WME Nashville Co-Head & Partner Jay Williams: Three Young Men & One Great Love (Music)
Caroline Williams – Jay Williams
“You can learn a lot about music in Chattanooga,” says WME Nashville co-head Jay Williams about growing up in East Tennessee. “My mother worked on the River Bend (Festival) committee, and I saw all kinds of music there. I saw Lyle Lovett play to 200 people, Jason and the Scorchers played their whole show in the rain… It wasn’t just country, or rock, or bluegrass, but people who loved music and were curious to check it out.”
Growing up in a town of 30,000, Williams laughs about Chattanooga getting the third or fourth leg of tours from Bon Jovi, Chicago or Hall & Oates. But he also knows once he and his friends were old enough to drive, they were heading to Knoxville, Atlanta and Athens to see shows. Being a forestry/geology major from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., didn’t set him up for a career in music, which he loved, but turning into the kid who booked all the bands gave him a taste for putting talent in front of people.
With a path that included Wyoming as a fly fishing guide; back home to Cleveland, Tenn., to work at a collections agency while trying to get an MBA at UT Chattanooga; a foot on the bottom-most rung of the agency business and a house without air-conditioning with future country star Dierks Bentley and Q Prime South Head of Touring Fielding Logan; plus every little club where music was played, a healthy dose of bluegrass, led Williams to good mentors and a stellar roster that includes Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Gillian Welch, Chris Stapleton, Elle King, Vince Gill and yes, Bentley.
Embodied by a passion for artists who are different and a desire to feed people’s musical hungers, he matches that passion with his respect for the teamwork inherent to William Morris/Endeavour, where he helps lead the Nashville office with his equally music-forward co-heads Scott Clayton, Becky Gardenhire and Joey Lee.
This interview is excerpted from Pollstar’s 2021 Booking Agency Directory, which is available at pollstar.com/store.
Pollstar: Nickel Creek is what got you off being a straight Desk Assistant for the wonderful Keith Miller, and then they were the pivot for Fielding out of business management.
Jay Williams: John Peets was working for Mike Robertson. Keith Miller booked a lot of his acts. So, he and I were on the phone all day, every day. When he signed Nickel Creek, he asked me to be the agent – and that’s how that started. It wasn’t like anything else out there, but my philosophy was different. I’d sign something a year before a record deal, roll up my sleeves and go to work. I didn’t wait for radio or whatever, I’d figure out how to sell the music I was so passionate about it, Rick figured, “go ahead.”
And that’s kind of what happened with Eric Church, too.
Eric was selling out arenas before he had a Top 10. Eric was pivoting to play rock clubs because of the Rascal Flatts situation. I’ve told the story a million times, but we were scrambling to play him anywhere we could. We had four or five days to figure it out, so people (going to the Flatts shows) could come see him after. We were doing door deals in some places; in Memphis, it was a rooftop bar on Beale Street ‘cause it was all there. But it turned out to be a blessing, because his music should incubate in rock rooms. And when you wanna tour, you wanna play Monday and Tuesday nights, a lot of those big honky tonks don’t do that.
You’re very hands on, very intentional.
I felt you needed to be building your story on the road as you’re doing all the other things. Dierks wanted to play 150, 200 shows a year. That’s not easy, especially when he was at that club and small theater level. But you really study the map, think about when to go back – and again, we have a great team here where people really pull together to help when you can explain the vision.
And I have to tell you: selling out a 500-600-seater is as exciting as selling out a stadium, to something no one else is seeing that has yet be validated. A club tour selling out is a great feeling; you feel like you’ve done something really good for society. That’s my favorite part of the job.
You were willing to take Dierks crazy places. Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo.
He was getting press you wouldn’t expect. Early on, whether it was (then manager Scott) Kernahan, or Mary Hilliard, we were all thinking the same thing. The C3 guys at Lollapalooza were friends from other things I’d done with them, so when I asked, they figured, why not? Dierks loved U2, he had that part of him.
