Marion Kraft vividly recalls one meeting at Sony Nashville in 2007 — early in her days as a manager for then-rising star Miranda Lambert. Joe Galante, who ran the label at the time, wanted to update his artists and their managers on the state of the music business. “[He] was the master of making sure everyone felt part of it and we were all true partners with our record label,” Kraft recalls. But looking around at the group of managers and executives around her, Kraft was struck. “There was one woman and me,” she says. “That was it.”
Today, “those meetings have changed dramatically,” says Kraft, 57, while sitting in the Nashville office of her company, ShopKeeper Management. Since opening ShopKeeper 13 years ago, she has built a singular career anchored by her close to 20-year partnership with reigning Academy of Country Music (ACM) entertainer of the year Lambert. The company’s all-female staff now guides a roster that includes Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies (the trio of Lambert, Monroe and Angaleena Presley), Tenille Townes and Aaron Raitiere. All the while, she has become a mentor to and supporter of the next generation of female executives in country music, like Kerri Edwards (Luke Bryan, Cole Swindell), Janet Weir (Maren Morris) and Mary Hilliard Harrington (Dierks Bentley, Elle King).
“ ‘What would Marion do?’ is a question I ask myself pretty often,” says Red Light Management’s Harrington. “Marion has incredible natural instincts, and she also is a great listener and problem solver. She always sees the big picture and thinks strategically. Plus, she throws a hell of a dance party.”
Kraft’s path was a winding one. She was born in Germany, raised in the small southeastern village of Söhnstetten “where everyone knows everyone,” Kraft says. Her father worked for the German army and her mother raised Kraft and her two brothers, later working in hospital administration (she still lives in Söhnstetten).
At 21, Kraft moved to the United States to learn English and study international business at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her first music industry job was at events logistics company Rock-It Cargo (now Rock-It Global), making T-shirts, jackets and other merchandise as end-of-tour gifts for clients like Michael Jackson and U2. She went on to handle wardrobe for Paul Simon’s early-’90s Born at the Right Time Tour — then took a hiatus from the music business, working on offices and private planes as an independent interior designer. “It took me a long time to figure out I wanted to be in management,” Kraft says. “I have a business degree and I like doing deals, but I’m also highly creative.”
By 2001, however, Kraft found her way back to the industry, joining artist management company The Firm as day-to-day manager for the then-Dixie Chicks and Mary J. Blige, later adding Anastacia, Tears for Fears and Clay Aiken. Then, in 2004, Kraft was asked to meet with a new addition to the Firm roster: a fearless 19-year-old singer-songwriter from Lindale, Texas.
“One of the things that I asked Miranda at our first meeting was, ‘What kind of career do you want?’ ” Kraft recalls. “She said, ‘I want to make music forever and I want a career that’s long term. I want to be here in 50 years.’ We are nearly 20 years in, and so far it’s going good.”
In 2005, Lambert released her major-label debut, Kerosene (on Epic Nashville), which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, and its title track became a top 15 Country Airplay hit. That same year, Kraft departed The Firm to join Simon Renshaw at Strategic Artist Management, and she brought Lambert with her. Over the next four years, Lambert’s career skyrocketed, and in 2009 Kraft opened ShopKeeper with Lambert as her sole client.
The rest is history. Seven of Lambert’s albums have debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums (her latest, Palomino, arrived at No. 2), and she has written most of the music on them all. In March, after winning entertainer of the year, Lambert became one of only eight artists to achieve the ACM’s triple crown, following her wins for top new female vocalist in 2007 and top female vocalist a record nine times.
Today, sitting together at ShopKeeper, Lambert and Kraft have a familial ease. Lambert’s good-natured bluntness — “I had my times where I was being a sh-tshow and she had to go, ‘Hey, you’re wearing yourself out,’ ” she says of a time when she’d play up to 250 shows a year — is balanced by Kraft’s reflective style. “She was never really a little sh-t,” Kraft maintains. “She was growing up, trying to figure out how to be an artist in a constantly changing environment.”
