The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum turns 50 this year, but it may have never made it to year one without the unlikely leadership of two women in an industry dominated by men.
It wasn’t just the industry. In 1967, men were entrenched at the top of country charts as well. Even an artist who would go on to become an icon had to start with a novelty song about stereotypes: Dolly Parton’s first solo single was a minor hit, but she would go on to a major career that found her in the Hall of Fame in 1999.
Here's Parton performing "Dumb Blonde" on the Bobby Lord show in 1967.
The year that song was released, the institution opened its museum. And two women, unknown to anyone outside the industry, were featured in an hour long opening night telecast, broadcast live in Nashville.
Frances Preston and Jo Walker were key to bringing the museum to life. But even on the night celebrating their accomplishments, they were still treated with a mixture of respect and condescension. While introducing Preston, one of the presenters recognized her role but also referred to her as a “busy girl” before going on to a more chummy exchange with a male presenter.
That “busy girl” was the Nashville vice president for one of the most important music companies in the world and by all accounts, the driving force that made sure the doors were paid for, much less opened that night.
The other woman whose work was just as important, but who remained more in the background, was Jo Walker. That evening, while Preston stood out front wearing a ball gown and a sky high bouffant, Walker appeared onscreen in a jacket, introducing items from the artifacts case like Burl Ives’ banjo and an autoharp used by The Carter Family.
Here's Jo Walker Meador being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 1967, Walker was head of the relatively young Country Music Association which helped create the museum.
Walker, who started at the CMA as an assistant, never imagined she would run the association just 10 months later when the original director walked away. As she remembered in a 1996 interview, she assumed they would hire another man.
“That’s what they said they were gonna do. ‘We’re looking for a man,’ ” Walker recalled. “That’s the way they put it.” Walker says she didn’t think anything of it because that’s “just the way it was.”
But another influential woman in country music suggested that Walker should run the show.
“I was told by someone it was Minnie Pearl who said to the board, ‘Why are we looking for someone else? Why don’t we just make Jo the Executive Director? She’s doing all the work anyway,’” Walker laughed as she remembered. “And everybody said, ‘Well, why not? We just hadn’t thought about it in those terms.’ ”
One of the first big projects Walker had to take on was establishing the museum. It was an idea unexpectedly born from the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
They had requested a country music exhibit that Frances Preston had a designer draw up in the shape of a guitar. But she and others paused that plan and decided instead to build a more permanent home for the history of the genre in Nashville.
New York not only provided the inadvertent inspiration for the museum but was also a source for some of the early fundraising. Jo Walker says that support was sometimes lacking from the business community back home.
She says in the early days of the CMA,it was difficult to get the city fathers to take the organization seriously. “They thought of us as more or less a bunch of unwashed hillbillies out here on Music Row.”
But Walker says that Preston was known for twisting influential arms and squeezing money, even from some in the city who saw the genre as an embarrassment.
The museum’s longtime CEO Kyle Young says that role continued long after her work with the Hall of Fame.
“As we’re sitting here now and we’re seeing the city just flourish. It’s the ‘It City’ and so forth,” Young stated from his office at the museum’s massively expanded downtown location. “It’s hard to think of anyone who had more impact than Frances on, not only developing the (music) industry, but also connecting the industry to the community.”
From the beginning of her career Preston was recognized as a business trailblazer, but she did not see herself as part of the the women’s liberation movement of the era. In an interview from 1974, Preston refused to believe women were limited by glass ceilings or closed executive doors.
“I have not found that a door has been closed to me because I was a woman,” Preston confidently declared. “And I started out long before a lot of other people decided that doors were closed to them. I think, being a woman, I got the door open. But if I had not been a business person and had not known what I was doing, I couldn’t have kept the door open.”
Over her career Preston would help turn royalty collection giant BMI into one of Nashville’s biggest employers. She herself was inducted into the Hall in 1992 and died a decade later.
Here's Preston receiving the CMA's Irving Waugh Award of Excellence in 1987 from Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray.
Walker went on to lead the CMA for nearly 30 years. Later known as Jo Walker Meador, she established the CMA’s long running awards show and helped build the CMA Fest. She passed away this summer at the age of 93.
On that opening night telecast, Walker made what would turn out to be a modest prediction.
She said the organization expected “thousands of people to come through museum each year.”
Last year, at its current downtown location, nearly 1.2 million people walked through the doors Frances Preston and Jo Walker Meador helped open 50 years ago.