(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I am not pretending to speak for women, but I can unequivocally state that without Frances Williams Preston and other resolute women who followed in her steps, Nashville and the country music industry would still be entirely a male-dominated fiefdom. Much worse than it is now.
Preston, who died Wednesday (June 13) at age 83, broke through all kinds of ceilings on Music Row on her way to becoming the head of BMI worldwide. That meant that she was responsible for operating the largest global company in charge of collecting royalties for songwriters and music publishers.
Her pathway there was not easy, and she had no gimmies along the way. So every time you hear some spoiled recent college grad talk about being entitled to a high rung up on the entry ladder, give her (there are also many men in the same category) a little history lesson about why the music business is not easy to crack. Many, many women I know in the music business today are very quick to praise Preston as an inspiration and a role model. Songwriters from genres across the spectrum of country likewise credit her as being an invaluable mentor.
When I first came in Nashville in 1970, things had not changed drastically from the days when female country singers were all referred to — and not in a flattering way — as “girl singers.” Women were not artist managers or record producers. Women were routinely discouraged from aspiring to be headline singers (and booking agents commonly refused to book any as such), and radio stations wouldn’t play two records by females in a row.
The Billboard Top 20 artists chart shows zero women singers making the Top 20 in the 1940s, one (Kitty Wells) appearing on the chart in the 1950s, two (Wells and Loretta Lynn) in the 1960s and still only four (Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Lynn Anderson) in the 1970s.
On the road, I often heard artists and their band members and crews (all male) talk in the vilest possible terms about their female fans and women, in general. This is language I would not repeat to this day. But it was the attitude, even more than the language, that was so odious. Women (and other minorities) were considered to be second or third-class citizens.
I never heard Frances talk about those things or complain in any way. She just worked hard. She worked too hard to be ignored. She beat the men at their own game.
Preston started her career decades ago as a receptionist at Nashville radio station WSM at a time when women didn’t ordinarily rise through the ranks. But Preston did. Eventually, in 1958, BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) hired her to open a Nashville office to deal with the growing ranks of songwriters gravitating to the city. Preston and an assistant first worked out of her parents’ garage.
That same year, she organized Nashville’s first awards program to honor the music’s songwriters and music publishers. It was held during the DJ Convention — which later became Fan Fair and then the CMA Music Festival . That first awards party started at 7:30 in the morning with a house band that included Chet Atkins. Some of the songwriters Preston honored that day included Johnny Cash, George Jones, Buck Owens, Harlan Howard and Roger Miller.
Over the years, Frances’ BMI Awards party became Nashville’s grandest annual event. Frances always had the best party, with the brightest stars attending, many surprise guests every year, the best food and drink and the best live music there was. Several years ago, Frances moved the party to an upper floor of the parking garage of the new BMI headquarters (next to the old building) and transformed that drab parking garage into a glittering, sparkling and festive party one night a year.
BMI’s headquarters building was built at the top of Music Row in 1964, positioning it an anchor music industry site in a significant location. That same year, BMI named her vice president, making her the first female executive in the country music industry. In 1986, she was named president and CEO of BMI worldwide.
She brought Del Bryant, the son of songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, into BMI, and he became her eventual successor upon her retirement.
After the loss of a close friend to cancer, Preston began a personal crusade against the disease and became a staunch supporter of Nashville’s Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, as well as a major fundraiser for the center. Vanderbilt’s Frances Williams Preston Research Laboratories is now a familiar sight at the Vanderbilt medical complex.
Every music hall of fame that really matters has inducted her as a member, and she received honors galore. But those were not the things she talked about. She talked about what still needed to be done and about songs that she loved and songwriters who were continuing to be discovered. She originated the slogan, “It all begins with a song.” There were many good reasons she became known as “the best friend a songwriter ever had.” Kris Kristofferson called her the “songwriter’s guardian angel.”
I had the privilege to have an occasional and very enjoyable lunch with her. It was always a joy to see Frances.