In Tribute: Ben Farrell, One Of A Kind; From Elvis & Neil Diamond To Garth & Alan Jackson
When word Ben Farrell, the singular concert promoter known for his work with Elvis Presley and Guy Lombardo all the way through George Strait, Miranda Lambert and Garth Brooks’ herculean stadium plays, had died, those in the Nashville “know” were stunned.
A text from UTA’s Curt Motley and TKO Management’s TK Kimbrell – the two men responsible for Toby Keith’s rise to superstardom – to WME’s Joey Lee turned a suggestion to meet for lunch on Aug. 16 into a 2 p.m. “toast” that became an ad hoc summit meeting at Nashville’s Losers, where wannabes, wait’n’sees and industry leaders come looking to unplug.
Erv Woosley, who manages Strait; Bob Doyle, Garth Brooks’ longtime leader; Brian O’Connell, Live Nation’s head of country touring; and former Buddy Lee Attractions co-head Tony Conway, now steering Alabama; were among the people who came, laughed, remembered and shed tears in honor of the old school visionary who’d lived through package shows, promoters dealing direct with buildings, agents and now tour consolidation.
The irony: Farrell died Aug. 10. Deeply private – and prone to uttering “Strictly Confidentially Between Us…” – and not one to attract attention, many friends were unaware he’d been diagnosed with late-stage cancer in June. O’Connell, who’d started working with Farrell on Keith in 2002, said, “I found out when I got the text he was dead. Classic Ben.”
Ben Kerby Farrell was born July 17, 1946 in Jackson, Tennessee. His father played pro baseball and managed the Indians, so BKF grew up on the road and fell in love with the game. He went to David Lipscomb College on a full scholarship, was drafted by the Phillies in 1966 and played for the Astros and White Sox farm teams. In 1968, he was drafted – and served his country for two years, training troops for Vietnam.
His first “gig” in show business was selling tickets on street corners for a piped-in Muhammed Ali fight being shown in a local auditorium, before he became athletic – and entertainment – director of the Tennessee State Prison. Peer, partner and dear friend Reggie Churchwell shared, “Guess where he read the paper and drank his coffee every morning? That’s right! Old Sparky!!”
That brashness, coupled with a photographic memory and hunger to bring fans to artists, led Farrell away from the electric chair to Varnell Enterprises in 1970. A family business at a time when package shows were king, Farrell not only promoted Elvis Presley, Guy Lombardo, Tom Jones and Elton John, he recognized there was money in country – and signed up Charlie Pride, then Ronnie Milsap, followed by the Statler Brothers, Bob Lumen, Barbara Mandrell and many more.
He explored country music in arenas with the iconic ‘80s Marlboro Country Tours – with three headliners and a few support acts – to create a more “rock” perception, having had success with Pride as a true hard-ticket seller. That was what made Farrell stand out. O’Connell explains, “The big rock promoters didn’t want to touch [country] unless it was in a club or the name was Cash. And at a lot of companies, country acts were no different than the freaking circus.”
Woolsey teamed with Farrell to take Strait out of Texas: “Webster Dictionary should put a picture of Ben by the definition of a concert promoter. He was the best!”
Whether it was making sure every bit of media broke at once, reaching out to the tiniest mom- and-pop radio stations or knowing what was going on in the community, he knew everyone. Kimbrell laughs thinking about it.
“You’d get that call on a Saturday morning, and Toby was hotter than a pistol. He’d say – in that voice – ‘We’ve not gone to Fort Wayne yet, and it’s 96.3 miles from the back door of that venue.’ He’d know exactly. Or, ‘There’s a 10,000-watter outside Columbus, and it’s only a 45-minute drive.’ He’d drive to every single station and building; he had encyclopedic knowledge of not just music and artists, but each seat in a building.
“He’d tell me. ‘You only got a few tickets left. I just need you to call ’em in the 10 a.m. hour.’
