Country Music and CMA Pioneer, Jo Walker-Meador, 1924 – 2017

Country Music and CMA Pioneer, Jo Walker-Meador, 1924 – 2017

LONGEST-SERVING CMA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR JO WALKER-MEADOR DIES

 

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Beloved throughout and beyond the world of Country Music, former CMA Executive Director Jo Walker-Meador died Tuesday night in Nashville following a stroke. She was 93.

“Jo was a champion for Country Music around the world and a groundbreaker for women in the entertainment business,” said CMA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Trahern. “On a personal note, I will miss her guidance, humor, and friendship. She was the first meeting I setup before I took this job. She taught me lessons in how to gracefully navigate the Board. She was always diplomatic in her storytelling and she had some great ones to share. Over the last six months she was a little more candid and I always looked forward to our time together. She will be greatly missed by all. My heart is broken.”

Born Edith Josephine Denning, the future Jo Walker-Meador was one of 10 children raised on a farm near Orlinda, Tennessee. She dreamed of becoming a high school English teacher and girls’ basketball coach, but after studying at Lambuth College in Jackson, Tennessee, for two years, she transferred to the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville. She paid her way through school by working as a secretary while also taking night classes in typing and shorthand.

After more than four years as Executive Secretary to the president of Crescent Amusement, a period of doing public relations for Tennessee State Attorney General G. Edward Friar’s run for governor and a brief spell as office manager for Gold Hill Food Corp., she accepted an offer to become office manager – and the first paid employee – at the fledgling Country Music Association.

“I knew nothing about Country Music,” she later admitted in an interview with CountryZone.net. “I knew that Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff were members of the Grand Ole Opry – but I had never been to the Grand Ole Opry.”

She learned the territory quickly. With the resignation of CMA’s founding Executive Director Harry Stone in 1962, she was promoted to take his place. Initially a staff of one, she did whatever had to be done to pursue the best interests of the Association and Country Music. Yet even trivial activities were crucial to empowering her ability to advance the format.

“She was very good at being able to get input from a lot of people and use it,” recalled J. William Denny, who served as CMA Board President in 1966 and Chairman in 1975. “Dealing with a big board is a special skill, there’s no doubt about it, because you have a lot of bosses. Jo had the ability to put all of their strength to CMA’s advantage. I wouldn’t say the organization was built around her, but in effect I suppose it was.”

“Jo did everything from organizing Board meetings to making coffee for them,” added Ed Benson, who was hired at CMA in 1979 and held the office of Executive Director from 1992 through 2005. “She was this marvelous hybrid of a secretary and a support assistant while also evolving the organization.”

“She amazed me because she was able to steer a meeting by quietly sitting there and basically not saying a heck of a lot,” said Don Nelson, CMA Board Chairman in 1978. “That’s a huge talent, to let other people take the lead but still be the one to keep it all on track.”

“She would sit in the Board meetings, figuring out what CMA needed to do and who might be most likely to agree with her,” Benson said. “Then she’d talk to one of them. They would say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure, Jo.’ Then she’d talk with another one, and he’d say the same thing. And she’d answer, ‘Well I talked to So-and-So, and he really liked the idea.’ She had this crafty way of convincing people to support what she knew was best. When some of them found out later that she’d done it, they almost chuckled about it.”

Under her leadership, CMA played a critical role in expanding worldwide awareness of Country Music. The Country Music Hall of Fame (created in 1961), the CMA Awards (created in 1967 and televised nationally since 1968), the CMA Music Festival (launched as Fan Fair in 1972) and many other initiatives were conceived and launched on her watch. Lower-profile but effective initiatives also served the mission, from combating music piracy to advancing the brand in the media and throughout the corporate world.

“No one was researching the demographics of Country Music listeners until Jo pushed it forward,” Nelson said. “That was a huge help in getting people to realize that listeners to Country Music cut a broad slice across the station. My station in Indianapolis was the first in Country to pick up a buy from Cadillac. When I had that order in my hand, the first person I called was Jo. And within 24 hours, I think every Country broadcaster in America knew it – and there were no emails in those days! It was just Jo on the phone.”

Her reach extended eventually into international markets too. “Jo was always looking three to five years down the road,” Nelson said. “At the birth of CMA, if you thought Country, you thought of Nashville. You certainly didn’t think of all the places where the format has since become a success. That didn’t just happen by itself. It happened because Jo was pushing for it from Day One.”