I remember Ashley (Capps) calling, asking, “What do you think about Dierks on Bonnaroo?” I didn’t know how that would go, but again, he was always willing. I remember being nervous: Gillian went on before him, and I realized there was enough time for the pretty massive crowd in the tent to empty out before Dierks ever got onstage. I looked as Dierks was walking up and realized the people were staying. That was such a big deal. It hit me how the fans don’t need labels. Bluegrass, country, rock, alternative, they just want it to be good.
Courtesy of Jay Williams – Roomies
Jay Williams and Dierks Bentley at Red Rocks.
Dierks inadvertently led you to another of your acts.
One year, I left South By Southwest early and flew to Albany, Georgia, which is not easy to get to. Henry Glasscock, who was a promoter at the time, said, “You gotta see this local kid we’ve got opening.”
When Dierks saw me, he was like, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m here to see you, but I’m gonna check out this kid who’s opening for you.” It was a hometown play for the most part, but the second Luke Bryan came out, he had everyone in the palm of his hand. He just knew how to do this, like he’d already had his 10,000 hours.
Some acts just have it. Luke was one. When I actually spent some time with him – he was there with his parents, and he and Caroline were dating – I could tell how smart he was, how hard he was willing to work. But everything around him was solid. You know, you wanna work with people who are hard-working, but you also want to work with people who you’d be proud to have as part of your family.
Luke had that all-American working kid frat thing. You drilled into it.
Dierks, too. It was a lot of that college strategy that Henry Glasscock as a promoter was using. He’d leave a bunch of these pirated “burned” CDs – or get the labels to give him a few 100 – just leave’em behind at the frat houses. I was always, “Look, I don’t wanna hear about it,” but it was working. We could feel it, and it felt good. Plus, Luke was closer to radio and what worked. He was getting tour opportunities and festivals because he was getting airplay. That was a luxury.
A plan is a plan until you tear it up and make a new plan. We may have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, then not use any of them. Pay attention, then act accordingly.
Did you learn that from one of your mentors?
Actually, all of them in different ways. You know, working for Keith Miller, one of the first things I learned was how to treat people. He treated everybody, assistants, mailroom people, even buyers who burned him, with this incredible humility and respect, even grace when it was someone who’d crossed him. He just believed in tomorrow… and was about that.
Learning from Greg Oswald, it was always about stepping back and really taking in the big picture. It was never get so caught up in a deal, a tour, a moment that you miss the long-haul right thing. When you do that, it really helps with the big decisions.
Booking clubs, it was tougher. People flake on you, or don’t take your call. It really is patience and strategy and faith in your artists. That passion does a lot of things. The passion was 100% Rick Shipp! Not many people would let you know their opinion more readily, nor would they fight for an act like Rick. Watching that really empowered me with those acts that were different.
It’s easy to sign what’s working, just do the same thing. It’s easy, but it’s not interesting, and I’m not sure artists who are a lot like someone else have longevity.
Any other mentors?
Mike Dungan, who’s been a mentor to me more than he knows. He’s treated me exactly the same when I was in the mailroom as now. He showed me there’s no reason to be an asshole or treat anybody badly no matter where you are or who they are; he really worked with us on our artists to bring them to new levels of success. He understands it should always be collaborative and fun.
Speaking of plans and mentors, how has “this year” impacted the Nashville office?
This time last year, we had to let a good chunk of agents and team go. Losing colleagues is never fun, and that was awful. But people all leaned in and supported each other in so many ways. Whether it was assistants doubling up, adjusting territories, all kinds of small things, everyone rolled up their sleeves and had the attitude, “Let’s figure this out.”
We lived on Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings. When we all went home, I wasn’t sure how we were going to do this. But people stepped up. And it wasn’t just Joey or Becky or Scott, but literally everyone looked around at what was needed – and did it. Some of the staff would say, “Don’t worry. I can lead that meeting,” or when we were rerouting something for the however many’th time, just be the best sport about it.
This company, the people who work here and the spirit is incredible. When Ari came on, he said, “We’re taking the silos down.” He drew this picture, and all the lines from when we went from William Morris to Endeavor, they were blurred. Whatever you needed, you had access. And that culture carried over to Nashville.
Lizzo is repped out of here. Dead & Co., John Mayer, Jason Isbell, Elle King. I’ve always thought Nashville’s more than country music. It’s the foundation, but there’s so much more. We’re embracing all of it. s