(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
The average country music fan probably wouldn’t recognize their names, but Wade Jessen and Alan Mayor were more essential to Nashville’s music industry than most of the artists who ever signed a record deal.
Jessen, who died suddenly Thursday (March 4) after suffering a heart attack, was a longtime chart editor for Billboard and hosted a radio show on Sirius XM satellite radio.
Mayor, a photographer who covered the industry for almost four decades, died Feb. 22 at age 65 following a series of strokes.
When you’re in your 20s, anybody over the age of 40 is either over the hill or at least about to crest it. As you get older, your concept of age and time expands. For all I know, people who live to be 80 may view age 90 as not being all that old.
In any event, Jessen and Mayor left us far too soon, and those of us who work in Nashville are going to miss them.
Jessen began his career at a radio station in his home state of Utah and eventually became music director at WSM-AM/Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1994, he joined Billboard’s Nashville office as country chart manager. More recently, he served as the senior chart manager responsible for the trade publication’s country, bluegrass, Christian and gospel charts.
Mayor started working as a photographer in Nashville in 1973, a time when the music industry was much smaller and far less complicated. He took photos of numerous music legends long before they had a hit record. He had the industry’s trust, a factor that gave him the sort of open access to artists that’s virtually unheard of today.
However, Jessen and Mayor’s importance was less about their professional achievements than it was about who they were as human beings and what they stood for.
Photography is sort of like the old adage about real estate — “location, location, location” — and Mayor was usually in the room when history was being made in Nashville. He had professional relationships with countless artists and executives, but one of the most notable was his friendship with Garth Brooks which lasted from the beginning of the singer’s career until Mayor’s death.
Having heard the story from others, I once asked Mayor about the story of taking a family photo of Brooks and his then-wife when one of their daughters was born. With the tabloids and national media clamoring for the first photo of the child, Mayor was leaving the family’s home when Brooks asked if he was aware of a bidding war over who was going to publish the photo and what the going rate was at the moment.
I can’t recall the amount, but it was a lot of money, especially for a freelance photographer in Nashville. Mayor would have never even considered violating his trust by placing that photo on the open market, yet Brooks told him simply, “Do it.” Mayor and Jessen were trusted by everyone in Nashville, and they never betrayed it.
The other quality they shared was that they were both attracted to Nashville because they genuinely loved country music. That probably seems like a no-brainer, but a lot changed once country music became big business, and financial reward became a primary motivation for many.
The other thing is that while Mayor and Jessen greatly admired country artists, they were never sycophants desperate for the stars’ attention. They did their jobs as true professionals and treated everyone they encountered with the same level of respect and courtesy.
They were also quick to help any colleagues who needed anything. Mayor was always willing to share his photos or offer his recollections about things that transpired years ago on Music Row. And I can’t even count the times I emailed Jessen about obscure chart trivia, such as, “How many Billboard No. 1 singles has George Strait really had?”
In recent years, I loved listening to Jessen doing on-air duties on Sirius XM’s Willie’s Roadhouse channel. After one lengthy drive back to Nashville, I sent him an email — essentially a fan letter — telling him how much I enjoyed his choices in classic country. That led to an exchange with him asking me which artists I liked, and a discussion of our favorite tracks by Conway Twitty, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Earl Thomas Conley, Keith Whitley, Ray Price and Lefty Frizzell. (Right now, I’m regretting that I deleted those emails to create some additional space in my in-box, but I do have a couple of them left that will make me laugh again when I read them.)
Jessen often referred to himself as a “country music nerd,” and I don’t think Mayor would object to anyone saying that about him, either. Call them what you will. They were both talented, gentle souls who, in their own way, left their mark on country music.
The rest of us would do well to learn from the examples they set.