Q’s With: Opry Entertainment’s Sally Williams On The State Of Gender Equity In Nashville

Sally Williams
Robby Klein
– Sally Williams
Sally Williams oversees programming and artist relations at Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, among many other venues for Opryland Entertainment.

Sally Williams, the senior vice president of programming and artist relations for Opry Entertainment Group that includes Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry, is unquestionably one of the most powerful and well-liked women in Nashville music business circles.

She’s been with the company for almost her entire career since moving to Music City in 1999 including runs as general manager at Ryman Auditorium, arguably the most historic building in American music. But she’s also overseen  the Grand Ole Opry House, booked the historic Grand Ole Opry radio show, produced events for Opryland Productions including on river showboats, overseen production on milestone anniversaries for the Opry (its 100th year as a music institution is coming up in 2025), served on staff as well as chair of the CMA board, and now gets to pal around with Blake Shelton as she oversees artist relations for his three (soon to be four) Ole Red restaurants-slash-music venues stretching from Shelton’s hometown of Tishomingo, Okla., to Orlando.

Pollstar recently talked with Williams about her career, and took a short detour to discuss music and career opportunities for women in the city, as well for female artists attempting to break what appears to be a very high threshold to get into rotation at country music radio, and the state of gender equality in Nashville in general.

Pollstar: We see the rise of gifted artists like Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Carlile, Kelsea Ballerini, Margo Price, Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde and others, and yet country music radio seems to operate in some kind of alternate universe.

Sally Williams: The radio space is a real headscratcher for me and something I don’t understand. Why is this? I have to say, two things happened recently that give me a lot of hope. Number one, Tenille Townes (See: Hotstar, p. 20-21), who I think is one of the most talented young women I’ve seen come along in a long, time, was just named an “On The Verge” artist on iHeartRadio Country, which is a big, big deal. And she deserves it. And there have been many women who have deserved it. The fact that she is making strides shows that the tide is turning.

Number two, I think everything that is happening with Kacey Musgraves is undeniable, and cannot be ignored. I was having lunch with a young female artist recently, just after the Grammy Awards. We were just kind of catching up and she said, “You know, I cannot tell you how much Kacey Musgraves’ winning the two Grammys means to me. Because it gives me permission to be authentic to myself. Because that’s what Kacey is.”


What do you think accounts for the disparity between male to female airplay on country radio, and are there glimmers of hope for change?

I can’t really say why things are the way they are. I have known and I have grown up listening to so many amazing women in country. You think about Loretta Lynn, and Dolly [Parton], and Barbara Mandrell and women who were powerful and didn’t shy away from controversy and who made amazing music.

We’ve had those women over time. I feel like voices are loud enough now that the tide is turning.

Clearly, radio is not the only way to listen to or discover new music but women must be given the same opportunities; it’s the same kind of work that has to be done.

We have to make sure that great music rises to the tops of playlists, whether it’s made by women or men.


Do you feel there’s an institutional reason for the status of women in Nashville, such as a need for more women in positions of leadership in general?

I have been really fortunate to have people around me who believed in me and gave me opportunity. I do think there was a period of time in Nashville when there weren’t a lot of female leaders.

However, that has not been the exclusive history of Nashville. There’s Lula C. Naff, who ran the Ryman for about 50 years; Frances Preston, who ran BMI; Jo Walker-Meador, who ran the Country Music Association. There have been really strong women in this town.

What else can people like yourself do to improve the odds for women in country music?

It’s incredibly important to have women in leadership positions but it’s also incredibly important to nurture young women to take the journey with their career. That’s why I feel like I’m where I am, because I didn’t skip any steps.

But I also wasn’t forced to skip steps; I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunities that I have had to work hard and do good work. It’s incumbent upon all of us to continue to give women those opportunities.

But I have to say, with all that has happened in the last month with Kacey, so clearly resonating with the world, and the Tenille Townes pickup on iHeartRadio is a big damn deal. She is unique. She is an incredible writer, she has the most amazing spirit. I’m very excited about her. The reality is, there should be more.


How are you changing the conversation?

You would think we wouldn’t be having to have this conversation in 2019 but again, we are. I  put women on stage at the Opry as often as I can. We will induct Kelsea Ballerini into Opry membership and I’m really proud that Carrie Underwood is coming out to induct her, which I think is beautiful and meaningful.