
In the fall of 1975, Reba McEntire launched her phenomenal country music career, Steve Buchanan arrived in Nashville as a freshman at Vanderbilt University and Jo Walker-Meador was at the midpoint of her long tenure as the executive director of the Country Music Association.
Exactly 40 years down the road, these three were honored by Leadership Music on Monday night (Nov. 16) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater. Jo was presented with the inaugural Founding Council Award. Steve was given the Brian Williams Ambassador Award. Reba won the organization’s 10th Dale Franklin Leadership Award, its highest honor.
LM executive director Debbie Linn and board president Mike Craft welcomed the crowd, noting that LM is now in its 27th program year and has 1,028 alumni. Event co-chairs Erika Wollam-Nichols and Jeff Gregg explained the criteria for the three awards and thanked sponsors.
Host Hillary Scott, of Lady Antebellum, grew up in the Nashville music business as the daughter of Lang Scott and Linda Davis. “This feels a little bit like a family reunion,” she said. “No family reunion is complete without a strong woman to look up to. And that woman is Jo Walker-Meador.”
The executive took over the CMA when fewer than 100 stations were programming the genre. Today, country is a billion-dollar industry.
Alabama took the stage first. “If there’s ever been an angel in country music,” said lead singer Randy Owen, “it’s Jo Walker-Meador.” The group performed the beautifully written (by Becky Hobbs and Don Goodman) “Angels Among Us” in Jo’s honor.
Then Mac Davis offered “That’s Where Songs Come From.” Following a tribute video, Brenda Lee was endearing with her humor, candor, sincerity and drama.
“I’m here to celebrate the incredible gift to our industry that is Jo Walker-Meador,” said Brenda. “Jo literally rocked the cradle of an entire industry. She is the Matriarch of Music Row.”
Brenda said she performed her first show for the CMA in 1958 (when she was 13 years old). She delivered the emotional Sophie Tucker monologue from her old nightclub act, ending it by singing “Unforgettable,” with customized lyrics. “Jo, thank you for making each of our lives richer.”
Garth Brooks presented the Founding Council Award. “I want to thank everyone for all the wonderful things they had to say,” said the 91-year-old Jo. “I think I’m getting far more credit than I’m due. I’m honored and flattered and pleased.”
Don Schlitz recalled his early days in Nashville working the graveyard shift as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University. Earlier in the evenings, he sang his songs at Phranks ‘n’ Steins on West End Avenue, then walked to work on campus accompanied by student fans Buchanan and Ken Levitan, then both freshmen.
The songwriter performed his newly written (with Josh Kear) “The Ryman.” Buchanan was instrumental in saving the historic venue when it was slated for the wrecking ball.
Following a tribute video, Nashville TV cast members took the stage. Buchanan is the show’s executive producer. Aubrey Peeples, Clare Bowen, Chris Carmack, spokesman Chip Esten, Sam Palladio and Jonathan Jackson, backed by Colin Linden, performed “A Life That’s Good” in Buchanan’s honor. Levitan and Callie Khouri presented the Brian Williams Ambassador Award.
“Brian made a difference,” said Buchanan. “Receiving this award in his name makes me feel I am not worthy. He was charming, sincere, loving and caring. I hope all of your souls will echo the way that Brian Williams’s and Dale Franklin’s do.” Amen, brother.
Hillary began the Reba portion of the eve by singing “Does He Love You” with Martina McBride. Hillary’s mother was Reba’s original vocal foil on the song. Following Reba’s tribute video, Trisha Yearwood rocked out on “Fancy.” Ronnie Dunn sang his ballad “I Keep on Loving You.” Reba’s son, race-car driver Shelby Blackstock, presented the accolade.
“Leadership is a great organization and a great mission to be on,” Reba said in accepting. “It’s important to leave something as you go. They say this award is about leading by example. This has been a wonderful night.”
A who’s-who of Music Row was there to offer numerous standing ovations. Several attendees appeared in the tribute videos, including the video-hilarious Jeannie Seely and Pete Fisher, plus Bill Denny, Joe Galante, Randy Goodman, Mary Ann McCready & Roy Wunsch, Tony Brown, Sarah Trahern, Bob Romeo and Shane McAnally.
During the cocktail hour, we supped on shrimp-and-grits skewers, marinated vegetables, sweet-potato gnocchi, flatbreads, quinoa salad and turkey, brie and cranberry biscuit sandwiches.
Marion Kraft, Marion Williams, Jody Williams, Sally Williams, Judy Harris, Judi Turner, John Zarling, John Esposito, Mike Vaden, Michael Martin, Martin Fisher, Bob Romeo, Bobby Tomberlin, Sherod Robertson and Ken Robold plus Sylvia, Stacy Schlitz, Susan Stewart, Doug Johnson, Diane Pearson, Daniel Miller, Dennis Lord, Dale Bobo and Donna Hughes mingled.
Ben Vaughn introduced me to young singer-songwriter Cale Dodds, from whom we expect great things. Cale has an online EP called Wild and Reckless. Labels, start your bidding.
Also working the room were such fabulons as Jim Ed Norman, Julie Boos, Justin Levinson, Jewel Coburn, Gene Ward, George Briner, Allison Brown Jones, Anita Hogin, Amy Kurland, Frank Bumstead, Ree Guyer Buchanan, Patsy Bradley, Lori Badgett, Scott Borchetta, Brett Wolcott & Lydia Lenker, Terry Hemmings, Clint Higham, Tim Fink, Regina Stuve, Peggy Whittaker, Suzanne Lee, Rick Murray, Neil Spielberg, Kos Weaver, Patrick Clifford, etc. etc. etc.
After all, Leadership Music is where the elite meet.