This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Kirt Webster, president/CEO, Webster Public Relations.
Kirt Webster could go head-to-head with any entertainment publicist in the world.
His rapport with his clients—many of whom have been with his Nashville-based public relations firm for over a decade, and with media gatekeepers--is striking
Though the 41-year-old does his most effective work behind the scenes, and it is his strategic acumen and passion for country music that impresses his clients, and his media contacts, Webster harks back to the days when press agents brandished the verbal and protective skills of marital matchmakers.
Still Webster has helped lead Nashville’s public relations sector toward a more national direction. In the mid-90s after he arrived in Music City from Arizona, he realized how heritage or legendary artists, lacking radio support for their new recordings, remained effective as marketing vehicles.
As a result, Webster and his team of 10 work with an impressively large and diverse roster that includes such veteran acts as Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr., Kenny Rogers, Big & Rich, Kid Rock, Janie Fricke, the Oak Ridge Boys, Gene Watson, Don Williams, Brenda Lee, Crystal Gayle, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sam Moore, Kenny G., and KC and The Sunshine Band; and such emerging acts as Callie Twisselman, Curtis Braly, Blackberry Smoke, Blackjack Billy, and LOCASH.
Webster Public Relations also has a sizeable corporate clientele list that includes: The Country Music Cruise, Soul Train Cruise, Flower Power Cruise, Tree Town Music Festival, Muskogee Music Festival, Wild West Comedy Festival, Bear Family Records, and APA.
The company offers expertise in marketing, communications, artist/career development, and public relations. It will create and carry out strategies for tour and music release campaigns. It also provides media training, and crisis management for artists, as well as media services for music festivals and cruises for which the company can act as sole producer or serve as consultants.
When you were honored last year with the Board of Directors Award by the Nashville Association of Talent Directors at its annual gala, you spoke of the camaraderie of the Nashville community. The notion of being a tight-knit family.
Absolutely. Nashville is a big city, but it’s a very small community. We don’t always get along. We don’t always appreciate deals that are cut by our competitors, but when it’s all said and done, we are a big family.
Back in the day handshakes meant something. Family meant something. Today, people want contracts. Everybody is out for themselves. If I can bring the grouping of clients that I have together, and create a huge camaraderie with all of legendary acts and, with some of the emerging acts that we work with....
Give me an example of that camaraderie.
Well, you look at Big & Rich’s success today. John Rich lives by the same value of, “It’s a family, this business.” Big Kenny is out there saying, “Love everybody. C’mon, let’s be a family. Let’s treat everybody good.” You look at them, and as well there are other people today that still have Top 10 records, and have had for the past decade, and have been out there for 30 years, and are our clients, they all live by the same (family) thought process. That’s what I think that country music has always been known for, and that’s why I think country music still resonates today across the world. It is because of what it stands for.
You have a significant roster. You recently hired two new staffers, former Essential Broadcast Media publicist Amanda French Clark, and Scott Adkins, former dir. of publicity at Kaleidoscope Media.
The blessing is that there are 10 of us in the office that do publicity.
Amanda is based in Lexington, Kentucky.
Her and Nick Wade both. There are two (publicists) in Kentucky that I have hired. The blessing is finding good people. Finding people who love the music as much as I do, and that want to have growth with what we do.
Am I correct that 70% of your artist roster are heritage country acts and 25% are emerging acts?
Yes, correct. I love, love, love representing the legends of the format.
Among your roster list are corporate clients--cruises and music festivals.
Yes. We do corporates and festivals, and things of that nature. How we break that down is that everybody in our office is pretty much specialized. When I hire them we find out what their strengths are. For instance, Caitlin DeForest (publicity and events manager), who has been with me close to four years now, Caitlin loves festivals. She loves rock. That’s the music that she listens to. She loves clients that have a beginning, and an end. Meaning she knows that when she takes on a client what the expectations and the needs are. She wants to achieve those and more, and be done with it.
Festival duties for a publicist are over at the closing night curtain. Then it’s onto the next year. The same with cruises.
