By Robert K. Oermann

Something rare and profoundly important occurred when the Country Music Association was founded 60 years ago.

For the first time, the leaders of a musical genre vowed that unity, cooperation and collaboration were paramount. Competitors took off their corporate hats and joined hands for the common good. They banded together to promote their entire industry.

Perhaps even more significantly, that spirit became a hallmark of the whole Nashville music community. And that same spirit remains unique to Music City to this day.

When the organization was founded in 1958, “everything that was done was a team effort, a group effort,” recalled CMA’s first Executive Director, Jo Walker-Meador (1924-2017).

“They were competitors. But when they came together in a CMA board meeting, they were all of one accord. Their goal was to promote Country Music, and they were genuinely and sincerely interested in that.

“Some really fast and lasting and wonderful friendships were forged among competitors. And it was very rewarding to see. Of course, it made my job lots easier, too.”

In the beginning, working together was essential if CMA was to survive. The association was born broke.

“If I had to point to the thing that I’m proudest of about 1958, it would be just survival,” reflected founding CMA President Connie B. Gay (1914-1989). “We didn’t have enough money hardly to meet the payroll.”

“It was touch and go for a time,” agreed CMA founding Secretary Treasurer Mac Wiseman in his memoir. “I can’t tell you how many board meetings we had where we passed the hat to take up a collection to pay the postage for our correspondence.”

Most of the paltry seed money for CMA came from the bank account of a dying organization, the Country Music Disc Jockey Association (CMDJA). It was formed as a result of Nashville’s first national music gathering, the Grand Ole Opry birthday celebration.

“It all started in 1952,” remembered the late Harrianne Condra (1929-2013). “What happened was, they were trying to come up with an idea to celebrate the birthday of the Opry. So, we were just sitting around talking. Bill McDaniel was my boss. He was the Director of Public Relations of WSM radio and WSMV-TV. “Acuff-Rose had a list of Country Music disc jockeys. I said, ‘Why don’t we invite all those DJs to Nashville to celebrate?’ Somebody said, ‘Good idea.’ They didn’t have Country Music stations, as such. They had Country Music disc jockeys.

“So we had a party at the Andrew Jackson Hotel and went to the Opry. Not many came that first year, maybe 100. But the response that we got told us we were onto something. The next year, we had 500, and the year after that, it went through the ceiling.”

At the 1953 gathering, the party morphed into a two-day convention. The attending disc jockeys decided to form an association, specifically designed to keep out publicists, promoters and influencers from other areas of the Country industry.

Attorney Charles G. Neese launched Pickin’ and Singin’ News as Nashville’s first music trade publication in 1953. BMI, Country Song Roundup, Billboard and others staged award presentations at the convention. Record labels sponsored receptions. The new organization was part of a movement to professionalize the Country Music business.

Unfortunately, the CMDJA was founded just when disc jockeys were becoming less influential. The days were soon coming when they would no longer choose what music they would play. Industry charts and “top 40” programmers were the new deciders.

By the time the CMDJA gathered for its convention in Miami in the winter of 1957, the writing was on the wall. Several prominent Country Music executives met in Gay’s Everglades Hotel suite to figure out what went wrong with the dying association.

“CMA was born at a meeting held…by the Country Music Disc Jockey Association, whose president was Connie B. Gay,” wrote executive Ken Nelson (1911-2008) in his autobiography. “Connie had invited Wesley Rose, Dee Kilpatrick…Hubert Long, the Wilburn Brothers and a couple of other people to discuss the lack of interest in the organization.

“It was concluded that the problem was that the CMDJA was only one segment of Country Music, and that in order to be successful, the organization must encompass all segments of the industry.”

“We were making up an agenda for a meeting the next day,” remembered Gay. “We said, ‘Let’s get a charter. Let’s get an umbrella big enough for a lot of people to stand under. Let’s stand together as publishers, as broadcasters, as disc jockeys, record companies, managers, bookers, promoters and artists.’ That was the consensus. Then we took it to the Nashville ‘good ole boy’ network the next year.” On September 25, 1958, CMA became the first trade association devoted to a style of music.