“She is known all over the world,” said Tom Collins, CMA Board Chairman in 1979 and 1980. “We’ve traveled with her in Europe, and people I never even heard of would want to come up and see her. This is why the CMA Jo Walker-Meador International Award is named after her.”

Honors and accolades came to Walker-Meador up to and beyond her retirement as CMA Executive Director in 1991. These included the Metronome Award, presented by the City of Nashville each year to the person who had done the most to further its recognition as an entertainment center (1970), election to the Board of Governors of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce (1977), the Academy of Country Music’s Jim Reeves Memorial Award in recognition of her role in establishing CMA’s London office and ongoing dedication to Country Music (1983) and election as the first female President of the Board of Big Brothers (1989).

The Country Music Hall of Fame, whose existence owes much to Walker-Meador’s vision, welcomed her into its pantheon in 1995. And in 2008, the same year she received Big Brother’s first Big Tribute Award, Walker-Meador’s name was installed in Nashville’s Walk of Fame.

“Her legacy is in her ability to take a disparate bunch of professionals, all of whom were in a sense the lower end of the musical demographic, and elevate the whole business into something a lot greater,” predicted Dick McCullough, CMA Board President in 1984 and 1985. “She grew the membership from a couple hundred people up to the thousands. Everybody knew her. Everybody loved her. They knew she was a good person and she knew exactly how to pull the right thread to get things moving. Country Music would be a lot worse if she hadn’t come along.”

Irving Waugh, the late Executive Producer of “The CMA Awards” television special, put it this way. “She has been an unseen force that binds things together,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1985. “With her good humor, dedication and image of respect, she has provided stability over the years. To most people, she is the Country Music Association.”

She is survived by her brother Pete Denning, daughter Michelle Walker, and step-children Rob and Karen Meador.

 

COUNTRY MUSIC INDUSTRY REMEMBERS JO WALKER-MEADOR

 

“Jo was a champion for Country Music around the world and a groundbreaker for women in the entertainment business. On a personal note, I will miss her guidance, humor, and friendship. She was the first meeting I set up before I took this job. She taught me lessons in how to gracefully navigate the Board. She was always diplomatic in her storytelling and she had some great ones to share. Over the last six months she was a little more candid and I always looked forward to our time together. Ironically, today we’re in the middle of Board Meetings so there is a lot of sharing of stories and viewing videos from her legacy in her honor. She will be greatly missed by all. My heart is broken.” – SARAH TRAHERN, CMA Chief Executive Officer

“Jo Walker-Meador was a classy lady with the emphasis on both “classy” and “lady.” All of us in country music today…from an old-timer like me to the hottest new act on the charts…walk inside the giant footprints Jo put down. I feel so fortunate to have known her, worked alongside her, and been able to call her my friend.” – BILL ANDERSON, Country Music Hall of Fame member

“The world of Country Music has lost an irreplaceable force. It was my great privilege to work with Jo. Over the years I had the opportunity to see how she used her warm and caring personality and her unique skills to gain friends and supporters all over the world. Jo had an incredible memory for details. She could remember not only the names of the many people with whom she came in contact, but usually the names of their spouses and children too.

Jo had a big vision for the power of Country Music and a determination that it could grow in popularity. She was one of the early supporters of international development. I traveled around the world with her meeting with top industry leaders and government officials to promote Country’s growth. She spoke only English, but she knew the international language of music had great value. And of course that personality endeared her to so many.

I never met a harder worker than Jo. She was an inspiration to all who had the privilege to work with her. I have been lucky to remain close to her since she retired and I felt she loved me like the son she never had.” – ED BENSON, Former CMA Executive Director

“She’s was a living legend and when you look at her works, in a lifetime of loving this music, there’s probably nobody more important than Jo.” – SCOTT BORCHETTA, CMA Board member and President/CEO of Big Machine Label Group

