1. Jimmy Bowen
Bowen, 54, president of Liberty Records (formerly Capitol/Nashville), sent country music to the top of the pop charts by giving Garth Brooks’ records the same marketing money and muscle as the biggest rock acts. The results: Brooks’ albums have sold 15 million copies, and Liberty has blossomed into one of country’s top labels, nearly tying with MCA on the singles chart last year. Liberty’s roster also includes stars like Tanya Tucker, Paulette Carlson, Suzy Bogguss, and Billy Dean — ”a lot of people,” says Bowen, ”who sell a lot of records.” Before taking his current job, Bowen shaped two decades of country careers at Warner/Reprise, MCA, and Elektra; he has helped to modernize country by championing digital recording, bigger record budgets, and more autonomy for artists. ”If you take care of the music,” Bowen says, ”it’ll take care of everything else.”
2. Frances Preston
She moved to New York in 1985, but Preston, Broadcast Music Inc.’s president and CEO, is still Nashville’s unofficial queen, and not just because songs from BMI’s 125,000 writers and publishers account for about 70 percent of the country charts. Preston opened BMI’s Nashville office in 1958. Thanks to her organizational skills, the real power in Nashville began to lie with publishers and performing-rights groups (BMI being the biggest, with $300 million in annual royalties). Her influence was so great that it was said she ran the town, arranging contracts and helping writers get loans against future royalties, mending rifts at record companies.
3. E.W. Wendell
One of the most understated of Nashville’s powers, Wendell, 64, president and CEO of Opryland USA, controls the most important entertainment empire in Nashville — including the Grand Ole Opry, Opryland theme park, The Nashville Network (54.7 million subscribers) and Country Music Television (15.7 & million), Gaylord Syndicom (which produces Hee Haw), radio stations WSM-AM and -FM, and the Opryland Music Group. And Opryland’s unofficial marriage with the Country Music Association — the two groups cosponsor Fan Fair, the city’s week-long summer festival — only adds to his clout.
4. Donna Hilley
Senior vice president and COO of Sony/Tree Publishing, Hilley, 51, is head of the world’s largest country publisher. The company, Billboard‘s No. 1 publisher for 19 years, owns 80,000 copyrights (including songs by Harlan Howard, Roger Miller, and Willie Nelson) and generates $10-$15 million in gross royalties annually. Twenty-six of Tree’s 77 writers, including Carlene Carter and Travis Tritt, are also major-label performers. Hilley negotiated Tree’s $30 million sale to Sony in 1989, and she’s shrewd enough to place songs in films, TV shows, ads, and Broadway musicals (like last year’s placement of the Patsy Cline hit ”Crazy” in Doc Hollywood).
5. Tim Wipperman
Wipperman, 43, senior vice president and executive general manager of the Nashville branch of Warner/Chappell Music Inc., started out in 1970 pitching music to producers and artists. In 1975 he opened Warner Music’s Nashville office, building it into a powerhouse. When Warner bought Chappell for $200 million in 1987, the new song company became the world’s largest. Wipperman controls rights to 200,000 titles, including 1990 Grammy winner ”Wind Beneath My Wings” and Trisha Yearwood’s ”She’s in Love With the Boy.” No wonder Radio & Records named Warner/Chappell 1991’s top publisher.
6. Tony Brown
Last year Billboard voted Brown Producer of the Year, and all you had to do was scan the charts to know why. His name is found on the latest albums by Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart, and quirkier acts like Marty Brown and Lyle Lovett. All told, Brown, 45 — executive vice president and head of Artists and Repertoire at MCA, meaning he not only produces artists but signs them and helps pick songs and musicians — was personally responsible for 34 country hit singles in 1991. And the likely huge success of Wynonna Judd’s Brown-produced solo debut, Wynonna, should up his status another notch.
7. C. Paul Corbin
As director of programming for The Nashville Network, Corbin, 49, determines what TNN’s millions of subscribers get to see — and what they don’t, like Garth Brooks’ 1991 anti-wife-abuse video, ”The Thunder Rolls” (which TNN refused to show). Whether the program is Ralph Emery’s popular Nashville Now or the 30 hours of country videos TNN programs each week, the network plays a major role in breaking new acts (Lorrie Morgan’s regular performances on Nashville Now throughout the mid-’80s landed her a recording contract). And Corbin’s influence will only grow as videos play an ever-larger role in helping new fans connect the face with the music.
8. Tim Dubois
In three years as a senior vice president and general manager of Arista/Nashville, Dubois, 43, has built his company into country’s fastest-rising label by nurturing writer-artists, putting, he says, ”songs first, special performers second.” The move has paid off with No. 1 singles for Pam Tillis (”Don’t Tell Me What to Do”), Diamond Rio (”Meet in the Middle”), and Alan Jackson (”Don’t Rock the Jukebox”). Jackson’s Here in the Real World was 1991’s fifth-biggest-selling country album. Dubois, who cowrote Vince Gill’s hit ”When I Call Your Name,” doesn’t have trouble calculating Arista’s earnings: He has a master’s degree in accounting.
9. Tony Conway
If Garth Brooks, Ricky Van Shelton, or some 45 other stars want to book a tour or appear on TV, Conway’s the person they turn to. A former drummer, Conway, 38, is president of Buddy Lee Attractions, the agency that booked 3,700 concert appearances last year. (The agency just opened an L.A. office for films and TV.) Responsible for getting the best deals for artists and promoters, Conway has upgraded country shows with down-home values and rock aesthetics in staging and production. He has also updated his industry’s image: With his hip, upscale cardigan look, he eschews the old undershirt-and-cigar image of booking agents.
10. Jim Ed Norman
Although Warner/Reprise Nashville doesn’t have the country tradition that can be found at MCA, RCA, or Sony, the label has developed a reputation as a major challenger, as well as a home for innovative music. Credit goes to Norman; since becoming the company’s president in 1984, the 45-year-old executive has used artists outside the country mainstream (the a cappella group Take 6, the jazz banjoist Bela Fleck) and hip country acts (Dwight Yoakam, the Texas Tornados) to develop Nashville as a music center. Norman doesn’t do badly with country superstars, either: His label’s biggest sellers are two men named Travis — Randy and Tritt.