She never sang on a top 10 country hit or won an award for writing one, but Jo Walker-Meador has a bronze plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame that makes her a peer of fellow members like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash.
Walker-Meador, the longest-serving executive director in the history of the Country Music Association, died Aug. 15 in Nashville at age 93, following a stroke. Overseeing the trade organization for three decades, from 1962-1991, she helped establish it as a formidable marketing and research partner for the genre.
Her passing came the day after the second round of voting for this year’s CMA Awards opened. Those awards were founded on her watch, in 1967, and became the most publicly recognized role for the agency. But the CMA achieved even more during her tenure, collecting and disseminating information about the increasing penetration of country on radio; establishing, in 1972, what’s now known as the CMA Music Festival; and formally researching country’s audience demographics and wooing advertisers and media with data that countered accepted beliefs about its fan base.
The message was delivered often: country might have born in the sticks, but it made a connection with an increasingly sophisticated audience. Walker-Meador helped turn Nashville’s competitive music companies into a cooperative community, with much of the town working together to build country from a regional concern to a national powerhouse that now shows increasing global reach.
She was never flashy in her approach, but managed to effect change with a cunning diplomacy.
“She would sit in the board meetings, figuring out what CMA needed to do and who might be most likely to agree with her,” recalled Ed Benson, who succeeded her as executive director from 1992-2005. “Then she’d talk to one of them. They would say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure, Jo.’ Then she’d talk with another one, and he’d say the same thing. And she’d answer, ‘Well I talked to so-and-so, and he really liked the idea.’ She had this crafty way of convincing people to support what she knew was best.”
Born Edith Josephine Denning in Orlinda, Tenn., on Feb. 16, 1924, Walker-Meador’s experience with country was similar to much of its fan base in previous decades, paying little attention to it during her formative years, but becoming a believer when she entered adulthood. After college, she spent four years as an executive secretary for an 80-location movie theater chain; handled public relations when Tennessee State Attorney General G. Edward Friar ran for governor; and became office manager for a food distributor.
She joined CMA as its office manager -- and first paid employee -- in 1958, and took over the top position four years later.
“I knew nothing about country music,” she told CountryZone.net. “I knew that Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff were members of the Grand Ole Opry, but I had never been to the Grand Ole Opry.”
Walker-Meador grew to appreciate the music and emerged a quiet, determined leader for the genre, its artists and the city that served as its hub. She won a bundle of awards for her efforts -- including, ironically, the Jim Reeves Memorial Award from the rival Academy of Country Music after launching a CMA office in London -- but the crown jewel came with her 1995 induction into the Hall of Fame.
“Jo was a champion for country music around the world and a groundbreaker for women in the entertainment business,” said CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. “She was the first meeting I set up before I took this job. She taught me lessons in how to gracefully navigate the board. She was always diplomatic in her storytelling and she had some great ones to share. Over the last six months she was a little more candid, and I always looked forward to our time together. She will be greatly missed by all. My heart is broken.”
Services are pending.