Correct. I recently went on The Country Music Cruise with Kenny Rogers, and the Oak Ridge Boys—our clients—as well as 20 artists including Mel Tillis, and Randy Owen of Alabama, and Kathy Mattea. We represent the cruise as a whole. We have since announced the 2017 lineup, and now we will start the cycle all over. But the 2016 cruise had a close to it.
[More than a dozen country stars will perform on the 2017 Country Music Cruise when it sails through the Caribbean from Jan. 27th through Feb. 3rd, 2017. Vince Gill leads the lineup with a special appearance, and the party continues with Charley Pride, the Oak Ridge Boys, Brenda Lee, Lee Greenwood, Tanya Tucker, Moe Bandy & Joe Stampley, Jo-El Sonnier, Sylvia, Deborah Allen and Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys aboard Holland America’s MS Oosterdam from Tampa to Key West, Cozumel and Costa Maya.]
Do you have much competition for clients in Nashville?
There are some great publicists in town. A couple of people that have worked for me have started their own companies like Ebie McFarland. Ebie worked for me close to 4 ½ years and (as EB Media) she represents George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, and Darius Rucker. She has a really nice roster. I’m proud of her. It’s like raising your children, and seeing them go off and have success.
Veteran Nashville publicist Martha Moore (of so much MOORE media) has worked with you on projects.
And she still does. Martha still does a lot of projects with us. And then I’ve got Don Grubbs (Absolute Publicity) who worked with me for several years. He represents Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Mel Tillis, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Bellamy Brothers and some great clients. He learned from me that with the legends they will always have people that want to talk to them because of their history. So instead of him chasing hot new acts as well, he’s been able to sign some of these legendary acts like Ricky Skaggs. That’s his roster. I’m very proud of him too. That’s another one of those kids that came out of my school. That came from my roster of staffers that are successful. Those are the good things that I am proud of as part of my 20 years in the business. That I have spawned a couple of great people who worked for me that have launched their own companies and are doing well.
You came to Nashville in 1995 at age 20 from the small Arizona town of Gilbert within the Phoenix suburbs. A small farm community. Did you grow up a country music fan?
A country fan was all that I was. I am a child prodigy of the ‘80s era of country music.
You are from a blue collar family. Your mother was a hairdresser and later worked at the USPS, and your father worked at a defense assembly plant. A hardcore country music household?
Oh yes. We listened to KNIX when I was a young boy; when the station was owned by Buck Owens. Then KMLE Country came in as a secondary station in the Phoenix market. You flipped back-and-forth on the dial to what you wanted to hear. This was before satellite radio. This was when you went to concert to concert to concert because that’s what you loved to do.
Were you shitkicker?
No. I was probably a Wal-Mart cowboy. You go and buy the boots. You want a pair of jeans, but not necessarily Wranglers. But when you love the music, you love the music.
Did you hang out at the local country bars?
No. I was too young. Toolies Country was the big nightclub when I was growing up. There was also Grand Central Station (in Tempe) which with Toolies brought in all of the shows.
Did you attend rodeos?
Sure, I’d go to the rodeo to see what the entertainment was, but I wouldn’t go to the rodeo to watch the rodeo.
Why didn’t you go to college?
I don’t know. I think that I had my mind set on working in country music and I was going to do what I wanted to do. I moved to Nashville in 1995 with the hopes and dreams to work for Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton.
The two central figures in country music at the time.
Absolutely. I was like, “I am going to Nashville and this is what I’m going to do.” I came to town. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t go to Belmont. I didn’t go to Vanderbilt. Never worked for a record company.
How did you get to Nashville, and what was your first impression?
I had a little Chevy S-10 Blazer, and I and drove 28 or 29 hours straight from Arizona. All the way across (Interstate) 40 to Nashville. I was so excited to get here. When I got here I was so exhausted that I got a hotel room off Dickerson Pike (the prostitution hotbed located in East Nashville), not knowing what that area was known for, and not knowing that I could have woken up and my car could have been gone. But I slept, and then I found myself an apartment to stay. The rest was history. Then it was, “Well what am I going to do?” That was January 5th 1995. Off and running, I went to CRS, the country radio seminar at the Opryland Hotel and I did everything I could to network there, and make things happen.
