Former BMI ­president/CEO Frances Williams Preston, often referred to as "the best friend a songwriter ever had," died of congestive heart failure on June 13 at her home in Nashville.

The tireless executive, whose early career duties included answering fan mail for country music pioneer Hank Williams, was a precedent-setting figure in the publishing community. She established the first performance rights organization (PRO) in the South, founded the BMI Country Awards, became the first female executive on Nashville's Music Row and is believed to be the first woman to wear VP stripes in Music City's business community.

Preston, 83, spent nearly 50 years as a BMI executive, leading the Nashville division for the first 27 years before moving to New York in 1985 to serve as senior VP of performing rights. The following year, she took over the agency's leadership, tripling its revenue and licensing music to new media even before the Internet's performance possibilities were fully clear.

"She was the heart of BMI, not only for me but for every BMI writer," Dolly Parton says. "She was a great leader and a great friend to us all."

Preston was both a leader and a visionary. Her rise was improbable, given that it began when there were few women in the boardroom. She invariably downplayed her gender as a factor in her success. In retrospect, her accomplishments stemmed from the same combination of traits that great leaders before her embodied: dedication to a cause, impressive people skills, attention to detail and an energetic determination.

Those characteristics were in evidence from the very beginning. Born Frances Williams on Aug. 27, 1928, in Nashville, she went to work for the National Life & Insurance Co. after earning an education degree at the George Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University. The insurance firm's properties included WSM Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Preston served as a receptionist, but she was clearly much more. In addition to answering Williams' fan mail, she hosted a style program on WSM-TV and segued into promotions, ably building a network of artists, politicians and industry leaders.

When BMI president Robert J. Burton decided to open a Nashville branch in 1958, Preston's skills lined up perfectly. She hired an assistant and ran the PRO out of her parents' garage for four years before establishing an office in 1962 on 16th Avenue South, part of the district that has since been dubbed Music Row.

One of her first initiatives was to call attention to the city's then-small cadre of songwriters. Preston established the BMI Country Awards in 1958, bestowing citations of achievement on such figures as Johnny Cash, Don Everly, George Jones, Harlan Howard, Roger Miller, Buck Owens and Webb Pierce. She also aggressively built BMI's stable of Nashville songwriting talent, enlisting the likes of Parton, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bill Anderson and Loretta Lynn.

"Frances Preston helped shape the music business ecosystem through her profound respect for songwriters and mentorship of several generations of executives," BMI Nashville VP of writer/publisher relations Jody Williams says. "She is without a doubt the single most important figure responsible for making Nashville 'Music City.'"

Promoted by BMI to VP in 1964, Preston succinctly noted during one of those awards presentations that the other parts of the music business - record companies, talent agencies and artist careers - wouldn't exist unless someone creates the material. "It all begins with a song," she said. That phrase became a slogan for the Nashville Songwriters Assn. International and an unofficial catchphrase for Middle Tennessee's music biz.

"While most CEOs were driven by the bottom line, her passion, tenacity and sheer force of will came from an authentic and absolute love of the songs and songwriters," says Spirit Music Group president Mark Fried, who worked at BMI from 1985 to 1995. "While she's getting fully justified credit for helping break the gender barrier in music biz boardrooms, most folks would agree she was one of the most effective leaders and managers of any gender."

Those capabilities were recognized when BMI relocated Preston to New York in 1985 and promoted her to president/CEO in 1986, replacing Ed Cramer, who held the position for 18 years. During her time in the post, BMI tripled the revenue it collected and distributed to its 300,000 affiliated songwriters, and her final year in office saw a record sum paid out to those composers and their publishers. Preston fought proactively to extend the life of copyrights, to collect royalties from restaurants and businesses that use music and to protect songwriters' works in the digital realm.

During her tenure, the agency also established the BMI Icon honor, celebrating a lifetime of work. More than 40 songwriters have been recognized, including Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, James Brown, George Clinton, Juan Luis Guerra, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, Carole King, the Bee Gees and Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Preston's leadership wasn't confined to the music business. Her public-policy appointments ranged from a seat on the Panama Canal Study Committee to membership in Vice President Al Gore's National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council. She also took an active role in fund-raising, particularly for the T.J. Martell Foundation, which gave her a humanitarian award in 1992.

Current BMI president/CEO Del Bryant says Preston was "a force of nature. She was smart, beautiful, tenacious and generous. She put BMI on the culture map and shaped the careers of many, especially mine. Though we mourn the loss of a great leader and friend, she lives on through a legacy that is literally set in stone. The BMI Nashville building and her wing at Vanderbilt Hospital are two monuments that were erected by her and stand in tribute to her passion and drive for those she loved."

Preston has been recognized in other ways as well. She's a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and has a star on the Music City Walk of Fame. She was given a National Trustees Award by the Recording Academy and the President's Award by the National Music Publishers' Assn., among numerous other honors. Additionally, BMI renamed its country song of the year trophy in 2011 as the Frances W. Preston Award.

"I can't think of an honor that I would value more in my whole life than a Frances Preston award," Kris Kristofferson said as he accepted the award in March.

Visitation was scheduled for June 17 at the Country Music Hall of Fame. A private funeral was planned.

Memorial contributions may be made in Preston's name to the T.J. Martell Foundation, 15 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203 or the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, TN 37240.••••