As Lambert’s ambitions have expanded, their partnership has supported her at every step, whether on creative risks — like her Grammy Award-nominated back-to-basics collaborative album with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes — or entrepreneurial ones, like her first restaurant, Casa Rosa, a “Tex-Mex cantina” on Nashville’s Lower Broadway in partnership with TC Restaurant Group (known for its ventures with artists like Jason Aldean and Bryan).
And as they gear up for their next big adventure — Lambert’s first Las Vegas residency in September at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater — they’re still focused on the crux of the operation: the music. “That’s always No. 1,” Lambert says. “The style will evolve, the outfits will evolve, the brands will evolve, but it all starts with, ‘What’s this new evolution of music?’ And we go off that for everything else.”
Marion, what lessons from your work with artists like Mary J. Blige and The Chicks did you bring to managing Miranda’s career?
Marion Kraft: Working with women, you learn what to look out for and what is important to them. I’m 20 years Miranda’s senior and I have a lot more experience under my belt, so it’s very important that I share that experience. But she is a businesswoman. She makes all her decisions. Do I make some decisions for her that I know this is how she would decide? Yes, absolutely. But that’s also the ease of where we’re at, at this point. Anything music-related, she decides.
Miranda, can you recall a time early on when you realized how Marion was looking out for you?
Miranda Lambert: Yeah, in a ton of ways. Sometimes I would say, “Something doesn’t feel right.” And maybe we already committed to it, but I slept on it and would call her like, “Something’s off about this.” And she has no question. She just says, “OK, then we’re done.” She doesn’t ask for an explanation or try to talk me into it. We go with our gut — whether it’s an opportunity for a brand or a record or a producer. If one of us feels off, we talk about it and we move on.
Marion, you’re also mentoring the next generation of female managers, like Crystal Dishmon, who joined ShopKeeper as Miranda’s day-to-day and now manages Tenille Townes.
Kraft: I wanted to be sure that I could build something people wanted to be part of. And then I called Crystal and said, “I think you should come work with me because I think we would work great together. I think you and Miranda would get along fabulously.”
Lambert: She came at a time when I was just starting to get my business sense a little bit. Before that, I was young and I would push back on Marion because we have, a lot of times, a mother-daughter sort of relationship. Crystal was there to calm the waters.
Kraft: It’s strong to come out the gate with people who are good at their jobs, willing to learn, putting their best foot forward. We just kept hiring great team members who ended up being women. I remember being in Los Angeles, calling different management offices in Nashville. One day I thought, “This woman could be really good, but she’s treated like furniture in this company, like just somebody who can file and answer the phone.” I wanted everybody to have a voice, and in this company, everybody has a voice.
What female managers did you look up to early on?
Kraft: I learned from a lot of great people, men and women, though there were very few [female] managers in those days. I looked up to Sheryl Louis, who manages Stevie Nicks; Kathy Schenker, who managed Sting. There were other managers, but they were either very private or their style wasn’t really what I wanted to be. There was one in particular who had more of a manly style, lots of yelling. I was like, “That’s not what I want to do.”
As a team, how has your communication style evolved?
Lambert: We talk almost every day, at least on text or something. We’re really good at communicating, and we weren’t always; I would be just going off on another tangent, not filling her in on my life. So we used to have meetings and sit down and talk about, “What’s the trajectory? Where are we headed?” Now, I don’t feel like we need time for those big planned meetings anymore because we just are flowing through it.
Kraft: We have a thing where if I don’t get an answer on something pressing from you within 48 hours, then I’ll make the decision without you, good or bad. You’re going to have to live with it. The good news is, most of the time I do hear back.
Lambert: It’s so much more of a business now than when it was just about putting out records and touring. We have to communicate every day. There’s too much going on not to.
Miranda has her own clothing line, Idyllwind; she has teamed with Tractor Supply for a line of pet products; and last year she opened Casa Rosa. How do you choose business opportunities?
Kraft: They’re really only opportunities if they’re good for all parties involved. We’ve come to this place where we say, “If it’s a maybe, it’s a no.”