Here’s a kid out of Gilbert, Arizona trying to break into Music City.
Yeah, and this is really what happened. So I moved here, and I cold called. I really started cold calling people to try to get an opportunity, and I just started building the company. My first client was Janie Fricke. Janie, Carl Perkins and Freddy Fender all signed with me the same week when I first started cold calling out. I worked with Freddy until he passed. I worked with Carl until he passed. And Janie is still a client today.
How did you come to represent Hank Williams Jr.?
Fast forward four years later to 1999. Kathy Gangwisch, a very prominent publicist in Nashville who also had an office in Kansas City, represented Hank Williams Jr., the Oak Ridge Boys, the Gatlins, Don Williams etc. I got a phone call that she was going to be retiring because she had Crohn's disease, and that her clients were going to be notified the following day. So the next day after I knew that her clients had been notified, I cold called (Hank William Jr.’s then manager) Merle Kilgore. I said, “I would like to have a meeting with you.” This was on a Tuesday....
You drove out to see him in his office in Paris, Tennessee?
No, no, no. Wednesdays and Thursdays he spent in Nashville. So I called him on a Tuesday, and he said, “I’m in town on Wednesday and Thursday. How about 2 o’clock on Thursday?” I said, “Sure.” So I drove over, and I met him. When I walked into his office his first words were, “What can I do you for?” I said, “I’m your new publicist.” He said, “Oh, have a seat.” Immediately the conversation went to, “Do you know that I co-wrote ‘Ring Of Fire?’ Did you know that I was June and Johnny’s best man? Did you know that I wrote ‘Wolverton Mountain?’” Literally for four hours we stayed talking, talking about him double dating with Elvis. At 6 P.M., he asked if I wanted to have dinner. I said sure. We went to a Mexican restaurant. The mariachi band played “El Rancho Grande.” He didn’t like the song. He said, “Play ‘Ring of Fire.’” They didn’t know it. He gave them a twenty, and sent them on their way and told them to learn the song.
It was a funny moment.
He then said to me, “Can you come to Kentucky tomorrow? Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith are opening for Hank Jr., and I want to introduce you.” So I drove to Louisville, Kentucky to the Kentucky State Fair. Hank pulled up in a limo. I was waiting out back. I didn’t have a pass or anything. Merle saw me, and waved me over. I went on the bus. Merle said, “Hank, this is your new publicist.” Hank said “What does he do?” Merle said, “He gets you in the papers, and things, brother.” Hank said, “Oh,” and then turned around, and walked to the back of the bus, and that was it. All of a sudden Merle said, “Send me a bill. Send me a statement. You are our guy.” That was 16 years ago.
Hank Jr. has a new album “It’s About Time.” He recently performed his single “Are You Ready for the Country” on “The Tonight Show,” and he shared the stage with Whoopi Goldberg on “The View” for a duet performance of “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up in Jesus (God’s Got It).”
That’s one of the press moments that’s going to be talked about forever. People are asking, “How did that happen? You had someone from the far left and someone from the far right coming together for music.” You had someone from the far left and someone from the far right coming together for music.
In a recent interview Hank said he didn’t care about politicians. That they are all snakes.
He said in USA Today that he didn’t give a shit (about politicians). It’s all about reinvention (for legendary artists). I think that the key thing with Dolly, Kenny, Hank, and some of these artists, is that they know what exposure is good exposure, and they know what overexposure is.
At 77, Kenny Rogers is now planning a retirement tour?
There’s really nothing that I can say about the retirement because we haven’t announced the dates or what the plans are yet only because they are putting the final touches to it through his current management Ken Levitan (Vector Management).
But the talk is that this is his final tour.
Absolutely. We would announce it as a farewell tour, but we are still defining where he will be playing, how long will the tour go on, and what that means. There are still a lot of unknowns. We got through the Christmas tour, which he has done every year for the past 30 years, to great numbers and sold out houses. Now we are trying to plan what this farewell tour is going to look like. Who is going to be on the bill with him? How many dates are we going to do? What kind of markets are we going do? What venues? There are a lot of things that are still up in the air that even all of us on the team have yet to been told about.
