He was an exacting chart manager, a devoted family man and a deeply spiritual soul with a quick humor pocked by farm-boy references. That's how Billboard senior chart director Wade Jessen was remembered during a March 9 memorial in Nashville that honored his kindness and his passion for music.
Jessen, 53, died March 5 from a heart attack, barely two months after celebrating his 20th anniversary with Billboard, where he oversaw the publication's country, bluegrass, Christian and gospel charts. He was also a popular air personality on SiriusXM's classic country channel, Willie's Roadhouse.
"He'd be horrified to know we had the service on Airplay chart day," Billboard vp charts and data development Silvio Pietroluongo said tongue in cheek.
"For 20 years, he's dealt with the record labels in this town," continued Pietroluongo. "We should have given him hazard pay for that." But he added that Jessen "loved this community so much."
That affection was reciprocated by the music community with a big turnout for the service at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church -- despite the fact that it was chart day -- in addition to attendance at the March 8 visitation at SpringHill Funeral Home.
Among the Music Row insiders at the service were artists Garth Brooks and Radney Foster, Curb Records chairman Mike Curb, "Fishin' in the Dark" songwriter Jim Photoglo, Music Row magazine publisher/owner Sherod Robertson, Iconic Entertainment's Fletcher Foster, Country Weekly's Lisa Konicki and Jon Freeman, Sony Music Nashville's Allen Brown, Warner Music Nashville's Wes Vause, Big Machine Label Group's John Zarling, SiriusXM's John Marks and Kyle Cantrell, WSM-FM Nashville PD Charlie Cook and Middle Tennessee State University's Beverly Keel. KZSN Wichita, Kan., PD Brian Jennings served as a pallbearer.
Among the many floral arrangements sent to the funeral home were bouquets from Alan and Denise Jackson, and from Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. The latter couple included a message reading: "To a true gentleman of country music. You are missed. Much love, Garth and Trisha."
The gathering -- a mix of friends, family and music-industry colleagues -- pieced together the disparate sectors of his life, some of which likely came as a surprise to those who might have known him in just one or two areas.
"There are two things I know for sure," sister Jessie Ree Walker told the crowd: "Wade was born a farm boy. And a Democrat." She said her brother was "passionate about everything in life" and "grateful for his upbringing" on a Utah cattle ranch. His father fueled an appreciation of music, and music, she said, "has always been a big part of Wade's life."
Before he found his way, however, Jessen's road was a difficult one. "He had a really hard life," sister Beckey McConkie told the congregation. "He wasn't accepted a lot of places. He was persecuted a lot." She paused a beat, then got a big laugh and a standing ovation with her confession: "I beat up a lot of people for my brother."
But obviously things had changed for Jessen. McConkie spoke about how quickly after being baptized into the Catholic church a few years ago Jessen joined the parish council and then soon became its president. He recently provided a sound system for St. Vincent, and he looked after it once it was installed.
"He wanted things done now -- and right," said Walker.
That trait served him well at Billboard, where he worked with many different owners, publishers and editors during his 20-year tenure. Each time the company had a regime change, Jessen was always eager to speak with the brand's New York executives about "how important Nashville was to the ecosystem of the music business," said Pietroluongo. "He admired competition, but he wanted to beat them and beat them bad."
As determined as Jessen was in those communications, he usually softened them with a humorous aside.
"He was always quick with a farm-boy quip," observed Pietroluongo. "Being a New York City native, I didn't understand half of what he was saying."
But what Jessen stood for spoke volumes. He was kind, virtuous, honest and caring, the speakers said. He was "irreplaceable," said Jessen's pastor, Father Athanasius Abanula, who celebrated "a life well-lived."
That life ended on an upbeat note, said Walker, who watched Jessen's attitude change dramatically after he joined St. Vincent: "I've really seen a sense of peace and calmness and happiness in his life, and you are the reason why."
Not that Jessen was always joyful. Walker shared an observation she made to her sisters during the morning of March 5, hours after Jessen's unexpected passing: "I bet Wade was mad as hell when he woke up dead this morning."
Others in the Nashville music community have been saddened by his departure. Following his death, numerous country stars took to Twitter to express their grief, including Dierks Bentley, The Oak Ridge Boys and Josh Turner. Reba McEntire tweeted, "What a great guy he was … Rest in peace, Wade." Toby Keith wrote, "You were a friend and a well-respected industry voice. You'll be missed."
Chely Wright called him "a giant of a man," while singer Katie Armiger called him "the best friend country music ever had." Hit songwriter Shane McAnally considered him "a true champion of country music and those who make it." And the trio SHeDAISY heralded Jessen as "one of the good guys" and an "amazing human being."
"Wade found such positivity in all of country music," said Kenny Alphin, also of Big & Rich, in the Tennessean story. "In his writing, I could always tell he truly heard the songs we created down to every note and lyric, and often found much to appreciate in them that even eluded us as artists."
Jessen is survived by his spouse, Corey Jones of Nashville, and his three sisters and their families, all residing in Utah. He will be buried March 14 at the Mountain Home-Boneta Cemetery in Mt. Home, Utah.
He will be permanently missed at Billboard.