Pioneering Ladies of Music Row

June 2012

In 1960, Patsy Bradley worked as a stenographer at a telephone company in Green Hills. It’s easy to imagine her among that pool of young working women, chattering over the buzz of the phone lines like the ladies who worked the busy switchboards in Mad Men.

Hers was a common start. Back then, ladies like Bradley aspired to be married women or career girls. Bradley was a little of both. Even though her father, Owen Bradley, was one of the primarily builders of country music industry of Nashville, she never considered it her calling. “My dad was so busy, so he never sat me down and said, ‘Patsy, do you want to go to work in the music business?’”

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in her. It’s just that she was living her life as everyone thought she should. She had a job. She was well on her way to marriage. And that was it. There weren’t many women around modeling a different career track, especially not in the music business. Back then, the industry was young, and the pioneers, those legendary builders of Music Row? Well, they were men.

If you watch Mad Men, you’ve got a clear — and often disheartening — picture of what it might be like for a ’60s career girl like Bradley. But in Nashville, one very talented woman was about to flip the script — not only for Bradley, but also for generations of women, many of whom are still rocking their jobs on Music Row today.

In the television version of this story, the Peggy Olson type, otherwise known as Mad Men’s naive but determined single gal, started out in the secretary pool and climbed her way up to become a copywriter. Sure, she didn’t make it to the top, but her climb was groundbreaking.

In the real world of Music Row, a woman named Frances W. Preston changed that storyline, climbing further up the ladder than any woman before her, thus altering the plot forever for Bradley and many women who made their way to Music City after her.

This is the story of three of those ladies, the ones who grew up listening to their favorite songs, unaware that there was a music industry, let alone a place for them in it. Through her long days in the office, followed by even longer nights at clubs, on the road or the recording studio, each woman made the path a little bit smoother for the next. 

Frances W. Preston’s Protégé
Preston started her music career much like any other young woman might, as the receptionist at WSM Radio, a station where Bradley’s father worked as musical director. From her desk there, you can imagine she watched plenty of powerful men — producers, recording artists, label executives — come and go. You’ve got to wonder at what point she saw herself working as an equal among them. By the time she left her perch by the phone in the 1958, she was selected to open the Nashville outpost of performing rights organization Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI).

It was there that Preston started a new breed of music executive leadership that helped define the golden era of the music industry. She also found a way to foster young women who, like her, were happy to start at the bottom if it meant they had a legitimate opportunity to make it to the top.

Frances W. Preston and  Patsy Bradley

Bradley was one of the earliest beneficiaries of that tutelage. Bradley had worked at the telephone company for three years when Preston, who remembered Bradley from her days at WSM, came knocking. (Bradley and her classmates frequented the station when her father needed an audience for the tapings at his studio.) When Preston asked Owen Bradley if his daughter might be interested in working in the music industry, he wasn’t sure.

When Bradley walked into the offices of BMI to interview for a receptionist position, she found three women occupying two rooms on the 23rd floor of the L&C Tower. After speaking with Preston, she accepted the job and took her place at a typing table behind the door in Preston’s office. From that vantage point, she began to see things differently.
“She taught me so much, just by observing,” Bradley says. “I had to learn how to act and do. She was a perfect example of being a lady and gracious and being yourself, but yet she was able to conquer the business world. I’m sure a lot of that rubbed off on me.”

But those lessons didn’t take right away. After nine months of working at BMI, Bradley moved to Memphis and got married, deciding, as she puts it, that she didn’t want to “be a career girl.” Looking back, Bradley can’t believe she left such an opportunity behind. Lucky for her, when she moved back into town, Preston gave her a second chance.
It was a good thing: Bradley’s marriage lasted about five years. Her commitment to BMI lasted much, much longer.

“It was a fun, exciting time because people were just kind of learning about the music business,” Bradley says. “People were finding out that they could make money writing songs, and that they had to join a performing rights organization in order to collect their money when their songs got played on the air.”

Those people flooded the Nashville offices of BMI, where they found four young women hard at work. At times, the site of four ladies running the whole show was just too foreign for some clients to handle.

Bradley clearly recalls a run-in with a songwriter who passed through three ladies’ offices to hers, proclaiming upon arrival that he simply couldn’t work with her. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘There’s no men. I can’t do business here.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to if you want to join BMI. This is all we have.’ He did join, and he never complained anymore. Back before women were taking over, they were used to going in and seeing men.”

Nowhere was that takeover more notable than in the BMI offices. When she describes the offices brimming with young women determined to work hard and support each other, it’s difficult not to feel a bit envious. After all, any woman who has worked in a male-dominated industry today — let alone half a century ago — will admit that it’s still hard out there for a lady.

In the early days, that small team of women was like a supportive group of sisters.
“We were more like a family,” Bradley says. “We shared in all the happiness of everyone when they got married, when they had a baby. It was a family, and that’s what we wanted it to be.”

Frances, who eventually became President and CEO of BMI, pushed that family to do extraordinary things. During Preston’s years at the helm from 1986 to 2004, the company’s revenue more than tripled to over $673 million. “It was quite an experience working for a woman and seeing her go to the top,” Bradley says.

Bradley at a BMI event

Thanks to her dedication — and her love for the job she never knew she wanted or could even have — Bradley didn’t spend much time behind that typing table. Five years into her career at BMI, she became director of publishing administration, working to affiliate all of the music publishers who wanted to join BMI. A few years later, she was promoted to senior director of publishing administration. Then, 30 years from the time she walked into those tiny offices, she was named assistant vice president of writer publishing administration. After 42 years at BMI, she retired.

“Frances played such a big part in my life, just as she’s played such a big part in so many people’s lives,” Bradley says. “She gave me an opportunity, and I went for it.”

When she looks back at her career and all she has achieved, Bradley seems to be most proud that she was able to embody all the potential that Preston saw in her. She doesn’t mention that she was an honoree of the 2004 Source Foundation Awards, which recognizes women who have been vital in the success of the Nashville music industry. Or that in 2008 she, along with other members of the Bradley family, earned a Dale Franklin Award, which is presented by Leadership Music to industry greats who exemplify the highest quality of leaders.

Other than talking about meeting the likes of Brenda Lee and Ernest Tubb when she was a young girl, Bradley doesn’t even name-drop. In speaking with her, you get the sense that the real rock stars were the women around her — like Frances, and the many other women who crashed through glass ceilings to get to the top.

The PR Pioneer

Liz Thiels was sitting in her Nashville home one night listening to her radio when she heard a voice that would change her life. “It was this great music — somebody with a great FM voice — and I realized it was coming live from a place called the Exit/In. I proceeded to go down there because it was just so good.”

It takes a special kind of dedication to music to change the course of your life based on one song, but the way Thiels describes that moment, you know it stirred something great in her. As a Louisiana girl who grew up dancing to Cajun music and rhythm and blues emanating from the jukebox at the VFW, she knew she loved music. She just didn’t know she could make a career of it.

She moved to Nashville in 1969 and learned about the world of recording studios, managers and the like through her husband, an audio engineer and professional musician. When she went on tour with her husband and Leonard Cohen, she was introduced to publicists for one of the CBS labels. “That’s how I came to understand, ‘Oh, this is a business,’” she says. Still, it didn’t occur to her there was a place for her there.

Then she took a job with Holder-Kennedy, a public relations firm specializing in financial PR. She planned groundbreaking ceremonies and big conventions, but she burned out with the nature of agency work. “With agency work, the whole deal is, everybody has to do two jobs to make the numbers work,” she says.

By the time she heard that voice — belonging to Owsley Manier, one of the founding club owners — broadcasted from Exit/In that night, she was ready for a change. She found it as she walked to the entrance of the club at the rear of the building (hence the name Exit/In) and walked down the steps into a shoebox-shaped listening room. “It was a truly magical place,” she says. “It was a time when culture was changing. Audiences were more interested in listening to music and hearing the words than they were necessarily in dancing. People came and gave these artists their rapt attention. You could watch Mickey Newbury in a folding chair, leaning back on two legs, with nothing but a guitar and his voice, and you could hear a pin drop in the room.”

The magic of that room washed over her. She wanted to do public relations for the Exit/In — granted, no one was doing music industry PR at the time — but she knew she could do it. She started out freelancing for the venue, putting together ads, buying time on the radio and visiting the newspaper each week to ask for reviews or pitch stories. She soon bought part of the company, became a partner and worked to publicize the club full time.

Johnny Cash, Liz Thiels and the late Merlin Littlefield

It wasn’t long before people started wondering just exactly what she was doing to garner so much coverage. At that time, the Tennessean had a Sunday feature section called the “Sunday Showcase,” and Exit/In was getting plenty of press there. “People would call the club and ask for me, wanting to know how much I had to pay for those pictures inside the ‘Showcase.’ PR was a new thing in those days.”

There simply wasn’t a music industry PR firm in Nashville back then, at least not one that looked at music careers as a business with diverse revenue streams. So Thiels started one. She began working with industry clients to figure out how they could maximize their profits. But convincing people in the business that it would take money and resources to get the word out wasn’t easy.

“People — I think especially men — had a tendency to look at a PR firm that was doing publicity as not much more advanced than a fan club,” Thiels says. “Those are two very different things. I actually had a label executive say to me one day, ‘You’re running your business like a corporation.’ I said, ‘Well, yes, thank you very much. That’s what it is.’”

Soon, she diversified her company’s roster, working with television shows, multi-national companies and authors, any client looking to reach a music consumer. Thiels says she worked to command respect by being as professional as she knew how to be — all day, every day — and walked the line between being one of boys and maintaining her femininity. “I think women are the nurturers,” she says. “That’s an advantage that we sometimes have over our male counterparts, a nurturing gene. It can be used to great effect in the office, to care.”

Dizzy Gillespie, Liz Thiels and W.O. Smith

When Thiels talks about her work with female music artists, you know she means that. Sometime after Wynonna Judd launched her solo career, Thiels was called in to meet with the singer and her manager. The two disclosed that Wynonna was pregnant and planned to have the child but not marry the father. “I’m looking at her and she is serene, she’s regal, and you could tell she really had thought about it,” Thiels said. “She was doing exactly what she thought was the right thing. I said, ‘Wynonna, we’re going to put you on television so people can see your face when you’re saying this.’”

Other publicists may have covered it up or scrambled to spin Wynonna’s story. Not Thiels — she saw a woman at peace with her decision. She saw a woman who didn’t have to hide from the truth. “We had a press conference instead of making a quick announcement,” Thiels says. “We let her say exactly what she said to me in the office that day. A situation that could’ve gotten a lot of criticism got a lot of applause.”

Since she went freelance as a publicist in 1972, Thiels has worked with clients including The Charlie Daniels Band, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which she represented for 22 years. She is now the senior vice president of public relations for the institution.

The Manager and Ambassador of Music City Girl Power
In the 1980s, Denise Stiff was new to Nashville. Like many women before and after her, she moved to town hoping to make it as a songwriter. Big business wasn’t exactly in her sights — in fact, she really just wanted to piece together enough part-time work to support her writing. After working a series of odd jobs, which included a stint scraping woodwork, she started working at Keith Case and Associates, an acoustic music booking and management company. Before long, she realized her side job wasn’t all that part-time anymore.

Later that decade, Stiff, like Thiels, heard a voice that would change the course of her career. She was at a bluegrass convention, headed toward the door when she heard Alison Krauss sing. “I just stopped dead,” Stiff says.

It was a strange thing, really. With the exception of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and a few others, Stiff gravitated to the male singer-songwriters. “I really loved men’s voices,” Stiff says. “There were women who I liked, but I would really take Jackson Browne over somebody else.”

But in her gut, she knew Krauss had something special. Keith Case was reluctant to sign Krauss because she was so young, but Stiff persisted. “I was pretty emphatic that it was time to start working with her,” Stiff says. “And almost immediately, just pretty much from the first time she came and played in Nashville at the Station Inn, things took off, and there was really no slowing down.”

Shortly after, someone tipped off Stiff to a singer-songwriter named Gillian Welch. “It was like lightning struck twice,” Stiff says. “I couldn’t believe how amazing she was.”

Alison Krauss, Denise Stiff and Gillian Welch

By 1995, Stiff was immersed in artist management. Krauss had seen huge success with the release of “When You Say Nothing at All” and Welch was on the verge of releasing her first record. Stiff was so busy she hired another person out of her own salary — and then another — to work along with her in a one-room office at Keith Case and Associates. She had her own cottage industry going, and it was time to strike out on her own.

In February 1996, DS Management was born. You’d think that Stiff might have been nervous or at least a bit unsure. “I wasn’t fearful at all,” Stiff says. “It was balls to the wall, go ahead and do it.”

In the more than 20 years Stiff has managed Krauss, the performer has earned 26 Grammy Awards, the most of any female artist in Grammy history. Stiff also served as the executive music producer for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou, one of the 10 top-selling soundtracks of all time. She also produced the concert for the film’s related Down from the Mountain tour and the CD and DVD that accompanied it. (And, yes, she even met the star of the film, George Clooney. She confirms he is, indeed, just as dreamy as you’d imagine.)

With all that success, Stiff’s focus has always been on supporting, fostering and building the careers of women she finds exceptional. At the heart, she’s just a fan of really great music — it just so turns out that the girl who grew up mostly signing along to male singer-songwriters has built her career on the voices of truly talented ladies. “I’m inspired by women — especially by younger women — who are really making their mark,” Stiff says.

Sarah Jarosz, a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist — she plays mandolin, octave mandolin, clawhammer banjo and guitar, to be exact — is the newest lady on Stiff’s roster. Given the success of Welch and Krauss, the young twentysomething must feel quite lucky to find herself under Stiff’s nurturing wing. “It’s really exciting to find that young talent that is just limitless and watch it develop,” Stiff says. “It’s a very protective, parental and proud kind of thing. And you just want to do the right thing by them.”

Stiff credits ladies like Thiels for guiding her through her early days in Nashville, not only for acting as a resources, but also for simply being women she could look up to. When Stiff talks about how she wasn’t afraid to make her own way in the industry, you can’t help but think back to Preston perched at her desk, answering phones at WSM radio.


Women like Stiff and Thiels, and their successful female counterparts who fill offices and studios all along Music Row, are thriving in a world paved by the likes of Preston and Bradley. They’re created booming business in a boys club they now call their own.


Photos courtesy of BMI, Thiels and Stiff


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