Wednesday, August 16, 2017
– Former Country Music Association Executive Director Jo Walker-Meador died Tuesday night in Nashville following a stroke. She was 93.
"Jo was a champion for country music around the world and a groundbreaker for women in the entertainment business," said CMA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Trahern. "On a personal note, I will miss her guidance, humor and friendship. She was the first meeting I set up before I took this job. She taught me lessons in how to gracefully navigate the Board. She was always diplomatic in her storytelling and she had some great ones to share. Over the last six months, she was a little more candid, and I always looked forward to our time together. She will be greatly missed by all. My heart is broken."
Under her leadership, CMA played a key role in expanding worldwide awareness of country. The Country Music Hall of Fame (created in 1961), the CMA Awards (created in 1967 and televised nationally since 1968), the CMA Music Festival (launched as Fan Fair in 1972) and many other initiatives were conceived and launched on her watch.
"No one was researching the demographics of country music listeners until Jo pushed it forward," said Don Nelson, CMA board chair in 1978. "That was a huge help in getting people to realize that listeners to country music cut a broad slice across the station. My station in Indianapolis was the first in country to pick up a buy from Cadillac. When I had that order in my hand, the first person I called was Jo. And within 24 hours, I think every country broadcaster in America knew it - and there were no emails in those days! It was just Jo on the phone."
Her reach extended eventually into international markets too. "Jo was always looking three to five years down the road," Nelson said. "At the birth of CMA, if you thought Country, you thought of Nashville. You certainly didn't think of all the places where the format has since become a success. That didn't just happen by itself. It happened because Jo was pushing for it from Day One."
Born Edith Josephine Denning, the future Jo Walker-Meador was one of 10 children raised on a farm near Orlinda, Tenn. She dreamed of becoming a high school English teacher and girls' basketball coach, but after studying at Lambuth College in Jackson, Tenn., for two years, she transferred to the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville. She paid her way through school by working as a secretary while also taking night classes in typing and shorthand.
After more than four years as Executive Secretary, doing public relations for a gubernatorial candidate, she accepted an offer to become office manager - and the first paid employee - at the fledgling Country Music Association. "I knew nothing about country music," she later admitted in an interview with CountryZone.net. "I knew that Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff were members of the Grand Ole Opry - but I had never been to the Grand Ole Opry."
With the resignation of CMA's founding Executive Director Harry Stone in 1962, she was promoted to take his place. Initially a staff of one, she did whatever had to be done to pursue the best interests of the Association and Country Music. Yet even trivial activities were crucial to empowering her ability to advance the format.
"She is known all over the world," said Tom Collins, CMA Board Chairman in 1979 and 1980. "We've traveled with her in Europe, and people I never even heard of would want to come up and see her. This is why the CMA Jo Walker-Meador International Award is named after her."
The Country Music Hall of Fame, whose existence owes much to Walker-Meador's vision, welcomed her into its pantheon in 1995.
She is survived by her brother Pete Denning, daughter Michelle Walker, and step-children Rob and Karen Meador.