Last month Dolly Parton turned 70.
Still a force to be reckoned with.
She seems to be everywhere. Her movie “Coat Of Many Colors” was a ratings success for NBC-TV. She dueted with Don Henley on his current “Cass County” album. And she’s on the cover of the 2016 Official Tennessee Vacation Guide. At her age, she should be slowing down, but that isn’t happening. I know she personally oversees all aspects of her career.
Dolly Parton is one of the most active clients on our roster. Not for her superstardom, but who she is, and her make-up as a person. There is nobody that I know that works harder than Dolly Parton as a client. People think, “Yes she’s a star. Does she have to work that hard?” She works that hard because she wants to. She works that hard because that’s her drive and, to your point, Dolly Parton makes all her own decisions. We don’t give her advice. We give her information.
She’s very meticulous with details of her career.
Yes. I’ve been fortunate to be part of her team over the past decade. Everything that we do with Dolly Parton is strategized, strategized, strategized. Go back to the drawing board, and then execute. There is never a rush to judgment. There is never a, “We have to make a decision today or it goes away” moment. It’s, “Well if that’s the case, let it go away.” She makes sure that it’s the right decision for her brand. It’s actually “brands” because there’s Dolly Parton the musician. There’s Dolly Parton the philanthropist with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. There’s Dolly Parton the business woman with the Dollywood theme park. There’s Dolly Parton the actress and screenwriter with “Coat of Many Colors,” and “Nine To Five” and all of the things that she has been part of.
And there’s Dolly Parton the songwriter.
Dolly Parton the songwriter. You are exactly right. So there are requests that come in for her from all of those sectors, but there are still only 24 hours in a day for her to choose what direction that she is going in. So we assemble all that information. We then send it over to her office. She still does not do email. Everything is done via fax. She has a manager Danny Nozell (at CTK Management). Danny has really changed the landscape of her music and touring over the past 12 years since he’s been with her. She wasn’t touring prior to working with Danny.
Dolly’s career went into a lull prior to her Sugar Hill Record releases, and starting with “Little Sparrow” in 2001, she returned to the spotlight. She’s one of the few veteran artists to return bigger than ever.
Oh yeah. And still to this day she’s bigger than ever. I was fortunate to travel with her through the European tour in 2014. Everywhere we went, it was unbelievable the audience response. We were selling out arenas. Two nights at the O2 etc.
That’s a market Dolly had been away from.
She hadn’t been there prior to 2006. She went in 2006 and prior to that she hadn’t gone in years. During the last couple of tours that we have been part of over the past 10 years, traveling around the country with an artist where age doesn’t allow her to get on the radio a lot of times, she still has everything going for her because it’s her brand. It’s not about any one piece of Dolly Parton, if that makes sense.
For decades country music artists were quarantined by national media. With the emergence of new country in recent years, country acts are attracting the attention of leading national shows. They still may only want Eric Church, Kenny Chesney, or Toby Keith. But, if only because the staff of those shows have grown up with country music, veteran country stars are also having similar opportunities. That accessibility was not a given 20 years ago.
But let’s face the facts. The accessibility still isn’t there across the board. It is a ratings game at television. They still want the hottest newest acts that are going to garner ratings. The blessing of what I have learned to do with my career, and in my business representing legends and heritage acts, is that every one of them on our roster has a story. Almost every one of these artists that we represent has already been on those shows in the past. So their whole intent is not to chase that new opportunity that is there. It’s about doing the things that they want to do, when they want to do them. It’s understanding how things evolve and change; whether it is being at radio, print media or TV. You find a lot of (former TV) bookers are now executive producers. If you pitch the producers, some of them don’t have a clue of who some of the clients that I pitch are. But when they take it to their pitch meetings, the executive producer will be like, “Absolutely, I remember.”
Here’s a great example. Woody Fraser is the executive producer of “The Home and Family Show” on the Hallmark channel. He’s been around forever with the likes of “Good Morning America,” “The Dick Cavett Show,” and “The Mike Douglas Show” and so on. I have pitched him on several people in the past that he absolutely had on during his Mike Douglas days; that he had on “Good Morning America.” That he will immediately book on “The Home and Family Show” because he understands their name value, and what they will bring to his show.