“This concept was presented to the disc jockeys, and they voted to donate the remaining money in their treasury to help start the new organization,” Nelson explained in his book.

“Even though the treasury was skimpy, the board voted to hire a secretary. I don’t know who suggested Jo Walker, but whoever did deserves a medal. She was hired for the salary of $375 a month. Without her aptitude, devotion and dedication, I don’t believe CMA would have survived.”

Walker-Meador, born Edith Josephine Denning, was a farm girl from Orlinda, Tennessee, who had dreams of becoming a high school girls’ basketball coach when she moved to Nashville. Her early jobs were with a food firm, an amusement company and a state politician. The stamina of sports, the skills of food management, familiarity with show business and the tact of politics were all to become useful in her new job.

“There was a steering committee, right before the board was even elected, and the man that was the chairman was Dee Kilpatrick of the Grand Ole Opry,” she recollected. “I knew him because he’d dated a girl that I had worked with at Crescent Amusements.

“I was not working, because my daughter was only one year old, and I’d decided I was going to stay home with her until a job came open that I really wanted to do. Dee called me — even though CMA was really nothing then — and, you know, it sounded like a challenge, that it could be something. And I accepted it.

“The thing that made me feel good about accepting the position was that these people were not only dedicated, but they had clout within their industry, and I knew they would give it their best shot.”

“Jo confided to me that she knew nothing about Country Music when she was hired as CMA’s first full-time employee,” Wiseman recalled in his autobiography. “I gave her a crash course in Country Music history.”

“They really didn’t have a clear definition of my job,” Walker-Meador remembered. “They were just looking for someone with organizational skills.

“I was the first employee, but I knew that they were looking for a man as executive director. In those days, that did seem very appropriate, so I thought nothing about it.”

Former WSM executive Harry Stone had the perfect credentials. He had a deep knowledge of Country Music, radio expertise and contacts in the advertising world. There was just one problem. There was no money to pay him, so his main job became fundraising. He lasted 10 months.

“CMA could not afford to pay both of our salaries,” Walker-Meador later recalled. “Fortunately for me, mine was less. And I could type.”

From 1959 on, she was on her own with a nearly bankrupt organization. The CMDJA had left $1,200 to CMA. Dues were $10 apiece. A lifetime CMA membership cost $100. There were only 235 members.

“There were days when I felt as though I were a professional beggar,” said Walker-Meador. “Hubert Long loaned me my furniture and typewriter. I would stop by Acuff-Rose and use their adding machine, their ditto machine and their folding-and-stuffing envelope machine. Tex Ritter’s band members would help me pack and mail out promotional records for a CMA event.”

Founding board member Charlie Lamb had launched The Music Reporter as Nashville’s second music trade publication in 1956. At his suggestion, Walker-Meador inaugurated an annual CMA banquet in 1959. The gatherings were held at area country clubs and nightspots and were timed to coincide with the Opry birthday celebrations.

Benefit concerts were also staged in an attempt to raise funds. The first took place in Louisville in 1959. Others occurred in Meridian, Mississippi, and Evansville, Indiana. Despite featuring such stars as Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Carl Smith, Jean Shepard and Ray Price, none of them made much money. It soon became apparent that staging costly concerts was not the best way to fund the association.

“When we went to Shreveport, Louisiana, to meet in 1960, we had been in existence for more than a year, but we had only about $735 in our bank accounts,” said Walker-Meador. “We didn’t know where the next money was coming from. I was really concerned at that time that somebody was going to make a motion that we just dissolve the organization.”

But the spirit of unity prevailed. Consummate pitchman Gay rallied the board with an upbeat speech. Kilpatrick suggested that everybody pay their annual dues in advance.

