When members of Nashville’s music community awoke on Saturday, March 16, 1991, many were greeted with gruesome news. CNN repeatedly showed footage of a plane that had crashed into Otay Mountain outside San Diego early that morning. Eight members of Reba McEntire’s band and crew died as a result, and 25 years later, it’s still difficult for many who were part of the team to talk about.
One of McEntire’s closest confidantes at the time couldn’t stop talking about it the day of the disaster. Alliance Media Relations owner Jennifer Bohler was the publicist for McEntire’s Starstruck Entertainment in ’91, and she was duty bound to handle questions from the press, operating as a liaison in a time of crisis between a celebrity and the public. She spent the day handling calls at home, professionally fielding the questions and doing her best to mask the emotional torment inside.
“It’s surreal,” recalls Bohler. “One person having an accident is hard enough, but you multiply that times eight, and it was eight of your friends, it makes it really hard. You enter a protective shell, and you relay the information as best you can, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But I can tell you no amount of education or on-the-job training can prepare you for that kind of situation.”
While Bohler’s experience ranks among the most dramatic, she’s hardly alone as a publicist who has had to set aside her own heartbreak to tell the world about the death of a country artist. Rory Lee Feek, as the husband/duet partner for Joey Martin Feek, served as a de facto representative during his wife’s four-month stay in hospice, which ended with her death on March 4. The hurt was appropriately evident in his blog postings as he shared her final weeks. But under more traditional circumstances, the publicists for George Jones, Mindy McCready and Backroad Anthem’s Craig Strickland were required to remain as even-keeled as possible in their public demeanor, forced to discuss a fresh tragedy and suppress their anguish until they found time in private.
“I remember just crying hysterically,” says Music City News Media director Kat Atwood, who handled press in the aftermath of McCready’s suicide in 2013. “And I cried for so many reasons. I cried because I knew her, I knew her passion and her pain, and as much as a publicist tries to work with and protect her artist, I could never have protected her from any of that. It’s hard to even talk about it now without getting emotional.”
McCready’s death was abrupt. In contrast, Strickland’s death at the end of 2015 was a drawn-out drama. He set out on a hunting trip in Arkansas on Dec. 27, and his body wasn’t found for more than a week. Sweet Talk Publicity president Jensen Sussman was notified Dec. 28, the day after returning from Christmas break, and she spent the next week responding to journalists, putting aside her own shock and still meeting obligations to her other clients, including Kelsea Ballerini and Frankie Ballard.
“I sometimes don’t deal with [emotions] in the moment, especially with this,” says Sussman. “It was almost like going into work mode automatically and approaching it from that way. I will say I feel like it really personally hit me when I saw the guys again for the first time and Craig wasn’t there.”
Complicating matters, the media itself can be difficult. Publicists agree that editors and reporters at Nashville music outlets — such as Country Weekly, People magazine, CMT and syndicated radio companies — are generally supportive. But hard-news outlets and tabloids can be brutal in their pursuit of a story.
“A lot of them overstep their boundaries, I think, because it’s not about the person. It’s about the story,” says Atwood. “It’s about the blood and the guts, it’s about the dirt. And so I felt a lot of the calls I received [about McCready] that night, that morning, the following day were really inappropriate.”
The day of the plane crash in ’91, at least one TV reporter chastised Bohler when she declined to put a grieving McEntire in front of their cameras.
“She was in no state to talk to anybody that day, and I had to get firm with a few people and just tell them, ‘No, it’s not going to happen,’ ” recalls Bohler. “[Some] kept pressing and calling back and saying, ‘That’s what she needs to do, that’s what she’s supposed to do.’ And it’s like, ‘No, she’s not. That’s not her job.’ ”
Webster & Associates president/CEO Kirt Webster tackled the deaths and/or funerals of Jones, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and, more recently, Jim Ed Brown. He has seen boundaries pushed even further.
“Within hours of us actually releasing the information about George Jones, I started getting phone calls offering me six-digit numbers for photos of George during visitation,” says Webster. “They were like, ‘We’ll give you cash, we will not report this. We just want a really good photo of George lying in the coffin.’ I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ And it never happened. I also got those same offers for Johnny Cash.”
The bigger an artist’s public persona, the more complicated the process becomes, particularly because the funeral can be large. It needs to balance the family’s pain with that of the artist’s fans. For the McEntire plane crash funeral, Bohler’s former employer — Liz Thiels, a veteran publicist who owned Network Ink and is now associated with the Country Music Hall of Fame — took over funeral details, allowing Bohler to grieve.
Jones, a Grand Ole Opry member, was eulogized at the Opry House, and Opry VP/GM Pete Fisher and the Opry publicist, Schmidt Relations owner Jessie Schmidt, played a big part in the process. The memorial included speeches and performances from such fellow artists as Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney. Creating an additional set of details, people from outside the music community — including First Lady Laura Bush and CBS newsman Bob Schieffer — also took part.
“As soon as you announce somebody’s passing, the first question is, ‘What are the arrangements?’ ” says Webster. “So you literally have to go into show-business mode and put on a show. We had to take a professional side of things, as well as our emotional side, drive it right down the middle and make it something that would represent George and the Grand Ole Opry very well.”
Eventually, every country artist dies. Someone will have to serve as a conduit between the act and the public, helping everyone else come to terms with the loss. Unfortunately, the job forces many publicists to wait months — sometimes years — before they’re able to do that for themselves.
“It’s a weird thing to have to sit and process,” reflects Bohler. “You snatch the moments when you can, to sit and think about them, and to cry.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.