“She was an amazing, extremely classy, caring, giving wonderful woman. All of my dealings with her were what you would consider the essence of class. Jo Walker-Meador moved the CMA, and the entire Nashville music business in a large way from what it was to what it is. She had an amazing talent for always looking forward. Of course, her being a woman during that time, you look at those old pictures of the CMA that are full of men and then there is Jo Walker, knowing what she probably had to deal with in a man’s world, especially in that era. She is to be celebrated. There is a handful of women in our town—her, Donna Hilley, Connie Bradley, Frances Preston that come to mind—that really excelled in a man’s world and did a lot for the way this town was run and for respecting women in the music business. I really applaud her legacy for that. I really do think when someone lives a good long life and accomplishes some of the things that she did, it’s really not sadness that I view the news with. I have to kind of smile and go, ‘Life well lived,’” – KIX BROOKS, CMA Board member

“I always felt like my day was better just by being with Jo. When working on one of our shows, she would always leave me with a piece of advice. She would take me by the hand and whisper a legend’s name in my ear as a reminder to not forget where we came from. She was all about love. The love of Country music, our artists, and the love of our community. We should all honor the legacy of Jo Walker-Meador. Her mark on our music will last forever. She was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.” – ROBERT DEATON, Executive Producer for “CMA Fest,” the CMA Awards, and “CMA Country Christmas”

“Besides being a respected role model in the music industry, Jo was also a warm, caring lady. She always had time to listen and to offer help. The music industry and the Country Music Association in particular, greatly benefited from her unique ability to pull people together to get a project underway and to see it thru to completion. We will miss her.” – BILL DENNY, CMA Board member and Former Board President and Chairman

“While I didn’t get the pleasure of working directly with Jo, during my time as Chairman of the CMA Board, I got to learn of her amazing history and, wonderfully, got the chance to spend time with Jo…it was magical. The world was blessed to have had this angel on earth!” – JOHN ESPOSITO, Former CMA Board Chairman and Chairman & CEO for Warner Music Nashville

“She was a perfect lady all the time, and with that came this steely ability to get things done. From the 70’s through the 90’s I had the great honor of walking her into the Oval Office to meet those Presidents – every one of them. She was just a magnificent representative of the Country Music Association. She could be as charming as needed and talk business with everybody from the President to the stagehands.” – JIM FREE, Ex-Officio CMA Board member and President/CEO of The Smith-Free Group

“Jo is so many things to me! She hired me in 1985 as the CMA Administrative Services Manager – she even called my high school principal to make sure I was a good person. She quickly became my mentor and the reason I committed to CMA and created my life there. Jo was a woman who made it to the top. If she could do it, so could I. So I buckled down, went back to school and earned my MBA, got married, had my kids, and finally did make it to the top – with her as my champion all the way.

She was also such a personal inspiration to me and my family. I called her my ‘Nashville Mom’ and I think most of the time she claimed me… I will miss her forever, but know she is happy in Heaven with her precious Bob and watching all her friends and family from around the world celebrate her life. Love you Jo!” – TAMMY GENOVESE, Former CMA Executive Director

“Jo Walker-Meador was an incredible, pioneering leader in the evolution and growth of the CMA and building the foundation for our future successes. When I was asked by the board to step in and fill the CEO role on an interim basis in 2013, she was one of the very first people who called to offer her help and I gladly accepted it and treasured her counsel. Her legacy as one of the very first women in leadership in the country music industry will endure forever. Until recently, Jo still attended so many CMA functions. She will truly be missed by me and I’m sure by all of my colleagues on the CMA Board and Staff.” – ED HARDY, Past CMA Board Chairman

“As a child growing up studying the business and who the players were specifically in Country Music, Jo was a major point of light for a kid who was looking for people to look to, showing the way on this side of the microphone. To meet your heroes, let alone become friends with them is the most amazing feeling in the world. Jo was equally as gracious on a human being level as she was a business force. She was the same person to everyone she touched. All of us in Country Music will forever be in debt to her. Godspeed Jo Walker-Meador.” – CLINT HIGHAM, CMA Board member and President of Morris Higham Management

“Her dream was to coach basketball, but she wound up coaching country music all over the world. I was always amazed at Jo’s memory. She could remember everything and anything. The last Board talk she gave was astounding. She adored the people in Country Music – the fans, the artists, the singers, all the innerworkings. She adored it. And that’s what we all loved about her. She loved us. Its wasn’t just a job to her. She cared. She was a wonderful, kind, sweet person that absolutely gave all. The people meant more to her than the bright lights and city folks. She got the word out, not that it wasn’t before, but it went to a different level with Miss Jo.

