The eighth annual CMA Touring Awards were held Tuesday night at Nashville’s Marathon Music Works ,where the men and women who work tirelessly behind-the-scenes within the country music industry were celebrated.
Tony Conway, founder/owner of Conway Entertainment Group/Ontourage Management, was presented with this year’s CMA Touring Lifetime Achievement Award by Marty Stuart. “The beauty of Tony is, his handshake is better than a pile of contracts,” Stuart said. “And that’s the truth. If Tony gives you his word on something, it’s done.”
Conway’s current and past clients serve as a who’s who in the country community. The first artist Conway ever signed was George Strait and he currently works with Alabama, Lorrie Morgan and Randy Travis. Conway has also helped guide the early careers of the Dixie Chicks, Jason Aldean, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert and Trisha Yearwood, among others. In a heartfelt acceptance speech, Conway praised his colleagues and the Nashville community for being “one big family.”
“Sometimes when I talk about who I used to represent or who I do represent, they think I’m making all this up,” Conway said from the stage with a laugh. “It sounds like a dream and it is. It’s true. I want to thank everybody in this room: We are one big family and it takes professionals and people that love the business as much as I do to pull it off. I work with the best of the best.”
Conway’s acceptance speech was peppered with humorous stories of working with Willie Nelson on the inaugural Farm Aid in 1985, doing a trapeze act hanging from a helicopter to win $500 from Neil Young and Waylon Jennings, and his time working with the Highwaymen. Two of his life-changing accomplishments, though, were working with Garth Brooks from the beginning of his career as an agent and promoter and eventually becoming the Canadian and Northeast promoter for Brooks, as well as reinventing Fan Fair to become today’s CMA Fest, the largest four-day country festival in North America with its own ABC television network special.
In an interview with Billboard ahead of receiving his award, Conway looked back nostalgically on his career and said the CMA Lifetime Achievement honor was a stamp of approval on what he’s done in his career to help the touring industry. For 33 years, Conway was an agent before deciding to break into management in 2009. He started his career in 1976 with Buddy Lee Attractions, eventually rising to CEO and co-owner of the company by 1998. He says his secret to career longevity is simply the love for what he does.
“It was something that I always wanted to do when I was a young guy,” he tells Billboard. “My family tells me that when I was 12-years-old, I told them I wanted to be a concert promoter in the music business. I’ve been interested all my life: That was definitely what I was going to do — no question. If you love what you do, and you learn every facet of that business, it just motivates you to keep going and it motivates you to help others.”
Conway is credited with resuscitating Fan Fair in the late ’90s when the festival was in jeopardy and most of the CMA Board members were ready to close its doors at the old Nashville Fairgrounds. He worked with Jerry Bradley to convince the rest of the board that the festival could be improved and made better for country fans and the industry.
“I went to every one of the board members individually, and explained what I was doing and [how Fain Fair could] get bigger and better. When it came time for a vote that year, they voted to go ahead, give it a shot and gave me enough rope to hang myself,” he says. The festival relocated to downtown Nashville in 2001 where Conway served as executive producer of the event for 11 years. Since then, CMA Fest has raised over $27 million, which is invested in music education programs across the U.S. by the CMA.
Ten years ago Conway opened his own company, Conway Entertainment Group/Ontourage Management where he serves as manager to country legend Randy Travis. While Conway has known Travis since the singer’s early days as a cook and dishwasher at the Nashville Palace, he began working with him following his stroke. Conway was instrumental in putting together a tribute concert at Bridgestone Arena with 30 acts which helped generate income for his client.
“I realized after talking to him that there was a lot more to Randy Travis. Travis was a fighter and he was going to be able to walk and he was going to be able to write and he was going to be able to talk. He was going to be able to sing,” Conway says. “We are getting ready to release some music that was prerecorded prior to Randy’s stroke. It’ll be brand new Randy Travis music released in the first quarter. We’ll also [release] recorded gospel songs that Randy did on Feb. 21. Everybody told me that there’s nothing you can do to generate income for him, and [we] proved them wrong.”
Conway has worked with countless artists over the years and the honor bestowed upon him by the CMA with its Lifetime Achievement Award has only emboldened the manager to continue to chase his dreams.
“I have lots left to do and I love trying to create something new that’s never been done before. I think I might have one or two more of those in me before I stop,” he says. “I’m very blessed. I’ve had an amazing career. I’ve traveled all over the world, booked tours all over the world. I get up every day and I’m excited to go in and go to work for the clients that I represent.”
A list of all the winner’s at the 2019 CMA Touring Awards is below.
Business Manager of the Year
Mary Ann McCready – Flood, Bumstead, McCready & McCarthy, Inc.
Coach/Truck Driver of the Year
Larry Phye, Jr. – Chris Stapleton
Front of House Engineer of the Year
Arpad Sayko – Chris Stapleton
Lighting Director of the Year
Chris Reade – Dierks Bentley
Manager of the Year
Mary Hilliard Harrington – Red Light Management
Tour Manager of the Year
Todd Bunch – Eric Church
Monitor Engineer of the Year
Bryan “Opie” Baxley – Kenny Chesney
Production Manager of the Year
Jay Ballinger – Dierks Bentley
Publicist of the Year
Tyne Parrish – The GreenRoom
Talent Agent of the Year
Jay Williams – WME
Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year
Louis Messina – Messina Touring Group
Tour Videographer/Photographer of the Year
Jill Trunnell – Kenny Chesney
Tour Video Director of the Year
Chris Jones – Eric Church
Touring Musician of the Year
Wyatt Beard – Kenny Chesney
Venue of the Year
Bridgestone Arena – Nashville, TN