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JO WALKER-MEADOR, RIP
8/16/17

BY HOLLY GLEASON

She had the demeanor of one of Truman Capote’s “Swans,” the dignified New York socialites of a certain age who were so gracious and unflappable. But Jo Walker-Meador, who passed away this morning at 93, was a working-class young woman who took time off from her education to save money for college.

In one of those thankless “entry-level” positions so many women were filling in the ‘50s, Jo Walker excelled, as the Country Music Association’s only full-time employee. When the original director stepped down, no less than Minnie Pearl suggested the newly formed organization give Walker the Executive Director post in 1962. It was a good decision.

Under Walker-Meador’s leadership, the genre quickly expanded. Moving from 81 full-time stations to over 2,400 at the time of her retirement in 1991, country music had become the biggest radio format in America. She helped spearhead a movement to take country music overseas, opening an office in London and paving the way for country artists to tour, building enduring fan communities.

Even more importantly, Walker-Meador was the force behind creating (and building) the Country Music Hall of Fame. To recognize the very best the genre produces, the Hall includes artists, songwriters and business people. Walker-Meador was inducted in 1995.

Walker-Meador mentored, embraced, supported and especially maintained the refinement of a genre often dismissed as “hillbilly.” Under her guidance, she managed CMA Boards of disparate personality, agenda and vision. Somehow during upheaval periods, she managed to maintain cohesion and move the genre forward.

But just as importantly, she made people feel welcome, whether they were superstars like Willie Nelson—whom she watched rise from songwriter for Patsy Cline and Ray Price to failed recording artist to Outlaw icon—and Dolly Parton—a songwriter who teamed with Porter Wagoner and went on to be an actress, activist and ambassador for East Tennessee—or unlikely outsiders like Lyle Lovett, whose Texas country built on jazz, Western and Texas distinct singer/songwriters. Second generation stars Pam Tillis, Hank Williams, Jr, Carlene Carter, Lorrie Morgan and Rosanne Cash, and mainstream breakouts from Garth Brooks, George Strait and Reba McEntire to Faith Hill, were all seen in an individual light.

Walker had the rudder during identity crises, including The New York Times’ 1985 pronouncement that country music was dead, the post-“Urban Cowboy” pop fall-out, the scruffy songwriter-driven Outlaws, the return of traditionalists, the alternative credibility scare and every color in between. She loved all, she mitigated much—and she kept the genre growing.

When Columbia Nashville had a bookish Brown University grad who’d lived all over the world and came from the D.C. folk clubs, she and CMA Awards producer Irving Waugh came to New York’s Bottomline to figure out what to do. Impressed by her verve and intelligent lyrics, she wow’ed the audience in the first year, truculently skewering her fate with “Opening Act” all by herself. Charmed when she had an actual hit single, they allowed her to bring her band and perform the Cajun-steeped “Down at the Twist & Shout” the next year.

Mary Chapin Carpenter was nothing like a Barbara Mandrell, a Loretta Lynn or a Tammy Wynette, yet Walker-Meador’s faith in the buoyant songwriter was life-changing. Her second CMA performance was enough to convince Tisha Fein and Walter Miller to book the first-time nominee on the Grammys to perform the same song with Louisiana’s BeauSoleil.

For a woman who’d only heard church music, whose family didn’t own a radio, she was an amazing advocate for artists. She was also an unstoppable champion for a genre and industry that had perception obstacles, less access to the media centers and the bias of sophisticated people everywhere.

Sometimes the ones with the biggest impact aren’t the people banging the drum, shouting from the rooftops or surging ahead. Jo Walker-Meador brought a Jackie Kennedy Onassis refinement to how she worked for country music; juxtaposing expectation with its antithesis. Without her, who knows what would—or would not—have happened.


**Photo Credit: Beth Gwinn / CMA