Jo Walker-Meador

November 12, 2014

Jo Walker-Meador wasn’t sure she wanted to work for the Country Music Association when approached to become the organization’s first full-time employee in 1958. D Kilpatrick, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, approached Walker-Meador about working for the new association, formed by industry insiders to represent all facets of the country music industry.

“It seemed to me like a nothing job,” said Walker-Meador, reflecting back on her fateful decision. “But D convinced me. He was a pretty good salesman. He was sure I would love it.”

Three years later, Walker-Meador was promoted to executive director of the CMA—becoming one of the first women to head a top organization in the Nashville music industry. Guiding the CMA to its prominent leadership position in the international country music community, Walker-Meador became recognized as one of Music Row’s most important historical figures. She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.

Walker-Meador reflected on her ground-breaking career in a program at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as the 2014 honoree of the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum, which recognizes a female music industry executive who, like the late Louise Scruggs, has had an indelible impact on music. The forum was established in 2007 by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Gibson Foundation to explore issues relating to women working behind the scenes in the music industry.

Walker-Meador was born Edith Josephine Denning in Orlinda, Tennessee, on February 16, 1924. Raised in a family of eleven children during the Great Depression, Walker pitched in as her farming family relied on the land to make it through difficult times.

“I learned how to give and take, how to win some of the battles that come forth,” said Walker-Meador, whose last name combines those of her first and second husband. “But we had a lot of wonderful times. As it’s often said, we were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor. We had everything we needed, at a time when many people had to suffer. We grew everything, and we preserved for the winter, so we never went hungry. We always had clothes to wear, and every one of us graduated from high school.”

Her father could sing—“or at least he thought he could, you could certainly hear him at church,” Walker-Meador said—and he played piano by ear. Otherwise, Walker-Meador didn’t come from a musical family, and no one in her family previously worked in entertainment.

“I didn’t listen to a lot of music when I was young,” she said. “We didn’t have a radio, and of course there was no television. I didn’t go to concerts. What I heard at church was all the music I knew. I knew I liked music, and I knew I liked Hank Williams.”

Walker-Meador loved playing basketball as a student, and her original ambition was to be a high school teacher and women’s basketball coach. Coming from such a large family, her parents could not afford to send their children to college, so Walker-Meador went to work in her late teens and saved for her education.

During World War II, she worked for Vultee Aircraft, sorting bolts, rivets, and screws at a Nashville factory that manufactured plane parts. At the same time, she attended Watkins Institute to learn shorthand, typing, spelling, and English. Using her newfound office skills, she left Vultee to join the office staff at a securities firm, while continuing her education at Peabody College in Nashville. In 1956, she worked for a gubernatorial candidate and, after that, for an entertainment company.

In 1958, during a Country Music Disc Jockeys Association meeting in Miami, a steering committee was formed to explore launching a trade organization to represent all sectors of the country music industry. That organization, the Country Music Association, opened in the fall of 1958 during the annual DJ Convention. Walker-Meador became the CMA’s first employee.

She characterized the CMA’s first board of directors as men of integrity who wanted country music to succeed, partly to help foster growth of their own businesses. “Rock music had started a couple of years before I went to work, and there was a lot of love for Elvis and many others,” Walker-Meador said. “The Top 40 format had become popular on radio, so there was an extremely limited number of records being played, and a lot of radio stations were dropping country music.”

The CMA hired Harry Stone, a former WSM executive, to become its first executive director, with Walker-Meador as the lone other employee at the time. “I didn’t resent not being asked to run the organization,” she said. “This was before women’s lib. I thought Harry was the perfect man for the job. He had the background for it.”

To raise money, the CMA staged benefit concerts in 1959 and 1960, but the shows weren’t as successful as hoped. With a lack of money for salary, Stone left the CMA, and Walker-Meador ran the office until she was named executive director in 1961.

“I just kind of grew into it,” Walker-Meador said. “The board members were my bosses, and I respected them, and I respected the people who helped CMA. I never felt I was doing it alone. I felt like we were doing it together.”

Eventually, the board wanted to honor country music’s most important figures, so the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961. The board studied the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, and its procedures for electing members. The CMA decided on qualifications, and a secret board of electors was created to nominate candidates and select new members. The first inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 1961, were Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose, and Hank Williams. In time, Walker-Meador was instrumental in expanding the number of electors who vote for induction into the Hall of Fame.