Obviously, there are relationships of some sort between him and the legendary artists.
Absolutely. Where some times you go to show that have executive producers on these other current shows that are younger; that have never heard these artist names; and it then takes showing a clip of that client for them to realize their relevancy. So the game in TV and the media is still a cat-and-mouse game as to what is important and what is not important. “Who is going to get us ratings?” When you represent a superstar then the producers are coming to you for that client. Then it’s all about what fits in the schedule. Then you deal with the politics of what shows will follow.
Your clients do regularly appear on leading national TV shows Including: “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “This Morning,” “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night,” and “The Late Show”; celebrity-based shows like “The Chew,” “The View,” and “The Talk”; and even on the gossip-driven shows like “TMZ Live,” “E! News,” and “Extra.”
Absolutely (laughing). Again, we are living in a reality-based world in the press.
And a 24/7 news cycle as well.
Absolutely. Years ago you could hold back news. Not anymore. Yeah. When I started 20 years ago the reality was that a photo pass meant something. When people called for a photo pass it was because they wanted to photograph your client for a magazine or a newspaper and you tried to say, “Okay for the first three songs,” because that way you knew that your client looked the best. They weren’t hot from the lights, and sweat wasn’t rolling down their faces. You controlled it (the photo shot). Today with iPhones and HD cameras, people buy a front row seat, and they are filming or photographing the entire show. As a publicist you no longer control what images make it onto the internet or make it out to the public world because everybody is a photographer.
That access has also brought an immediate connectivity to fans which are sending photos to their friends or uploading content to their social media.
But as a publicist it is still our job at the end of the day to protect that (artist’s) image. The reality is that some of the images that the fans put up online don’t compliment those artists or those clients. You can’t police it. You can’t tell them to take them down. You try to do your due diligence as much as you can. I would say that if there’s one frustration about our business is that. Back in the day people controlled the image. They knew what photos were being used in newspapers. They knew what photos were being placed because it was the approved artwork.
With the twice-monthly syndicated video segment “The Pickup” that you created last year, you seem to have hit a “sweet spot” at country radio. You noticed that their websites lacked strong content?
[Launched in Jan. 2015, “The Pickup” is currently carried on the sites of about 70 stations around the country, as well as on the U.K. satellite provider SKY Television, and Heartland Network weekly Country Fixprogramming.
In Dec. 2015, Midwest Communications added the program to the sites of 16 of its country stations. It is also on the digital menu for some of Cumulus’ NASH Icon-branded stations, as well as several independent affiliates as WLXO in Lexington, Kentucky.
“The Pickup” crew tapes interviews and footage at industry events in Nashville which is then edited into 5 minute segments that are posted on the first and 15th of each month. The content mix features 70% veteran acts and 30% contemporary artists.] “The Pickup” is a free service. Is it advertising-financed?
Yes. The Country Music Cruise is one of the sponsors, and we have a few others that are coming on board.
Why did you create “The Pickup?”
As we talked about previously, 70% of my clients are legends. Country radio is a very hard format for legendary acts to get played on. I noticed that all of these stations pay homage and all have respect for the legendary artists, but they just don’t necessarily play their new music.
Contemporary country radio stations don’t mind associating with veteran country acts when they are touring. No doubt they are seeking tickets for listener giveaways.
They want the tickets. They want the meet-and-greets, but they won’t necessarily play the new music. So listeners, and the fan base don’t necessarily know that Dolly has new music out in order to go and buy it. I started thinking, “How can I get that news and information out about my clients besides sending out press releases out, and hoping that somebody reads about it? How can I share that news in the artists’ voices themselves, and get the word out; where it’s not a voiceover, and it’s not a DJ talking? It’s the artists themselves talking about what they have going on, and what is important to them.
“The Pickup” is a way of controlling the message as well.
I know where you are going with this and I know what you are saying, but I’ve got (host/writer/producer) Adam Wurtzel who produces pieces. I pretty much give him the creative freedom to produce the best piece for our clients, and well as non-clients.