In 1961, the CMA board voted to establish a Country Music Hall of Fame. This was another “first” in the music world. Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams were the inaugural inductees. By then, Walker-Meador’s statesmanship and negotiating skills had won the confidence of the struggling Country industry. Her gentle persuasion also resulted in some badly needed corporate support when CMA faced its darkest hours. She was named Executive Director in 1962.

It is commonly believed that CMA’s big foe in those early years was rock ‘n’ roll. But Kentucky-based scholar Diane Pecknold argues otherwise. In her finely researched book “The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry,” she writes, “The emergence of Elvis Presley and the popularity of rockabilly were…the ultimate triumph of the Country industry…over the tyranny of the bicoastal popular music empire.”

Presley and his cohorts were initially marketed as Country acts. The mainstream culture perceived them as Country artists. Presley, the Everly Brothers, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty and many of the other early rockers recorded in Nashville throughout their lives.

The real “enemy” was Country Music’s image. During the 1950s, radio stations had adopted exclusive formats, and Country’s hayseed, cornpone, hillbilly stereotypes made it unattractive as a radio format. In 1961, only 81 of America’s 3,500 radio stations programmed Country Music. Thus, CMA’s first and most important mission was to change that state of affairs. CMA created its own publication of industry news, Close Up, and distributed its first issue in April of 1963. Close Up publicized every station that made the switch to Country as the style marched to modernization.

Behind the scenes, Walker-Meador and board member Frances Preston worked to convince the bluebloods who ran Nashville of the value of the Country industry to the city. This proved to be at least as difficult as persuading the American media.

CMA also began its campaign to persuade advertisers to recognize Country’s importance. The organization hosted five major sales presentations — in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Toronto — where the stentorian voice of Tex Ritter commanded attention. He became an extremely effective narrator at such events.

During a 1963 meeting of ad executives and press agents in New York, Gene Autry rode into a hotel ballroom on a Tennessee Walking Horse that CMA gave away. Much publicity ensued.

Around the same time, CMA achieved financial stability. A fundraising album of Country hits advertised on radio and television sold more than a million copies. Artists, publishers and songwriters waived their royalties, and the money rolled into CMA’s coffers. A second LP also succeeded.

“Until that point, it was a struggle,” said Walker-Meador. “The success of those albums sort of pioneered TV advertising for records. After those albums, CMA was on its feet.”

In 1963, CMA moved from the Exchange Building on Church Street downtown to 801 16th Avenue South on Music Row. Three years later, the association staged a capital campaign to build the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Preston was particularly vital to this effort. By the time CMA moved into offices in the new Hall of Fame’s basement in 1966, it had four full-time employees.          Meanwhile, the annual banquets were now attracting more than 2,000 attendees. Municipal Auditorium was hosting these ceremonies, and stellar artists were performing. By 1967, the event was so popular that the press began referring to the whole Opry birthday shebang as “CMA Week.” The board began to contemplate turning its banquet into an awards show.

“Some of the board members didn’t want to give awards,” said Walker-Meador. “One said, ‘We’ll make 10 people happy, and we’ll make 50 people unhappy.’ So, they kept resisting it.”  Nevertheless, Sonny James and Bobbie Gentry co-hosted the first CMA Awards (originally known as CMA Awards Banquet and Show) in 1967. Eddy Arnold triumphed as the Entertainer of the Year. In 1968, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans co-hosted, and the CMA Awards became the first nationally televised music honors.

By this time, “CMA Week” included award ceremonies by ASCAP and SESAC as well as BMI. The Nashville Songwriters Association formed in 1967 and began presenting its Hall of Fame awards in 1970. As fans began showing up to the annual Country Music DJ convention to see artists in attendance, a separate event titled Fan Fair was created to allow fans to meet artists.

“Less than 2,000 people came,” said Walker-Meador. “We were really concerned for the artists, so we called Fort Campbell and some schools to try and build up the audience. Of course, it later started growing.”

Now known as CMA Fest, the celebration attracts tens of thousands of fans to Nashville every summer.