The plaques commemorating Hall of Fame membership initially were put on display in the Tennessee State Museum in downtown Nashville. CMA board members Bill Denny, Frances Preston, and others pushed for a museum to honor Hall of Fame members. In 1964, the CMA board chartered the Country Music Foundation, a non-profit, educational organization charged with operating the museum.

Initially, the CMA had trouble raising money to build a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The state of Tennessee turned down a request for $25,000, and many Nashville business and community leaders still looked down at the local music industry as “a bunch of hillbillies,” Walker-Meador said. But a multi-artist compilation benefit album helped raise money, and a few brave Nashville banks and businesses also contributed.

The museum opened in Nashville on March 31, 1967, on Sixteenth Street. TV clips from the grand opening, featuring Walker-Meador showing off a few artifacts, were shown during the program. Audience members heard Walker-Meador talk about the museum’s earliest artifacts, including hats worn by comedians Rod Brasfield and Minnie Pearl; shoes worn by comedian Whitey Ford, as the Duke of Paducah; the first guitars owned by Chet Atkins, Red Foley, and Kitty Wells; a banjo belonging to Earl Scruggs; an autoharp from Sara Carter of the Carter Family; and pairs of cowboy boots donated by the heirs of the late Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.

Walker also recalled some early marketing stunts the CMA pulled to increase country music’s awareness among New York advertisers and media outlets. The CMA persuaded cowboy singer, movie star and media company owner Gene Autry to mount a horse, take it by elevator up to an upper floor of a Manhattan high-rise, and make a striking entrance by riding the stallion into a gathering of Big Apple executives. The horse was then raffled off as a fund-raiser.

Also in 1967, the CMA hosted its first awards ceremony, at the War Memorial Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The inaugural awards show wasn’t televised. The following year, CMA board members Jack Stapp (of Tree Publishing) and Irving Waugh (of WSM) approached the New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson about helping the CMA convince a network to air the program. A Thompson executive recommended cowboy star Roy Rogers and his actress-singer wife, Dale Evans, as award show hosts, because the agency had a relationship with the famous couple.

A video clip showed segments of the first CMA show, including Bob Wills accepting his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Walker-Meador also recalled some of the last-minute problems she contended with during the annual awards show. One year, as the program was about to begin, she realized the trophies and plaques to be presented that night had been left at the CMA offices. A policeman, with siren on, rushed Walker-Meador and CMA board member Bud Wendell to pick up the honors. The got back just in time for Walker-Meador to rush an award to the opening presenter, barely in time for the announcement. “I never would have made it without the policeman,” she said.

She also answered a question about an infamous show moment in 1975, when presenter Charlie Rich used a cigarette lighter to burn the envelope holding the announcement that John Denver was winner of the CMA Entertainer of the Year. “My reaction was, ‘Why did they let him go on in the first place?’” she said, recalling that it was obvious that Rich wasn’t sober at that moment. “I think Charlie’s problem was that he had won every possible award he could win the previous year, when he had the hits ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and “The Most Beautiful Girl.’ That next year he wasn’t nominated at all. I think that was preying on him, and he had imbibed in a little something over the top. I don’t think he had any intention of burning it. I think he was looking for attention and venting his feelings.”

Later, Walker-Meador addressed the CMA’s successful push to expand country music’s audience overseas, and she talked about successful events staged from England to Japan. She also addressed how Fan Fair grew from a small event at the Tennessee Fairgrounds to an extravagant series of concerts and gatherings spread across Nashville that brings hundreds of thousands of fans to Nashville.

Dr. Rumble, the program host, noted that many women came into leadership positions in the Nashville music industry in the wake of the success of Walker-Meador and other early industry leaders, including Frances Preston of BMI and the forum’s namesake, Louise Scruggs, manager and agent of Flatt & Scruggs and the Earl Scruggs Revue. Asked if she ran into any gender bias from men while enacting her duties, Walker-Meador said, “I don’t recall any of that at all. Us women certainly talked to each other a lot. Frances was a great deal of help to me. She started at BMI about six months before I went to the CMA, and we were close friends throughout her life.”

Walker-Meador retired in 1991, and she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995. Her induction occurred when the CMA Awards still featured lengthy tributes to Hall of Fame inductees. The clip of her induction, narrated by CMA host Vince Gill, was shown to the museum audience. “Even a three-hour show couldn’t provide the time necessary to acknowledge the literally hundreds of talented people whose friendship and skills have contributed to this honor to me this evening,” Walker-Meador said in her 1995. “I am proud to have played a part, however small, in the success of country music.”

A few minutes later, she uttered that same sentiment before receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

Learn more about the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum and its other honorees here.