Cris Lacy was an A&R exec long before she knew such a job existed. Growing up in Chesapeake, Va., she would sit on the front porch of her grandfather’s house and sing country music with her family. “I found a tape a few months back, and I was correcting my grandfather on his diction on ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ That was probably foreshadowing,” says Lacy with a laugh. She was 4 years old at the time.
Flash forward 41 years and Lacy is still telling singers what to do. But now it’s as senior vp A&R at Warner Music Nashville, a role to which she was promoted last September after over a decade at WMN. Currently she works with artists like Ashley McBryde, Blake Shelton, Devin Dawson, Chris Janson, Dan + Shay and Warner Bros.’ latest signing, Kenny Chesney. The lattermost artist is a dream come true for Lacy, who has known Chesney since she was a young receptionist at Tom Collins Publishing and he was a developing writer-artist signed to Tree Publishing.
More than two decades into his career, much of it spent at Sony Music Nashville, Chesney signed with Warner in January, due in part to his relationship with Lacy. His first Warner Bros. Records single, “Get Along,” is No. 7 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs and No. 57 on the Hot 100 dated June 9, while his new album, Songs for the Saints, is due July 27.
Lacy, who sources say is being groomed to succeed current president/CEO John “Espo” Esposito, is held in high regard at the label. “When I joined the Warner Nashville family in 2009, I told [executive vp A&R] Scott Hendricks and Cris Lacy that A&R would lead the company,” says Esposito. “In those nearly nine years, I have been nothing but amazed and inspired by Cris’ unique musical sensibilities,” he says, calling her “as artist-sensitive as anyone I have ever met.”
Sitting on the floor and sipping water in the Warner Bros. offices on Nashville’s Music Row, Lacy spoke to Billboard about Chesney, country’s current competitive A&R landscape and the lack of diversity both in A&R and country-radio airplay for women executives and artists.
Billboard: You spent many years as a publisher. How did that help you when you switched to label A&R?
Cris Lacy: I learned how to articulate constructive criticism with songs. It’s really difficult if you’re speaking with a writer to tell them something doesn’t feel right, but not be able to tell them what it is. The writers that I had the privilege to work with taught me the craft of songwriting, through the way that they wrote, but also through conversations. So that’s something that I use every day when I listen to songs. [WB] is about 50-50 in terms of writer/artists who write their own material. If we don’t have [songs], we die. I listen to hundreds of songs a week and it’s not lost on me that it’s really, really hard to write a great song.
Over the years, even after you arrived at Warner in 2005, you would send Kenny Chesney songs. Did he ever cut anything you sent?
He cut “I Melt,” which ended up being a No. 1 record for Rascal Flatts, before they cut it. As a publisher, I would call him with one song maybe every six months to a year and he would say, “I’m over at Carissa’s Antiques, come over and meet me and play it for me in my truck.”
Any truth to the rumor that you had a shrine to Kenny in your office?
In the corner of my desk, when I thought there was a possibility someday that he might want to work with someone else [besides Sony]. I’m sure people walked into the office and thought, “Why does she have a picture of Kenny Chesney in the corner of her desk?” One, I wanted that to happen so badly. And two, I always thought, if I take a song and give it to one of my newer artists, is this gonna give that artist the platform that Kenny Chesney has? And I would use that as a litmus test. I finally gave up and took the shrine down. I thought, “It’s not gonna happen. I need to stop with this pipe dream.” Then two months later, he showed back up [and was available].
You signed one of this year’s most critically-acclaimed acts, Ashley McBryde. What did you see in her?
I just saw the truth. I’d seen her about a year and a half before [at] a showcase. She sang her ass off, she was funny, she was self-deprecating. She was so entertaining, but it just felt like there was more to her than these songs that looked like maybe they were crafted to be on country radio. And I remember thinking, “Her personality is so great and she’s so truthful, I wish the music felt like that.” Then she came back with new music. I [listened to] “Girl Going Nowhere” on my front porch and I just broke down. I called Espo and said, “Okay, we have to do this.”
It’s a very competitive time on Music Row right now for signing acts. Why is that?
Partially, it’s that country is no longer as much of a niche [genre]. It’s the catch-all. It’s folks that have a folk background, people that used to be in the rock world, singer-songwriters and traditional core-country radio. It’s also competitive because the internet is making it really easy to see what songs are talking back, what artists are selling tickets and resonating, and what their consumption looks like. The artists that are coming to town are so much more developed. I don’t know if it’s because they’ve had recording equipment their whole lives and they can video themselves and they can learn things that we couldn’t learn because we were recording onto a cassette. I don’t think I’ve seen a bad artist in years. Finding a needle in a haystack, like going to a show and seeing something nobody else has seen, is really rare.
Who is someone you passed on signing that you regret?
LANCO. We really liked them, we just thought it wasn’t ready yet. We met Brett Young when he just came to town and thought he was good, but thought there was still some time for him to develop. Well, he developed really quickly. He started writing great songs really quickly, and I wasn’t there for that. But somebody else was and they signed him.
With Devin Dawson, you released several tracks and remixes ahead of the album and before sending a single to radio. Is that something you’re moving more toward?
We wanted to build a story for radio. We’re using [streaming and satellite] platforms to get people interested. Now they’ve heard five songs that make them want to buy a ticket. And we’re funding that tour. We’re doing that with all of our artists now. [New Warner Music Group CEO] Max Lousada has this “more is more” [theory] — Give the fans more things that they want. You have to keep re-engaging them. Terrestrial radio can be working one song, SiriusXM can be playing two, Spotify can be playing a totally different one, so you’re getting all of these impressions that really give consumers a great rounded picture of who this artist is.
Why are there so few female A&R executives?
I don’t know. I think women are very empathetic and very nurturing, and those are things that you need in an A&R person. I don’t know if that’s a gender thing, but it took me a long time to trust myself to sit in that room and look at someone who had 72 No. 1 records and say, “My opinion is as valuable as yours.” I don’t know if as women, it takes us longer to be confident in our opinions. I needed to have the confidence to step forward.
Country radio is still reluctant to play female artists. Does that affect who you sign?
Not at all. I want to sign great female artists whether they fit on radio or don’t fit on radio. If you sign a female artist like Kacey Musgraves, she’s doing great, but there’s not an unrealistic expectation that every song she puts out is going to go No. 1 at radio. As long as the artist has the same expectation that you have that you’re working together to build a career. But the music has to be great.
What happens when the music isn’t great?
It’s heartbreaking for me. It takes so long to get music recorded and artists put every piece of themselves into it. It makes my stomach hurt and I lose sleep over it. [After discussing], if the artist [still] says, “This is me. I’m willing to live or die by this music,” then I respect that. They are the ones that have to live with it and sing it every night. So at that point, we go after it. Let’s put a couple things out at streaming or let’s see if [Sirius]XM will play a few things. Let’s work on some alternative marketing things. It’s their dream and that’s what we’re here to support.