Radio personalities were also attending “CMA Week” activities, seeking artist interviews and crowding the festivities. Thanks largely to CMA’s efforts, there were more than 600 Country stations when Country Radio Seminar was launched as a separate convention in 1970.

By this time, CMA was billed as “the world’s most active trade association.” It created the SRO convention for Country’s live performance business in 1972, opened a London office in 1981, and launched a series of panel discussions to coincide with Country Radio Seminar in 1983.

It had moved to 7 Music Circle North in 1974, and by the dawn of the 1980s, its annual operating budget exceeded $2 million. Fan Fair outgrew Municipal Auditorium and moved to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in 1982.

CMA celebrated its 25th anniversary with a televised spectacular airing from Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 1983. The setting was fitting.

Gay had been the first person to put Country Music on national TV. The occasion was a concert in Constitution Hall on July 31, 1948, that went out over the fledgling, five-city, NBC network. Among the stars of that 1948 show were Eddy Arnold and Johnnie & Jack, with their then-unknown “girl singer,” Kitty Wells.

They all returned for the 25th anniversary gala, as did 40 other major Country stars — including Alabama, Glen Campbell, Charlie Daniels, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson — plus President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush.

By the close of the 1980s, CMA membership numbered more than 7,000. In 1990, CMA built its own headquarters at One Music Circle South. Walker-Meador retired at the end of 1991, when Country Music’s Garth Brooks was the leading record seller in the world and the genre was in the national media spotlight like never before. There were now more than 2,400 Country radio stations.

Ed Benson served as Executive Director from 1992 to 2006. During his tenure, Fan Fair was rebranded as the CMA Music Festival and moved from the Tennessee State Fairgrounds to downtown Nashville in 2001. Corporate sponsorships for the festival dramatically increased. More than 400 artists were now participating. That was also the year in which the Country Music Hall of Fame moved from Music Row to downtown.

In 2004, the association created a second television spectacular, “CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock.” The following year, it launched the CMA Songwriters Series, which has since staged more than 120 intimate shows in over 18 cities throughout the world, with some shows appearing on PBS’s “Front and Center” from 2014-2018.

The CMA Awards took New York City’s Madison Square Garden by storm when the show was broadcast from there in 2005. When the gala returned to Nashville the following year, it switched venues from the Opry House to the three-times-larger Bridgestone Arena.

Tammy Genovese was with CMA for 24 years and served as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer from 2007 to 2009. When she took the reins, the association’s annual budget had grown to $30 million. During her tenure, the award show moved from CBS to the ABC Television Network in 2006. The CMA Awards is currently the longest-running annual Country Music awards program on network television.

“CMA Country Christmas” was inaugurated in 2010. This became the association’s third annual televised special.

In 2006, CMA launched its music education initiative, which led to the development of the association’s philanthropic arm, the CMA Foundation in 2011. It has since invested more than $21 million in organizations enhancing the lives of students through the power of music. This includes supporting and funding over 87 programs across public school systems nationwide, after-school programs, summer camps and community outreach organizations. Thanks to the generosity of artists and the Country Music community, proceeds from CMA Fest power the CMA Foundation’s social impact and unique model of giving.

Steve Moore followed Genovese as Chief Executive Officer, where he was instrumental in securing the new long-term extension of the television partnership for CMA’s three television properties, all on ABC. Moore created and led the CMA Foundation and created CMA EDU, a dynamic program designed to provide students around the country with an inside look into the music business through volunteer and networking opportunities within the industry. It was during this era that CMA gradually made the transition from being primarily a promotional organization into being a think tank for its industry.

Sarah Trahern became CMA’s Chief Executive Officer in 2014. In 2016, CMA celebrated the CMA Awards’ 50th anniversary with the No. 1 single and landmark music video “Forever Country,” featuring 30 CMA Award-winning Country acts from throughout the years. “Forever Country” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, marking only the third song in the chart’s history to debut in the top spot.

