Executive of the Year Sarah Trahern Leads Billboard's 2017 Country Power Players List

Robby Klein
From left: Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and Trahern photographed by Robby Klein on June 10 at Music City Center in Nashville.

As Sarah Trahern leads the way to her corner office, she warns that it might not be in the most presentable state. "I'm a little scared because I haven't even sat down in here today," she says, waving warm hellos to Country Music Association (CMA) staffers as she passes their open doorways.

Trahern's floor-to-ceiling windows offer a second-story view of the traffic on Music Row, the symbolic center of Nashville's music industry, flooding with natural light a workspace that is, in fact, very tidy. A few stacks of paper await her attention; the rest have made their way into thick binders lining the shelves.

Trahern, 53, is midway through her fourth year as CEO of the CMA, the most muscular of any trade organization devoted to a single genre. Each June, its music festival draws hundreds of thousands of fans, raising millions of dollars for its charitable work in music education. The annual TV viewership of fall's CMA Awards, aired on ABC since 2006, is second only to the Grammys among music awards telecasts; even up against game seven of the 2016 World Series, the show held its own in ratings, retaining 93 percent of its audience from 2015. Through Country Music Hall of Fame inductions held every fall, the organization bestows permanent spots in the industry’s official historical narrative.

Trahern took the reins of the 59-year-old institution, with its 7,800 members, 76 person board and staff of 50, at an unpredictable moment. Old business models are rapidly losing currency. Crossing over to pop is no longer just a way to add to a country artist's established fan base -- plenty of millennial country acts are virtually pop natives. There are glaring gender disparities on the country charts, with male stars getting the lion’s share of the airplay. With the format’s future in mind, Trahern responds to the present tumult with unflappable diplomacy.

"There’s always that dichotomy of traditional country and pop country," she says after settling into a plush armchair in a small conference room, reading glasses perched atop her head. "I get asked about it a lot, and I always call it 'the big tent.' Under how we define country, I think there’s room for all of us."

Trahern proved her commitment to that idea in 2016 by getting behind the sweeping vision for the CMA Awards show proposed by executive producer Robert Deaton. The 50th anniversary edition of the telecast featured twice as many artists as usual, incorporating many more generations, styles and looks. But the night’s biggest, and most controversial, coup was a surprise appearance by Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks. If the pairing of the biggest R&B-pop superstar on the planet and the country expat trio raised some eyebrows, it was also a huge win, its impact reverberating across social media.

During Trahern’s tenure, the number of countries that broadcast the CMA Awards has grown from three to 89, and what she refers to as genre-bridging "lightning-rod moments" -- the Dixie Chicks and Beyoncé, of course, but also Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake in 2015, and Maren Morris’ blockbuster inaugural appearance backed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 2016 -- have convinced many casual observers of country’s openness.

In its infancy in the late 1950s, the CMA needed to convince the outside world that country wasn’t some backwoods niche, but a viable radio format and bona fide pop competitor. As listening habits increasingly render genre boundaries obsolete, Trahern is trying to strike a new balance: furthering a global expansion while promoting the distinctiveness of the format and its legacy. Her mandate: “In a streaming world, how do I help make sure that there’s going to be a strong CMA 60 years from now?”

Trahern grew up in a household where divergent sensibilities coexisted easily; her mother played viola in a symphony, and her father, who chaired the University of Tennessee English department, substituted Merle Haggard songs for bedtime lullabies and carted his daughter to bluegrass festivals, which inspired her to take up the banjo. Trahern’s professional education came at C-SPAN, where she landed a gig after graduating from Georgetown University. It was network policy to give equal airtime to all vantage points. "I was in charge of the talk-show unit," she explains. "So we had to be sure we had the same number of Democrats and Republicans on. Our boss used to say, 'If you care who wins, you shouldn't work here.'"

Trahern swapped the political beat for country music programming with a 1995 move to The Nashville Network (now defunct), then landed at Great American Country, where she worked her way up to senior vp/GM. She found a new application for her skilled bipartisanship when the CMA board of directors hired her in 2014.

"You can imagine a room full of the gatekeepers in the music industry in Nashville," says Jody Williams, vp writer/publisher relations at BMI and incoming board president. "You can't be a maverick with those personalities. You have to listen to all sides."

When it comes to a hot-button issue like female artists struggling to gain traction at radio, Trahern says, "It's not our role to A&R the industry." Instead, the CMA gave numerous slots at this year's festival, including an entire night’s lineup at one of its largest venues, to rising performers who happen to be women.

During a promotional campaign leading to the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards, Trahern helped orchestrate the making of a single and video, dubbed "Forever Country," which involved no fewer than 30 of country’s most recognizable VIPs, from Keith Urban to Dolly Parton. (It achieved RIAA gold certification in May.) Karen Fairchild, a board member whose group, Little Big Town, participated, marvels, "The way that she needed to maneuver that politically, [getting] the artists and directors and musicians [onboard], was such a feat. You can see the way she gently massages situations in the business."

To Fairchild, it matters a lot that Trahern "feels the weight of legacy, and how to continue it." Keen conciliator that she is, Trahern wouldn’t be caught claiming credit for what goes well. "The successes that I have really are the successes that we have," she insists. "That’s how I’m choosing to frame it."    

This article originally appeared in the August 5 issue of Billboard.