Beloved throughout and beyond the world of Country Music, former CMA 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.”

Born Edith Josephine Denning, the future Jo Walker-Meador was one of 10 children raised on a farm near Orlinda, Tennessee. She dreamed of becoming a high school English teacher and girls’ basketball coach, but after studying at Lambuth College in Jackson, Tennessee, 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 to the president of Crescent Amusement, a period of doing public relations for Tennessee State Attorney General G. Edward Friar’s run for governor and a brief spell as office manager for Gold Hill Food Corp., 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.”

She learned the territory quickly. 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 was very good at being able to get input from a lot of people and use it,” recalled J. William Denny, who served as CMA Board President in 1966 and Chairman in 1975. “Dealing with a big board is a special skill, there’s no doubt about it, because you have a lot of bosses. Jo had the ability to put all of their strength to CMA’s advantage. I wouldn’t say the organization was built around her, but in effect I suppose it was.”

“Jo did everything from organizing Board meetings to making coffee for them,” added Ed Benson, who was hired at CMA in 1979 and held the office of Executive Director from 1992 through 2005. “She was this marvelous hybrid of a secretary and a support assistant while also evolving the organization.”

“She amazed me because she was able to steer a meeting by quietly sitting there and basically not saying a heck of a lot,” said Don Nelson, CMA Board Chairman in 1978. “That’s a huge talent, to let other people take the lead but still be the one to keep it all on track.”

“She would sit in the Board meetings, figuring out what CMA needed to do and who might be most likely to agree with her,” Benson said. “Then she’d talk to one of them. They would say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure, Jo.’ Then she’d talk with another one, and he’d say the same thing. And she’d answer, ‘Well I talked to So-and-So, and he really liked the idea.’ She had this crafty way of convincing people to support what she knew was best. When some of them found out later that she’d done it, they almost chuckled about it.”

Under her leadership, CMA played a critical role in expanding worldwide awareness of Country Music. 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. Lower-profile but effective initiatives also served the mission, from combating music piracy to advancing the brand in the media and throughout the corporate world.

“No one was researching the demographics of Country Music listeners until Jo pushed it forward,” Nelson said. “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.”

“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.”

Honors and accolades came to Walker-Meador up to and beyond her retirement as CMA Executive Director in 1991. These included the Metronome Award, presented by the City of Nashville each year to the person who had done the most to further its recognition as an entertainment center (1970), election to the Board of Governors of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce (1977), the Academy of Country Music’s Jim Reeves Memorial Award in recognition of her role in establishing CMA’s London office and ongoing dedication to Country Music (1983) and election as the first female President of the Board of Big Brothers (1989).

The Country Music Hall of Fame, whose existence owes much to Walker-Meador’s vision, welcomed her into its pantheon in 1995. And in 2008, the same year she received Big Brother’s first Big Tribute Award, Walker-Meador’s name was installed in Nashville’s Walk of Fame.

“Her legacy is in her ability to take a disparate bunch of professionals, all of whom were in a sense the lower end of the musical demographic, and elevate the whole business into something a lot greater,” predicted Dick McCullough, CMA Board President in 1984 and 1985. “She grew the membership from a couple hundred people up to the thousands. Everybody knew her. Everybody loved her. They knew she was a good person and she knew exactly how to pull the right thread to get things moving. Country Music would be a lot worse if she hadn’t come along.”

Irving Waugh, the late Executive Producer of “The CMA Awards” television special, put it this way. “She has been an unseen force that binds things together,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1985. “With her good humor, dedication and image of respect, she has provided stability over the years. To most people, she is the Country Music Association.”

She is survived by her brother Pete Denning, daughter Michelle Walker, and step-children Rob and Karen Meador.

About the Country Music Association: Founded in 1958, the Country Music Association is the first trade organization formed to promote a type of music. In 1961, CMA created the Country Music Hall of Fame to recognize artists and industry professionals with Country Music’s highest honor. More than 7,800 music industry professionals and companies from around the globe are members of CMA. The organization’s objectives are to serve as an educational and professional resource for the industry and advance the growth of Country Music around the world. This is accomplished through CMA’s core initiatives: the CMA Awards, which annually recognize outstanding achievement in the industry; CMA Music Festival, which benefits music education and is taped for a network television three-hour special; and “CMA Country Christmas,” featuring Country artists performing original music and Christmas classics for broadcast during the holiday season. All of CMA’s television properties will air on the ABC Television network through 2021.


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