Under Trahern’s leadership, all three of CMA’s television properties reached three-year ratings highs in 2017. CMA Fest continues to grow and thrive, with visitors attending this year’s four-day festival from all 50 states as well as 36 international territories while also hitting a record-breaking $61.2 million in direct visitor spending. Country Music’s global expansion has grown significantly under Trahern’s tenure, with CMA initiatives like CMA Songwriters Series creating a presence in Europe and Australia. CMA’s membership continues to grow, currently consisting of 7,720 members in more than 30 countries.

As music moves further into the digital realm, the challenges facing CMA are as daunting as ever. But the organization’s powerful sense of community remains in place to confront whatever changes occur. As Jo Walker-Meador observed, CMA’s seas have always been rough.

“There were often controversies, discussions and arguments that I thought might come to blows,” she said. “But they always seemed to come out of those board meetings as friends. And that’s really been the success of the association.”

Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes come from the author’s interviews.

Presenter Ernest Tubb, right, named Roni, left, and Donna Stoneman of The Stoneman Family as the Vocal Group of the Year at "The 1st Annual CMA Awards" on Oct. 20, 1967, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network. photo: CMA
Kitty Wells, known as the Queen of Country Music, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame by Minnie Pearl, last year's inductee at "The 10th Annual CMA Awards" on Oct. 11, 1976, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network. photo: CMA
Bailes Brothers performed with Ernest Ferguson on Saturday, June 9 in the Family Reunion during the 8th Annual Fan Fair 1979, The World's Biggest Country Music Festival in Downtown Nashville. photo: Les Leverett/CMA
Entertainer and Female Vocalist of the Year nominee Reba McEntire leans on her backup singers Linda Davis, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride during a soulful rendition of "On My Own" at "The 29th Annual CMA Awards" Oct. 4, 1995, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network. photo: Kay Williams/CMA
(L-R) Matraca Berg, Jessi Alexander, Brett James, Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey perform at a CMA Songwriters Series show at Joe's Pub in New York City in 2005. photo: Marc Andrew Deley/CMA
Songwrinters Bill Anderson and Jon Randall wins the Song of the Year for "Whiskey Lullaby" at "The 39th Annual CMA Awards," on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2006, live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on the CBS Television Network. photo: John Russell/CMA
Kacey Musgraves and Loretta Lynn perform "You're Lookin' at Country" at "The 48th Annual CMA Awards," live Wednesday, Nov. 5 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville and broadcast on the ABC Television Network. photo: Donn Jones/CMA
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 06: (L-R) Debbie Linn Music Makes Us,Shannon Hunt CEO Nashville Public Education Foundation,Nola Jones Music Makes Us,Laurie Schell Music Makes Us,Robert Swope District 4 Council member, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, Kelsea Ballerini,Jana Carlisle,Anna Shepherd board of education chair,Sarah Trahern, CMA CEO,Ron Samuels, CMA Foundation and Bill Simmons, CMA board of directors attend the CMA Foundation's Announcement of a One Million dollar donation to the Metro Nashville public schools 'Music makes us' progam at Oliver Middle School on December 6, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
Former CMA CEO Jo Walker Meador and CMA CEO Sarah Trahern at the 2016 Medallion Ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Sunday, Oct.17, 2016. photo: John Russell/CMA
A meeting of the Country Music Association’s first Board of Directors in 1958. Standing (L-R): Promoter Oscar Davis; Capitol Records Country Recording Director Ken Nelson; Artist Ernest Tubb; President of BMI Bob Burton; Music Publisher and CMA Board Chairman Wesley Rose; Miami Broadcaster (WMIE) and Promoter Cracker Jim Brooker; Songwriter Vic McAlpin; Manager of the Grand Ole Opry Walter David "Dee" Kilpatrick; Music Reporter Publisher Charlie Lamb. Seated (L-R): Talent Booker and Music Publisher Hubert Long; BMI Canada Executive Harold Moon; Broadcaster and Talent Booker Connie B. Gay; Dot Records Artist and Producer Mac Wiseman. photo: Country Music Hall of Fame