Mary Hilliard Harrington
Six months after moving from New York to Nashville, Red Light Management Nashville manager and Country Music Association chairman Mary Hilliard Harrington put a plant in her car and drove away from the job she’d moved for. She had Dierks Bentley and Jason Aldean as PR clients, and the grit to figure it out.
“I didn’t know how to start a business,” she concedes, “and I was scared. But I was confident about the actual work. I had two baby artists, and I focused only on them. I didn’t look around, I didn’t get greedy and I put every ounce of energy into them.”
Soon, Bentley wanted their collaborative partnership to extend to management. By then, the Green Room, her PR firm, represented Bentley, Aldean, Lady A, Tim McGraw and more. In a town with no female primary managers – Nancy Russell had stepped away from Alan Jackson – Harrington went for it.
“At the time, I didn’t know quite what it was, but my intuition said, ‘Do it,’” she recalls. “If I feel it in my gut, and it’s almost always a physical reaction, then I go with it. If I let my head get in the way, that’s when things’ll probably go off the rails.”
It’s hardly scientific, but in a world driven by focus groups and metrics, Harrington’s intuition has served her well, as she’s developed artists such as Tucker Beathard, Caylee Hammack, LANCO and alt-rock/Americana star Elle King. She knows and trusts her instincts.
“I remember in 2013, 2014, it was a question of whether Dierks was going to play those big arenas and amphitheaters, or be that 4,000-seat theater guy,” she recalls. “He was teetering between, and they’re so different. He’d made the Riser album, which had ‘Hold On’ and ‘Drunk on a Plane,’ and he called me, saying, ‘Are you sure about [headlining amphitheaters]?’ We didn’t know, but I felt it. I said, ‘Yes. We are putting those dates on sale. We’re going for it.’”
Harrington remembers peeking from behind the curtain on the tour’s opening night in Charlotte: “We’d sold 11,000 tickets, but when I looked to see if they’d really shown up, and they had, I had tears in my eyes.”
Bentley’s musical restlessness and Harrington’s gut led to the bluegrass-grounded Vanderbilt grad playing Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and the Teluride Bluegrass Festival. The two merged sensibilities – acoustic greats like Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas to duets with Brothers Osborne and Brandi Carlile to the ironic ‘90s novelty Hot Country Knights – and redefined the country music space.
In 2018, Bentley launched the three-day Seven Peaks Music Festival in Buena Vista, Colo., designed to be family friendly and balancing acts fans knew and acts he loved. Its sold-out inaugural year was a smash.
“Everything about Seven Peaks is so him: the artists, the idea of community for the fans, for the musicians,” Harrington says. “There’s a real sense of collaboration, turning people onto music. He loves musical collaborations; he came up in the clubs, so musicians playing together makes him happy. When he didn’t have money for big shows, that’s part of how he entertained.”
Those collaborative instincts led to Bentley’s performance at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards, where he covered U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” with The War and Treaty and a backing band that included Larkin Poe’s Rebecca and Megan Lovell.
Collaboration also resulted in the unlikely 2016 No. 1 “Different For Girls,” with torn fishnets siren Elle King. The song – a rebuke of male hookup, punchdown culture – was startling for bro country. “The pushback we got about that song, that it wasn’t different for girls,” Harrington says. “But releasing it felt right. It’s still one of his biggest streaming songs.”
King, who’d had alt-rock and pop success, loved Harrington’s collaborative and creative vision and signed with Red Light Nashville. She recently teamed with Miranda Lambert for “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home).”
Harrington has helped Red Light’s Coran Capshaw build his Nashville division, and also works tirelessly to find and foster diverse voices across the industry. She’s especially proud of her work through CMA to aid those in the entertainment industry who’ve struggled during the pandemic.
“I helped build a program called MICS (Music Industry COVID) in my role as Chairman of the Board for the Country Music Association that supports the entire music industry across all genres,” she says. “We’ve given over $3 million and supported a lot of partner organizations like Touring Professionals Association (TPA), Music Health Alliance and MusiCares on issues ranging from food insecurity to housing to health insurance.”
She’s also developed content – artist-driven and purely creative – for various platforms and outlets. Not ready to make announcements, the smile in her voice when she teases it is obvious.
Along the way, she’s realized, “When you do something for your heart, something that feeds your soul, you win, whether it’s a festival or a collaboration, starting a business or doing something completely different. You might not see it in the beginning, but I’ve watched enough grow – one projects after another – with my clients and my friends, I know it’s true.
“In 2005, there were no other women really doing management, but it didn’t occur to me that a woman couldn’t do it. There were no role models; Marion Kraft was in L.A. doing day-to-day on the Chicks and working with Miranda, but I trusted my instincts – and here we are.
“There’s no school for your gut. The instinctual, decision-making thing can’t be taught.But I think if you watch, ask yourself why, you can start to sense what works.”
The business philosophy you live by?
Make decisions based on love and not money.
Which music artist or band has most helped you get through this year?
Justin Bieber. “Peaches” in particular – I’m probably responsible for at least 1000 of its Spotify streams!
The artist you would most like to see live when touring and festivals return?
When it’s safe to do so, will you go back to the office, work remotely or a combination of both? Why?
I’m already working in a combination, and I think it is the perfect way to ease back into “life as we knew it.”
Artists to watch breaking next year?
In country, I think the next artist to break is going to be Hardy.
How do you think livestreaming will or won’t be integrated into your business going forward?
I’m not sure…I think there is a lot of digital fatigue, so it definitely wouldn’t be a big part of my strategy.
Your favorite music documentary – recent or old?
“It all Begins With A Song”
Zoom, Clubhouse or TikTok? Why?
TikTok all day – I need the laughs!