Basically, you have elbowed your way onto a media platform in which there wasn’t anything substantial previously.
You are exactly right. But if I can finish this thought. I wanted something to be in their voice. I figured out that for a camera crew to go through this expense...Mind you my clients pay me a retainer. So I’m going “They are paying me to create opportunities of exposure. At the same time if I hired somebody in-house that can shoot and edit video it that’s going to cost me X amount thousands of dollars a year. But I am making X amount of dollars a year off of retainers. So it all pays for itself. I need somebody that is going to be able to dial this in.” So we started out a year ago just by putting a thing called “The Pickup” together. Then I said, let’s start soliciting this to radio stations as a free piece that can go on their home page, and let’s see how it goes. If we get 30, 40 or 50 stations I will be happy.” I just want to see what the reaction might be. Well, we got to those numbers, and all of a sudden people started seeing what we were doing and hearing about it. Mind you the Billboard article that recently came out was the first time that my name was attached to the project. I had kept radio silent on purpose.
I don’t want other publicists to feel that it was a competitive thing. I didn't want them to feel that it was only for my clients even though Adam would interview some of Don Grubbs’ clients or some of Ebie’s client or other publicists in town clients I didn’t want them to feel threatened like I was using that to lure their artists into my roster. So I kept my name quiet. All of a sudden the Billboard update came out, and I started getting phone calls from record companies, and people going, “I didn’t know that you controlled the home page content of 70 radio stations. Are these reporting stations? How do we get to be part of this?” I went “Ahhhhh.” The one thing that I didn’t want to be know known for is why people are now calling me.
At the same time “The Pickup” might featuring a new video from one of your clients.
Yes. We created this piece “The Pickup” as an avenue to expose my clients’ new projects, to show the fans and the listeners out there that these legendary names are still current. Still making music. Still touring. If you want to see them, you can still see them at the Opry or on the road or get their new music. That was whole intention and it kind of morphed into what it is now, what it has become. Then the phone started ringing after the Billboard article (last month), “Hey, we need to know a little more about this.” That’s one franchise. For disclosure there’s a second franchise that we launched in the same vein called “The Test Drive”. That’s where we take an artist and they drive up and down Music Row telling their story of their new single or their new album. What they have been up to. We have done it with legendary acts. It really is a way to test new music with the Music Row Radio panel.
Let’s talk about George Jones’ star-studded “No Show” concert at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Nov. 22, 2013 that you helped plan.
I have to say that was a magical night. Nancy Jones, myself and George talked about where would the final show be when he decided to retire, and call it quits. We got with Mike Smardak at Outback Concerts, and we decided that it would be in Nashville. There were so many artists through their career that said that they wished that had sung a song with George Jones or they really wanted to or that was the highlight when they did. George, myself and Nancy said, “Who would we want to come and be part of this extraordinary event?” And George made a list. He said, “Here’s what I want.” So literally took the George Jones’ letterhead to my office. I typed every single letter of people that he wanted to invite. I took them back to the house, and he signed every one of those letters personally. Then we mailed them off saying, “Would you like to be part of the show?”
I assume the response was strongly favorable.
The response, and the reaction was overwhelming. So Nancy said, “Okay, here’s what we are going to do. We have all of these artists. George is going to do X amount of songs. Let’s figure out how we are going to include all of these people and make it work.” So we started mapping it out, and started calling some of the folks back that said they wanted to perform. We asked about this song, and we asked about that song. It was all mapped out. Then, as we got further along in the process. George looked at Nancy and I both, and he said, “You know that I’m not going to be here for this show?” We said, “Oh. c’mon George. Don’t say that.” He said, “Y’all can do all of this work, and keep doing it, but I’m telling you that i am not going to be here for this show.”
He knew his death was imminent?
He knew it. So he says all this to us, and we are saying, “Don’t say that.” So fast forward, and we are asking, “George what do you want to do with these VIPs? We are going to do this meet-and-greet. and we are going to this and that.” He says, “Again guys. I’m telling you that I’m not going to be there, so just plan whatever you gotta plan.”
