Remembering a Legend: The Legacy of Walter C. Miller

By Deborah Evans Price

Ask anyone about the late Walter C. Miller, and you’ll receive a diverse list of adjectives: brilliant, intimidating, musical, fearless, visionary, frightening and funny, among many others. The former CMA Awards executive producer was bold and brash, and a caring friend who always looked to showcase and highlight the Country Music community.

Miller’s extensive credits include such television events as “New Orleans Jazz Festival 1969,” “Johnny Cash and Friends” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” He worked with such legends as Dick Clark, Al Green, Frank Sinatra, Justin Timberlake, Stevie Wonder and many more. In addition to the CMA Awards, the five-time Emmy winner also directed and produced the Emmy Awards, Grammy Awards, People’s Choice Awards and the Tony Awards. Miller was the fifth recipient of the CMA Irving Waugh Award, in recognition of his many years of service to CMA.

Walter Miller
Photo Credit: Theresa Montgomery

“While I never got to work with Walter directly, he was ever-present every year on TNN [The Nashville Network] campus out in the Redwood trailers in back of the Opry House,” says Sarah Trahern, CMA Chief Executive Officer. “I got to see him in the control room in action twice, which was definitely not “PG,” but one of the key pieces of his legacy are the many people who trained and worked with him. We have the good fortune to work with maybe 10 to 15 of those people on the CMA Awards, but there are myriads of Walter disciples who are working out in L.A., as well. Through and through, these people have a genuine, deep love of music and music on television.”

“Walter helped the format develop better production looks,” notes music industry executive Joe Galante. “He enhanced the appeal of our artists on all the CMA shows. He was important for us at a time when we needed the help. People fought with him, but they also adored him. Walter also was a supporter of the artists on the Grammy show. It wasn’t easy for Country to get a slot for a very long time. He loved the music and fought to get us performances time and time again.”

Miller was known for creating an environment in which artists could thrive. “As a live television director, Walter Miller was a friend to all artists,” says Mary Chapin Carpenter. “He was an advocate and cheerleader, always open to new ideas and ready to do whatever was needed to let an artist’s light shine as bright as the cosmos. He valued originality over popularity and because of this, me and so many artists owe so much to him. He gave us one-in-a-million opportunities to be ourselves when someone else would not have bothered. Thank you, wonderful Walter.”

“I’ll always cherish the time that we got to spend with Walter in our early days hosting the CMA Awards,” says Carrie Underwood. “His legacy will live on through the countless hours of entertainment he created.”

Reba McEntire is also quick to sing Miller’s praises. “I always loved to work on a TV show with Walter Miller,” she says. “To me, he set the tone for the show. I’m the type of person that is to the point: ‘Let’s go to work and get the job done.’ Walter was the same way. I am very honored to be one of his friends. I’ve always considered him one of mine.”

His years of experience gave Miller an unwavering confidence in his vision that some may have found a little intimidating. “When I first met Walter, I was scared of him,” admits Maverick Partner Clarence Spalding. “It was around the early ’90s. I had heard of Walter, but never dealt with him. When Brooks & Dunn got hot, we were nominated for our first CMA Award. That’s when we met. He was nothing like the myth that had been handed down to me. Oh, he was gruff and a little short with me, but he was so kind and smart. He not only wanted Brooks & Dunn to look good; he also wanted Clarence Spalding to look good. He taught all of us so much about TV, but more about being a good person. I would always go into his office early so he could hold court and tell us stories. Oh, the stories! I will miss him dearly.”

Robert Deaton and Walter Miller
Photo Credit: CMA

Kix Brooks also has fond memories of working with the veteran producer. “Walter Miller was a one-man wrecking ball, who was fearless in his execution of doing anything and everything it took in order to complete the vision of his show,” says Brooks. “He was the pro’s pro. He loved artists and would listen to a point, but if he disagreed, Lord help you if you had thin skin. There was no wishy-washy with Walter, but he would bend the rules if you would dance the dance he wanted.”

Vince Gill worked with Miller extensively during the 12 years he hosted the CMA Awards, from 1992 to 2003. “He had a wicked sense of humor,” recalls Gill. “That sense of humor was like hanging out with a great stand-up comic from that era of one-liners after one-liners. We both loved delivering them and hearing them and it made for a great friendship. I feel like the word ‘trust’ comes to mind for us as friends because the years I hosted, I know he trusted me, and he knew I trusted him. We were just a great team and he was a great friend.”

Miller was not only an accomplished TV producer; he was also a musician. “A lot of people don’t realize that Walter was a musician,” says Gill. “He was a violin player as a young man, so he had a real heart for music. Unfortunately, most people associate television with people that don’t care very much about music, just how it looks, and Walter was not that way. He was musical as well as visual. It was important to him how it sounded, and we would have great discussions.”

“After 9/11, I pitched Walter on using Brooks & Dunn’s ‘Only In America’ on the Awards show,” remembers Galante “It was a huge hit and he loved it. However, the boys used these cannons onstage that shot red, white and blue streamers into the audience. Walter insisted that was a bad idea. He said the streamers would get hung up in the lighting and drop down during other performances. I spoke to Clarence Spalding, their manager, and he said they never had that problem onstage. Walter finally relented. However, the performance after the boys was Trisha Yearwood’s new single, which was a ballad. It had a gorgeous backdrop. As she went into a soaring chorus, little pieces of red, white and blue streamers started dropping from the lights during the first few lines! I turned to my wife and said, ‘Damn it. Walter was right.’ Thankfully it stopped.”

Brooks remembers that performance well. “At the time, we were very proud of the fact that on tour we were known as the act that made the biggest mess in Country Music,” he explains. “He was not willing to trash the stage for the other performances…but we had to have it. We begged and pleaded and he finally relented, under the condition that we only had a small load of confetti in our cannons, which we had mounted in the overhead trussing. Of course we loaded her up, and it was awesome! Walter was pissed. Stagehands [were] running crazy, trying to clean up. I could hear Walter cussing backstage.”

Brooks also remembers Miller getting frustrated when the winners’ acceptance speeches went on too long. “That was my favorite part backstage with Walter,” says Brooks. “I can still hear him screaming: ‘Get off the stage! What are you doing? Take your trophy and go!’ He knew it was good for a laugh, but he would never smile. He knew every second counted and he knew where every second lived. He set the standard. He wrote so many rules. Time marches on, but the legacy he left will live as long as there are award shows and live television. We’ll never see another like him.”

CMA Awards Executive Producer Robert Deaton is among those who will miss Miller most. “Walter Miller was my friend and mentor,” he shares. “I take great pride in knowing that Walter saw something in me. I believe what we shared was a love of the music and the artists. I think his influence on me is just as strong today as when we were working together. In fact, not a show goes by where I do not think of Walter and think, ‘What would Walter do?’ When I am asked about Walter I always reply, ‘He was my dear friend and mentor and is on the Mount Rushmore of great television directors and producers. He was one of a kind, the likes of which we will never see again. When you say, ‘The great Walter Miller,’ you are indeed telling the truth.’”