I was honored to know her personally for a long, long time. I will miss her spirit, laughing with her, having lunch with her and being around the great person that she was. It’s like a bright light went out and will be out for a bit, but Sarah will carry on that tradition and make that light shine again. We can rely on that for sure.” – BRENDA LEE, Country Music Hall of Fame member and former CMA Board member

“Jo Walker has been my friend, mentor, and supporter from the day I got into programming radio in 1981. She took the time to call me at KASE/KVET once I walked in the door to offer her friendship and support. Without question, she always was present and supportive of me. She always encouraged me, always! Everytime we have talked in the last ten years I was emphatic with her on what a tremendous influence her encouragement inspired me and my love of Country Music. I will miss her dearly!” – BILL MAYNE, CMA Board member and Executive Director of Country Radio Broadcasters, Inc.

“I am very saddened about the passing of Jo Walker-Meador! Almost everyone knows of her legendary passionate leadership and inspirational gifts she dedicated to the music community, but what I remember most was her friendship, passion and love for any and all of us who had the pleasure of being in her presence! Love you Ms Jo!! – STEVE MOORE, Former CMA Chief Executive Officer and Board Chairman

“Jo was the very face and epitome of grace and aplomb. It may have been a mans world she accommodated but it “wouldn’t be nothing” without Jo Walker Meador. Every time we spoke, without knowing it, or forcing it, she reminded me about the importance of kindness, truth and humility. Selfish as it may be, a great regret of mine will be not having spent even more time with her.” – JIM ED NORMAN, CMA Board member and CEO of Curb Records

“I was so sorry to hear about Jo’s passing. She was an angel here and she’ll be angel there. She will always be loved and missed.” – DOLLY PARTON, Country Music Hall of Fame member

“I had the honor to serve as Chair & President of CMA during Jo’s tenure. Jo was of ultimate importance to the growth in stature and size of CMA as she had an uncanny ability to keep us all going in the same direction for the benefit of everyone in Country Music. I miss her already!” – RALPH PEER II, CMA Board member and Chairman/CEO of peermusic

“Jo Walker Meador, now joins the ranks of spirited and passionate female leaders such as Frances Preston, Donna Hilley, Maggie Cavender and others who have left everlasting marks on the growth and success of country music. Her humor, grace and tireless efforts on behalf of country music will be greatly missed.” – DAVID M. ROSS, CMA Board Member and Owner of BossRoss Media

“Polite, thoughtful,kind, smart and dedicated. A true Nashville treasure.” – BUTCH SPYRIDON, Ex-Officio CMA Board member and President/CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation

“Miss Jo was a beautiful expression of class, charm, grace and a life well lived.
I will miss her smile and encouraging words.” – TROY TOMLINSON, CMA Board member and President and CEO of Sony/ATV Publishing

“Jo was a champion for Country Music around the world and a groundbreaker for women in the entertainment business,” said CMA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Trahern. “On a personal note, I will miss her guidance, humor, and friendship. She was the first meeting I set up before I took this job. She taught me lessons in how to gracefully navigate the Board. She was always diplomatic in her storytelling and she had some great ones to share. Over the last six months she was a little more candid and I always looked forward to our time together. She will be greatly missed by all. My heart is broken.”

“Jo was an inspiration to a couple of generations of artists and executives in Nashville’s music industry. Along with dear friend Frances Preston, former CEO of BMI, Jo was responsible for creating community among all of the businesses on Music Row. She led by example, was smart as a whip and accomplished so much for the CMA – securing the organization as the premiere country music trade association in the world. And she did all of this as one of the few female executives in the business, working with and leading hundreds of male business leaders. In addition, she always greeted you with a big smile and was a natural born nurturer.” – JODY WILLIAMS, CMA Board President-Elect and Vice President of Creative for BMI Nashville

“I don’t think that Jo’s impact on our community can be understated. Under her leadership, the CMA propelled our artists and industry to new heights, laying the groundwork for where we are today.” – SALLY WILLIAMS, CMA Board Chairman and SVP of Programming & Artist Relations for Opry Entertainment

“Jo Walker-Meador looked at a mid-sized Southern town and envisioned something grander. She listened to music that was regional and knew that it could have worldwide impact. And then she quietly and gracefully ushered these things into being. She created grand scenes, then stood behind them. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum would not exist without her, and my life is one of millions that are better because of Jo Walker-Meador.”- KYLE YOUNG, Ex-Officio CMA Board member and CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum