Jo Walker-Meador, one of the most important behind-the-scenes advocates of country music, has died. Walker-Meador, who led the Country Music Association as its executive director from 1962 to 1991, died Tuesday night in Nashville at age 93 after suffering a stroke. Her death was announced by the Country Music Association and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Born February 16, 1924 in Orlinda, Tennesee as Edith Josephine Denning and raised on a farm, Walker-Meador began working in 1958 as the first paid employee of the Country Music Association, which hired her as its office manager.
When first hired, Walker-Meador had a very steep learning curve, as she told CountryZone.net in a 2008 interview: “I knew nothing about country music,” she said. “I had never been to the Grand Ole Opry. I’d heard of Minnie Pearl and Roy Accuff, Ernest Tubb and I’d heard of Hank Williams but I didn’t delineate the different types of music… they had a board of directors just been elected several weeks before I was employed. They didn’t want to hire someone who wanted to be a singer or who wanted to be a songwriter, but someone who would be an administrator.”
Within four years, she became CMA’s executive director, after the resignation of the organization’s founding director, Harry Stone.
It’s hard to overestimate the growth of country music as an industry over the course of her tenure, as the Country Music Hall of Fame pointed out in its remembrance: “One year before she took the helm at the CMA, full-time country radio stations numbered fewer than 100 nationwide. By 1995, there were nearly 2,400 such stations.”
During her time leading the organization, the CMA became a country music industry powerhouse and, for other “niche” music genres, an important model for self-advocacy. Those activities included establishing the Country Music Hall of Fame (which launched in 1961), the annual CMA Awards (begun in 1967 and televised nationally beginning the following year), and the CMA Music Festival (originally known as Fan Fair), which was created in 1972.
Walker-Meador was herself elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995