Over what time period was the planning going on?
We started in September or October (2012) having those conversations. Almost a year prior to the event. It was probably around February (2013) that he kept telling us that he wasn’t going to be there. He said, “I’m not going to be there.” As we know he passed away a few months later (on April 26, 2013).
Then the “No Show” concert became like planning a funeral celebration?
Yeah, essentially that’s how crazy it became. So fast forward to the weekend of his passing. I had been invited to participate in the George W. Bush Library opening in Texas. George [Jones] was in the hospital and I went to see him. I said, “George, I have this opportunity to go and do this, but if you need me I will stay here.” But he said, “Son, go. I’m fine. I am actually getting out of the hospital tomorrow. The doctor told me.” I looked at Nancy, and she says, “He’s getting out.” So I went down to Texas and two nights in, I got a phone call about 10 o’clock at night, and Nancy said, “Big Daddy”—that’s what George always called me--“George isn’t doing so good. If you can get back here it would be a good thing.”
I tried to get a private plane, and I couldn’t because every head of state were all there for the library opening, and all of the FBOs (fixed-base operators) were shut down because of four presidents being in town, and all of this other craziness. So I took the first flight out at 6 A.M. from Dallas, and got back to Nashville. George passed while I was in the air. I had told Nancy that if something happened, “Don’t let anybody in that room.” So when I got to the hospital it was me, her daughter, a few family members, and George in the room. She said, “I haven’t done anything. I’ve told the doctors not to move him, not to do anything until you got here.” When I got there we sort of made the plans, and then we figured out what the next moves were. Curated his funeral celebration. Got that all done and the week after that we had to make a decision. Do we can cancel the show or do we continue the November show? We reached out to Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, George Strait, all of the artists that had committed, and we said, “We want to ask your opinion on this.” Every single artist said, “We will be there. We are going to make this the biggest celebration for George.”
For the show on November 22, 2013 you had over 112 acts appear on one stage. Amazingly, the show ran on time. Everybody got on stage and off-stage in the time that they were allotted.
We more or less told every artist, “Here’s the deal. Every seat is sold out. It’s done. Everybody gets credentials for your spouse and your manager. We don’t have comps. We don’t have seats to put people. Everybody is sharing dressing rooms. We don’t have space for everybody to bring in their bus. So if everybody can work with us we will do the best that we can.” And it was the best night. One artist was quoted as saying that, “This is like an award show without any egos.”
Clearly, you just aren’t representing artists for public relations. Many of your clients like George have been with you for a long period of time. Through bad times, and good times. This must have been a rough time for you.
Any time that there’s a tragedy and you are close to a client, it’s a tough time. I’d known George Jones since I was 16. Nancy Jones gave a backstage pass to come and hang out because I was trying to sneak in backstage to meet the man. And then to get to work with him all those years. To work with Hank Jr. for 16 years. Anytime you are close with these artists and something goes wrong you are personally affected. Randy Travis, I happened to be in Texas with him (in 2013) when he had the heart issue. When the stroke took place. When they had to figure out what was the next move. To bring him to the National Vanderbilt Hospital or keep him in Plano, Texas.
I was there all during that time period.
How is Randy today?
The doctor told us it would be three years before Randy could make a full comeback. Today, it 2 ½ years later. I’ve been out to dinner with him since. I have had conversations with him. I know that we are going to be announcing some things pretty soon on the Randy Travis front that I think that America as well as his fans will be happy to hear.
[In 2013, Randy Travis suffered congestive heart failure and was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy after being admitted to Baylor Heart hospital in Plano, Texas. He suffered a stroke while in the hospital and had surgery to reduce pressure on his brain.]
So Randy is still a client?
Absolutely. We sort of are on a hiatus because he’s not performing but I have a list of people that want to talk to him first, if you will, when he does that first interview on his comeback. But yes, I stay in touch with Mary his wife and Tony Conway, his manager. Every request that we get we communicate to them. We have those conversations. Absolutely.
In 2011, Hank Jr. referred to Adolph Hitler in speaking of President Obama. As a result, ESPN cut his opening song to “Monday Night Football.” A PR nightmare for you?
