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.