When you live in Nashville, Tennessee, you can’t help but be aware of country music’s impact on the city. You should also be aware of the name – Jo Walker-Meador. For more than 30 years, Mrs. Walker-Meador served as the executive director of the Country Music Association.
A native of Tennessee, she was born in Orlinda, 50 miles from Nashville. Walker-Meador grew up working on her family’s farm with hopes of becoming an English teacher and girls’ basketball coach. “I played basketball in school. It was a big part of my life,” she recalls.
Walker-Meador took her hopes to Lambuth College in Jackson and Nashville’s Peabody College to receive her teaching degree. However, things didn’t quite work out the way she had planned.
“I got sidetracked,” she says with a smile.
Walker-Meador stayed in Nashville working for a variety of companies for the next several years. She even spent time doing PR work for a politician running for governor.
In 1958, the Country Music Association was formed. It was the first of its kind – an organization created to promote a specific music genre. And, Walker-Meador was about to become its very first employee.
In December 1958, Walker-Meador was unemployed when a friend told her of a job opening. “My friend knew the chairman of the CMA’s personnel committee. They needed someone to work in the office,” she says. She was a one-woman show until February 1959, when the CMA board hired Harry Stone as the first executive director. Unfortunately, she found herself the sole employee again when Stone left later that year in December. Recalls Walker-Meador, “CMA didn’t have money at the time to pay for both salaries.”
For the next two years, Walker-Meador managed the CMA office on her own. She was kept busy with the task of building the association’s membership. “At the time, we had 35 lifetime members and a couple hundred members. Membership was a big part of my job.” Walker-Meador continues, “I had a lot of help from volunteers.” All the while, the board was searching for a new executive director.
Thanks to legend Minnie Pearl, the board came to a decision in 1961. “Minnie said to the board,” remembers Walker-Meador, “’Jo’s already doing the job. Why don’t you just hire her?’ So they did.”
Walker-Meador served as the executive director of CMA until 1991. Under her direction, the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, the Country Music Foundation was formed in 1964 (for which Walker-Meador also worked), and the industry saw significant growth.
“It was exciting to see it grow. Radio was very important to us,” says Walker-Meador. “We surveyed radio stations in 1961 and 81 of them responded as full-time country music formats. Now, it’s about 2600 stations.”
One of the biggest creations from Walker-Meador’s tenure was Fan Fair, now known as the CMA Music Festival. Fan Fair began in 1972 as a means to connect with fans to their favorite artists. The first Fan Fair welcomed about 5,000 fans. Now, nearly half-a-million people come from all over the world for the four day event.
The CMA awarded Walker-Meador for her 33 years of leadership with an induction into their Hall of Fame in 1995.
Walker-Meador has met Presidents of the United States, she’s been a friend to country music legends, and was a trailblazer for women executives in the music industry. But, when asked what she thinks of her career, she humbly states, “I can’t play any instruments. I have no talent for music. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. Had I not been unemployed at the time, I would’ve never been in the music industry.”
We’re certainly glad it worked out that way.