You know, not really. If you understand that Hank was making an analogy, and understand that he wasn’t pinpointing anything one way or the other. You have clients that are going to say what they believe. Hank Jr. is one of those clients.
Much like Kenny Rogers recently saying, “I like what Donald Trump has to say.”
Yes. You have clients that are going to say what they believe. As a publicist you can advise them as to what would be best for their overall career. They are still going to be themselves. So when Hank made those comments, and it created a controversy, I phoned him and I said, “What do you want to do about this? Everybody is asking for a comment. The following morning on “The View” Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg were the two first people to step up and say, “Wait a minute people. He’s an American. He can say what he wants. At the same time he made it as an analogy. He didn’t call one person or the other.”
That right there made Hank think. Here were two very Liberal women, and he’s a very Conservative man. He said, “These women defended me for what I said based off what the intention was. Everybody wants me on their show. Diane Sawyer has been calling. All of these people have been calling. I don’t want to do any of it. I am going to do that show with them.”
We got on the jet the next morning and we flew to New York City and he appeared on “The View” with those two ladies. When it was done Joy said, “Would you come and do my TV show?" So we stayed and taped her show (“The Joy Behar Show” on HLN), and got on a plane and came home. What I learned also from experience was that Hank didn’t run from his position. He explained his position and he addressed it, where I find some celebrities, ever in the middle of a controversy, they are advised to more or less shut down. Don’t say anything. Let it go away.
The way the news cycle works today ignoring a crisis cranks up the volume of the story.
Exactly. As we learned, it doesn’t go away. So us addressing it directly, it did go away because he said his piece, people saw it and they moved on. It’s no different from a few months ago I got an inquiry from the National Enquirer that “Dolly Parton is dying of cancer, and has kidney stones.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I knew what was going on in her world, and by no means did she have cancer. When I called Danny Nozell, her manager, I said “This is what’s coming out in the Enquirer.” He said, “Hold on let me get DP on the phone.” He calls her and Dolly says, “Okay I had kidney stones. People always wanted to know about that stuff let’s put out a press release, and let’s beat them at their game.” As soon as she put out a press release saying that she’d had kidneys stones, but she does not have cancer the story was a dead issue. We subsequently promoted the (“Coat of Many Colors”) movie, we went to all of these talk shows. Not one brought up that she had had kidney stones because she had already addressed it. It was non-news. If we hadn’t done that, it would have lingered.
In 2012 you sued the Grascals, and the band countersued you. Was it painful going through that kind of drama in the public eye?
It was a learning experience for me. When you are owed money, and you give your heart and soul to a client, you assume that everybody is going to do the right thing. I was told multiple times that I would be paid. I didn’t get paid. So I sued them. They countersued me for ”not paying a charity” for their CD. My argument was I’m not their business manager. I’m not a person who writes their checks. My name has never been on their checking account. So how could I not pay somebody for something that was involved with their record? It all got resolved behind closed doors. Subsequently I have seen them. It’s been hugs and kisses when I’ve seen them at the Opry. There’s no drama.
[The gist of the 2012 dispute was that Webster initially claimed that the Grascals broke a verbal contract. The band countersued saying that Webster had "booked unprofitable shows and used unethical tactics,” which the band states may have included withholding money for CD purchases intended for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Nashville as part of their Cracker Barrel agreement.]
What did you learn from the incident?
What battles to fight in public and what battles to fight behind closed doors.
Considering what transpired do you now work with client contracts?
Nope. To this day, I still don’t have a contract. At the end of the day I love everybody, and I want everybody to do good. For 17 years I had worked in this town, and I didn’t have any drama. That was a learning experience for me because I probably pulled the scab off of the wound by throwing the first punch because I wanted to be paid for all of my efforts and work. It all got resolved but it was done in public forum which, unfortunately. I probably should not have done that. So I learned the hard way from that. But there’s no ill will between either side at this point. So you learn those things but I didn’t change my business practices by any means. I am who I am. I say what I do and I do what I say I’m going to do. So I’ve never needed a contract. To this day I don’t have a contract with any client.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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