“And I’d say, ‘Ben, nobody wants to hear me…’ Mind you, he knew the GM, PD, and MD, but Ben would be giving me the name and direct number to the Saturday morning DJ. He knew them, too. He’d say, ‘Well, do you wanna sell it out or not?!’”
Kimbrell made the calls. Morris Higham partner Clint Higham did, too, when Kenny Chesney was turning into a million-tickets-a-year seller.
“Ben Farrell didn’t mess with you if you couldn’t sell tickets,” Kimbrell says. “He was hands on. He only worked with you if he believed you could do it, and we all wanted to have an act that earned Ben’s attention.”
Earning Farrell’s attention was everything. Retired agent James Yelich, calling from South America, remembers the earliest days of Alan Jackson. “He was already a legend when I met him,” Yelich recalls. “I’ll never forget going to the Ace of Clubs to see him play; Ben comes up to me and says, ‘I think there’s a possibility with him. But my God – he’s got to get out of the Levis, put on some Wranglers and a belt! He looks like a surfer up there.”
The surfer and the promoter figured things out. Jackson’s trust was absolute. “Ben worked on a lot of shows for me over the years,” the country legend says. “You always knew you were in good hands. He knew every radio station, no matter how small, knew who to call at each one. You knew there wasn’t going to be any stone left unturned by Ben. He even knew if the local high school football team was playing that night and how it might impact the show. He worked hard to make sure everything was a success and was a gentleman while doing it.”
Ray Waddell, a longtime journalist who now oversees Pollstar for Oak View Group, spoke with Farrell – mostly off the record – in covering the industry for more than 30 years. “Ben Farrell’s brain was a supercomputer and his integrity was beyond question. He could quote precise ticket counts from some random ‘90s Strait show in Fargo, N.D., down to the singles, pointing out, ‘It was so cold, people would reach to get their tickets out of the box office window and draw back a nub.’ Then he’d add, ‘I am not exaggerating one iota.’”
Brooks, another early ‘90s upstart, redefined the possibilities of what country could do. Beyond being the biggest-selling recording artist of that era in any genre, he could do multiple nights in arenas as Farrell put date after date on sale in his strategic way.
Honoring him at the funeral, Brooks – whose team shared the news of Farrell’s death – was hilarious, honest and especially heartfelt. Beyond a spot-on Farrell impression, the Country Music Hall of Famer expressed something more intrinsic than business: “He was a man’s man… Some people show you the window to how the world should be. That was Ben.”
ShopKeeper Management’s Marion Kraft concurs. “There was never a Thanksgiving that I didn’t get a text. More than the business, caring about life and his people mattered.”
So much so that, when Brooks came out of retirement, Farrell wanted Miranda Lambert’s manager to see the artist he’d worked with for three decades. “When I got to my seats at Bridgestone, there was Ben standing and waiting for me. His family was a couple rows away, but he wanted to welcome me. All night, he came over to ask what I thought of this song or that; it was like having my own tour guide to Garth Brooks.”
Kraft, Lambert and team viewed Farrell as part of the family. “He was part of us,” Kraft says. “From the first No. 1 party for ‘White Liar’ to the opening of Casa Rosa, he was there for everything. He was so kind, and interesting, and willing to share.”
Brainstorming in April about Lambert’s “Bandwagon Tour,” Kraft asked if there was something from the past they should draw on. “I have to send you something, then I’ll call you back.”
An admat from 1973 arrived – “Sent by Yahoo on an Android” – for an Elvis tour.
When it went through, he called back and waited for Kraft to read. When she laughed, he said, “You got it!” The tagline: “This advertising is not intended to sell tickets – only to let our friends know where we are.”
A massive heart. Major prankster. Unrelenting UT Vols football fan. History buff. A man who could make kids into superstars, then supernovas. Jimmy Varnell, with whom he’d been friends since 13, talked about how loyal Farrell was to his mother Kathryn and the family’s Varnell Enterprises when his father had passed in 1991.
