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Remembering the late Frances Preston, the woman who ran the Row

She Built This City

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"You should write a book." Frances Williams Preston must have heard those words a million times over the course of her remarkable life, which began in Nashville on Aug. 27, 1928, and ended here just before dawn June 13. She received those words warmly, every time, but she never wrote that book.

That in itself is a loss, because during her nearly five decades at BMI, Preston saw and heard it all. As tectonic shifts came to the music industry — from vinyl to iTunes, from Music Row's local roost-rulers to international conglomerates — she remained a link to the early days of country's ascendance, even as she operated firmly in the here and now. She came into the business at exactly the right time, when personality carried more weight than a résumé, when drive trumped a degree, and the ability to connect with people and build relationships laid the foundation for success.

To be sure, the 1950s were also a time when women were either pretty faces at the front desk or typists in the secretarial pool. Female executives were practically nonexistent, and women who were visibly pregnant were not expected (or permitted) to work. But in the mid-'50s, Preston — in her first post-Peabody College for Teachers job as the mailroom messenger for National Life & Accident Insurance Co. — knew an opportunity when she spied one. When the stork arrived for the receptionist at NL&A-owned WSM, the legendary home of the Grand Ole Opry, the sharp-eyed executive-to-be slipped seamlessly into her seat.

"That got me involved in everything," Preston told music historian Don Cusic in an interview last year. "I helped out with the public relations department at cocktail parties, meetings and things. I helped everybody with everything and got to know everybody coming to town. If I had been the quiet, mousy type, I wouldn't have gotten past the front door. "

Once inside, she took to heart the advice of another woman who knew what obstacles lay ahead. "Marjorie Cooney, who had her own show at the station, passed my desk every day," Preston recalled in an interview earlier this year. "She would say to me, 'Frances, get yourself another job. Move on. Don't be sitting around playing receptionist and handling the mail.' She made me conscious of things.

"But I loved the business so much I didn't want to go work anywhere else. It was really the only job I ever had until BMI asked me to come to work for them. I remember coming home and telling Daddy, 'I got another job! I got a job working for BMI.' He said, 'What are you going to do?' I told him I didn't know. He said, 'What are they going to pay you?' I said, 'I don't know. But it's a New York company!' I was so excited, it never occurred to me to ask what they would pay or what I would do."

What she did was open BMI's first Nashville office — the first performance rights organization with a full-time presence in the South. She ran it for a year from her parents' garage, then an office in the L&C Tower until she convinced BMI's New York board of directors to build the agency its own building at the top of 16th Avenue in 1962.

That was only the beginning of the profound changes Preston brought to Nashville's music industry. In her first year at BMI, she persuaded her New York bosses to allow her to produce an awards program to honor songwriters, the drudges whose craft was typically overshadowed by the stars who sang the songs they wrote. Their value might have been lost on the general public, but it wasn't on Preston, who coined the famous phrase, "It all begins with a song."

In that spirit, the first BMI Country Awards were held in 1958, as a breakfast. But that wasn't good enough for Preston. Believing that also shortchanged the songwriters she was forever championing, Preston transformed it the next year into a gala black-tie dinner at the Belle Meade Country Club. It remained there until there was a conflict with the private club on seating African-American award winners — so Preston moved it to the BMI building. She turned the edifice's parking lot into the most glamorous party venue in town, one to which she deliberately invited Belle Meade socialites, bankers, downtown business types, arts leaders and Capitol Hill pols to mingle under her tent with what many thought of then as Music Row riff-raff. As much as anything, it effected a subtle shift in greater Nashville's attitude toward country music, which it sometimes treated as the bumpkin cousin too gauche for polite society.

"It was a way for us to connect them with the music industry, get them interested in the music industry," Preston remembered. "It was a way to let them see we knew how to dress up and put on a party, with nice things and good taste, to let them know that the music industry wasn't just what they saw in the bars and honky-tonks. It was a way for them meet the cream of the crop in the business."

Preston's skill and grace as a hostess was such that she could throw a seated dinner for hundreds, yet make each visitor feel he or she had made a personal connection. She did so by greeting every single guest as they entered her BMI home, having them pause for a photo with herself and her second-in-command, Roger Sovine. She signed the back of each one with the words, "Thank you for spending your evening with us, Frances," and had her media department mail them to each person in the 8x10 photo.

Her style was emulated by many of the women leaders who came after her, among them Connie Bradley, who led the ASCAP 20-state Southern region from its Nashville headquarters for three decades.

"I thought Frances Preston was one of the classiest women I had ever met," Bradley said in an interview early this year. "I watched her, how she did things, how she handled things, what she did when difficult situations arose, how she would put her arm around someone who was really mad and wanted to kill her, and by the time they walked off, she had them eating out of the palm of her hand. I saw her use fine china, good silver, nice things in the office. Everything was first-class, and I thought, 'That's what I want to do. I want everything to be first-class.'  If I had a mentor, it would be Frances."

Countless women could make the same claim. Preston was the first through so many previously barred doors: the first female executive on Music Row; the first female corporate executive in Tennessee; the first woman elected to the board of governors of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce; the first woman to serve as board chair of the CMA. She not only broke barriers, she set the tone with strong and gracious leadership, impeccable hospitality and unquestionable integrity. She was a one-name woman — in the music business, there was only one Frances.

From 1986, when she was named president of BMI, through 2004 when she retired, she ran the performance rights organization from her New York office, hosting rock royalty, building a powerful lobby for songwriters in Washington and traveling the world as a passionate and compelling ambassador for her industry. So warm was her presence, so illuminating her vision, so inclusive her reach, that she became the sun around which BMI's stars orbited.

She went farther and flew higher than she ever could have imagined, but she treasured her time at home with her three sons, her six grandchildren and her precious 2-year-old great-granddaughter Preston, who knew the most influential woman in the music business as "G-ma."

Even in the corridors of power, Preston remained a product of her upbringing in a hospitable, close-knit and well-mannered small Southern city. Which is why she never wrote that book. She may have seen it all, heard it all and known it all, but first and foremost Frances Williams Preston was a lady, and a lady never tells everything she knows. She lived fully, worked tirelessly and gave selflessly every moment of her life, and one can leave no more honorable legacy than that.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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