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Published: Friday, 9/17/2004

John Grady: Nashville s newest visionary

NASHVILLE - One thing immediately strikes you about John Grady: He doesn t look or act like a radio executive. When he strolls into his office, the head of Sony Music Nashville is wearing tennis shoes and slacks. His first action is to plop down in a leather chair and throw his feet over the sides.

Formerly a high school teacher, he s now a king in Music City U.S.A. He s the man who has revived a struggling music label, and the man who introduced the world to Gretchen Wilson.

I don t know if I really know that much about music, he says humbly. But I know what I like, and what music does to me, but I also know what s really bad. I m a really well-paid groupie, really.

What he did know when he was picked to lead the Nashville division in 2003 was that the division wasn t going to survive doing things the way it was doing things.

When I looked at our roster, I didn t see what me and Mark Wright [the head of artist development for Sony] saw as the future. In this business, you have very few opportunities to come in under a corporate umbrella like I did. They told me: This is yours. Do whatever you want to be successful, but do it now. We decided to go new to try to invent rather than reinvent.

What he did was clear his roster of struggling artists like Tammy Cochran, Brad Martin, Billy Gilman, and Cledus Judd. He replaced them with a wave of new artists. On May 5, 2003, Grady took over and began revamping Sony s roster. Buddy Jewell, Brad Cotter, Trent Willmon, Jessi Alexander, Shelly Fairchild, and Miranda Lambert were added to supplement existing artists like Montgomery Gentry, Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, and Patty Loveless.

Breaking a new artist can be extremely difficult and expensive, but the return can be more substantial than with a veteran artist.

Artists are sort of like athletes. They sign that initial contract. If they experience success, they renegotiate, and that usually swings in favor of the artists, as it should, and they get more leverage,

Grady says.

The premise sounds simple enough, but Grady was taking a significant risk by deciding to bank on unproven commodities.

The strategy paid off three weeks after Grady started when Gretchen Wilson walked into his office and sang three songs for him, including her future smash, Redneck Woman.

I told her, I don t know what I want to do, but I want to do that. I signed her that day. We shook hands, and I gave her a notepad slip as an I.O.U. to let her know she didn t need to go anywhere else.

Almost 3 million records later, Wilson has become one of the biggest names in the industry. Her success has helped Sony, but Grady also believes she is helping the country music industry as a whole.

I think Gretchen Wilson is doing more good than people realize. To hear her music, you have to go to country radio that s the only place to hear it. Hopefully, while listening, maybe a person will hear Montgomery Gentry, Keith Urban. Maybe they ll hear something else they like.

Rising from his leather chair, Grady pops in a cut from the label s newest member, Jon Randall, who will be releasing an album at the beginning of next year.

A really great record is one that s a really well-crafted song. I don t like soft rhymes. I like songs that make me think, that make me drive off the road. It happened to me yesterday with Jon Randall.

Artists are poets. They should be able to make you cry or fall in love.

We re trying to make some music here that has an identity. I had this plan, but this was also an incredible opportunity for me. I m a high school history teacher from Nebraska. I consider myself a liaison for my artists to show them to the world.

And to many, Grady is a visionary and a blessing to the country music industry.

If you re looking for a really good and deep album, Alan Jackson is your guy. Jackson s 14th album, What I Do, is one of his strongest yet. It debuts this week at No. 1 on the Pop and Country Album charts. His album leads an impressive showing by his label, RCA, which has five of the top 10 and nine of the top 20 best-selling country albums in America. Jimmy Buffett holds at No. 5, Brad Paisley is at No. 6, Kenny Chesney is at No. 7, and Jackson s Greatest Hits album remains at No. 10.

And congratulations to Kenny Chesney, who recently wrapped up another successful tour. Beginning in January, the Tiki Bars tours played to almost 1.2 million fans.

On the morning of the tour s final date recently, Chesney invited his band and Unkle Kracker, who was a frequent tour guest, to his Nashville-area home. After a breakfast casserole of eggs, sausage, cheese and bacon, and fruit, potatoes, and juice, Chesney took Unkle Kracker out to the driveway, where a jet blue 1966 Road Runner with a black primer hood was waiting. The car, with only 34,000 miles on it, was a gift for the man that teamed up with Chesney on the No. 1 hit, When the Sun Goes Down.

The following morning, Chesney and his entire road team, including the truckers to the riggers to the sponsors to the tour publicist and accountant, boarded a chartered jet and headed to the Virgin Islands for a vacation.

That s classy!



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