Although he attended every one of Kenny Chesney’s stadium shows last year, manager Clint Higham prefers to work behind the scenes. He jokes that he was just on the road with his superstar client as “window decoration.”
But that’s hardly the case. Higham, 44, helped guide Chesney into the fifth-highest-grossing tour of 2015, bringing in more than $114 million after taking a yearlong break from the road in 2014. Last year also heralded the breakout of one of Higham’s new acts, Old Dominion, which enjoyed a No. 1 Country Airplay hit with debut single “Break Up With Him.”
During the last 22 years of working with mentor and “father figure” Dale Morris, California native Higham rose from intern to president/partner in the Nashville management firm that now bears his name, Morris Higham Management, and recently earned a spot on Billboard’s 2016 Power 100 list. His current clients also include Jake Owen, Louise Mandrell and two newcomers: Brandon Lay, who recently signed with Universal, and Ryan Griffin, recently signed to Sony.
An avid old-world wine collector, Higham owns about 3,000 bottles. But it’s rum that has his attention at the office: He and Chesney have been building the singer’s premium brand, Blue Chair Bay rum, which sold 80,000 cases last year, according to Higham, up from 50,000 in 2014.
You supported Chesney’s decision to take a year off from touring in 2014.
I think he just needed to know he could do it. He said, “I need to miss it, and my audience needs to miss me.” And they did. He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever been around in the business, and so savvy.
Will there be a new Chesney album in 2016?
We’re hoping for May. He’s still recording. He’s a great A&R person, and he knows the funnel in which he can compete is pretty tight. You can’t give [fans] too much of where you’ve been, [and] if you try to conform to what everybody else is doing, then that doesn’t stay true to him. But from what I’m hearing, he should be in good shape.
He’s investing his own money in the Blue Chair Bay brand.
Artists are involved in brands all the time, but I don’t know of anybody [else] that’s writing checks. Most artists will slap their name on it, but they don’t want to do the work. Any time we go to any of the major accounts, whether it’s Walmart or Kroger, the thing that’s most impressive [to them] is that Kenny is funding it. I don’t know any other artist that does that.
Did you both have to learn the liquor business from scratch?
I know what I don’t know, and I don’t know that business, so we surround ourselves with people that do. We had a learning curve because it really has been a 10-year-in-the-making kind of business. But we’re going to [hit sales of] 110,000 cases this year. That’s pretty gratifying.
You were initially reluctant to manage Old Dominion. Why?
Old Dominion came to us through [hit songwriter] Shane McAnally, whom we have a close friendship with. But I didn’t want a band because Dale [has] said, “Don’t ever manage bands. You’re going to have four or five bosses or people that you’ve got to please.” Plus, if you look at the history of our business, very few stars have been bands. These guys changed my mind because they’re a unit. They know who they are. But the journey to get them signed was not easy. We had interest at various labels, but for whatever reason we were getting doors shut. In the meantime, they were willing to go out in a van. They knew what they had to do … Most of the time the team or the system is propping most of the artists up, but these guys clearly do their part. It’s not like they’re 19 and feel entitled at all.
If you could trade places with one music artist, who would it be?
Though I have immense respect for many musicians and artists, I would not trade places for anything or with anyone. I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life when I was 11, and that’s never wavered. I knew I belonged on the other side of the microphone.
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.