Lambert: [Casa Rosa] had been brought up a few times on and off through the years, but it never felt like the time. We try to stay as open as we can, and when the opportunity came back around, [Marion] went and met with these people and was like, “What’s your intention with my daughter?”
Kraft: [We had been] on the music trajectory and we couldn’t take our eye off that ball. We knew we needed a certain amount of time because she wanted to be creatively involved. Now, when you walk into Casa Rosa, it feels like Miranda Lambert.
Lambert: Anything that has my name on it, we don’t do that quickly or chain it or anything else — I want my thumbprint on it. I want to know that one of us is looking at every detail. Because we’ve built this brand, which is built on the music. It’s sacred to me.
How is preparation going for your Velvet Rodeo Vegas residency?
Lambert: I’m a little scared, which I like, because being nervous means I have such a passion for what I do. This weekend when I’m off, I’m writing out the set list and getting a feel for where I think it should go. I haven’t even started with wardrobe and all that stuff yet, but the idea of more fringe and rhinestones sounds pretty cool to me.
Are there any Vegas shows you looked to for inspiration?
Lambert: In December a bunch of my road team went with me to see Brooks & Dunn, Shania Twain and George Strait. What I learned from those shows alone was that you’re in Vegas because you built a catalog, so play the songs that people know and love from you. That’s really what I’m sticking with. Sometimes on the road or with new record cycles, we get all wrapped up in our new songs, but there’s a certain amount of trust the fans put in this catalog. But there are also so many more shows I want to see, Silk Sonic being one of them. I’m coming for you, Bruno. I also want to see Céline [Dion] whenever she comes back.
With so much going on, how have you learned to strike a balance?
Lambert: There were times when I was younger and running a hundred miles an hour, getting exhausted. I would spread myself too thin and not be my best at what I’m supposed to be doing. She would rope me in on that, which I think is important. She’d be like, “You’re doing this to yourself. Stop saying yes to stuff. You need to rest.” When I go on a camping trip or she goes to Mexico for a few days, both of us come back with epiphanies about more things because we took a minute away.
Kraft: A manager is not just representing the artist; there are moments when you have to represent the career. You may have to make a decision when it’s good for the career, maybe not so good for the person. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I will look out for her as a human being first. But there are moments when, good or bad, the career has to take precedence, and you just have to be willing to gamble it all and say, “I know this is so important. I wouldn’t make you do it if it wasn’t.”
Miranda, you recently released the song “Y’all Means All” for Netflix’s Queer Eye. You’ve openly supported the LGBTQ+ community and your brother Luke, who is gay. Did you and Marion have conversations about your approach to that?
Lambert: There’s always conversation about something that could potentially… everything has a backfire of some sort these days, [so it’s about] just making sure we’re on the same page and how we message that. There wasn’t a question in the world about doing it, it was just, “How’s the best way for us to do this? Well, guess what — a song, because that’s what I do.” [My 2011 song] “All Kinds of Kinds” started that ball rolling for me. I didn’t think I wasn’t saying something, but now looking back, one song wasn’t saying a lot. I didn’t realize I could’ve helped more or done a better job at saying more, even if it’s through my music. I love Queer Eye, and when [Marion] called and asked about it, I thought it was perfect.
You’ve worked together for almost two decades. What’s your secret to a long-term working relationship?
Lambert: I think just sticking it out with people and believing in each other. I never signed a contract. I’ve been with my team, like Marion and my agent, [WME’s] Joey Lee, since I was 19 years old, and I don’t have a contract with any of them. Maybe since then I have certain things with companies, but not with the person, because we choose each other every day. And then we all decide that if we don’t choose each other anymore, then we shouldn’t be together. It’s a marriage in a way, and it’s important to have that commitment and not to bail when times are tough and nothing’s happening, and to have the days when you can not only celebrate something great happening but sit on my porch and she cries her butt off because entertainer of the year finally happened. That’s years of history that just came to fruition.
Kraft: I couldn’t put it any better.
Lambert: Nailed it.
Kraft: Go Team Lambert.