Stressing his loyalty “when he could’ve gone across the street…,” Varnell feigned a phone call with Ben in heaven, wondering why everyone in the office was at his funeral. “Don’t we have an onsale on Friday?” was the setup, and Woodmont Christian Church giggled knowlingly about Farrell’s unrelenting work ethic.
Clint Higham was learning from Ben long before they did business on Chesney or started having long lunches at Dennison’s Meat & Three. “Ben could get building deals nobody else could but, more than that, he really believed in the artists he worked with – and he’d go to battle for them. He liked pranking, but really liked knowing the artists got every penny they could when they played a town. He watched everything.”
UTA’s Motley agrees. “Ben had a carpet-bomb approach to promoting. If you had a 500-watt AM transmitter in a cemetery, you were important to him. Ben was always a big believer in a well-timed, coordinated ‘break’ and onsale. Everyone at the same time, so no one was missed.”
He also recognized that not all artists are created equal.
Joey Lee – who, like Motley and Doyle, served as one of Farrell’s pallbearers – remembers that lesson.
“Whether it was experience or intuition, Ben had the ability to identify a racehorse early – and he taught me to treat (those artists) accordingly – because they’re not all winners. He knew how to treat a high-dollar racehorse: You don’t over-run ’em. You train them in a different way. You feed them differently; don’t overexpose them.
“He also knew the importance of human connectivity. Not just the artists or the teams, but every person who worked in a building or radio station. Or the fans. He knew how to connect and wanted to know who they were, wanted to know the difference between Kenny’s fan base, versus Garth’s, versus Miranda’s.”
“I remember being an up-and-coming headliner,” Luke Bryan shares. “Finding out I was working with Ben, I knew some big stuff was about happen. The reason why was the pedigree of artists he worked with and the fact he told me my career was about to blow up. When Ben Farrell tells you ‘hold on to your ass,’ it’s about to happen. You better get ready. He was a special human.”
The human touch is part of what kept Farrell in the game after the big promoters started picking off country tours. As radio conglomerates replaced mom-and- pop country stations, O’Connell saw Farrell as a bridge between worlds.
“When the Clear Channels and big corporations happened, Ben was the cat they used to communicate on a totally different but respectful level,” O’Connell offers. “He was the OG who bridged the gap between the country promoters and the big rock ‘n’ roll people to where he could put nine, 10 shows back to back in a city.”
That ability to crush an onsale feeds the legend that Mick Jagger once called Farrell to ask about ticketing. Kimbrell says, “Not that Ben would have ever said anything.”
While O’Connell wasn’t originally thrilled to have Farrell become part of Keith’s touring, he confesses, “It was equal parts amped up and half-ass awkward 22 years ago. Why were they bringing in another promoter? I looked at him as competition. Then I realized, ‘If I don’t step up my game, I’m gonna get run over.’ He knew every marketing manager, building manager, promotion director and everyone else by name. Anywhere I went, Ben’d already been there.
“Then I realized he wasn’t doing it to be competitive, he was just being Ben Farrell. Once you figured that out, he was a great teammate. All those years, he never said anything to me other than encouraging stuff about the shows. He never criticized. Ever.”
His passion was another aspect of the competitive, no-ticket-left-unsold gentleman who spent 52 years working with Liberace, Lawrence Welk, Sonny & Cher, the Carpenters, Merle Haggard, Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley, Chris Young and many more. Beyond sheer promoting, there was also a morality he embodied. As Higham says directly, “In a business driven by ego, ignorance and greed, Ben was absolutely none of those. He cared and he gave all.
KP Entertainment’s Kerri Edwards marvels, “He was that quiet force who never wanted to let you down. He worked harder than anyone in the room, because he loved it. He lived and breathed country music, the artists he represented, the genre and business. I really want his daughter Ella Grace to know what a mark her Daddy left on this business. I hope she can see the lives he touched in our community, but also around the world, giving them a fun night out and taking their cares away.”
In a world where history is tossed away, Kimbrell worries about losing what Farrell represented. “When I talk to people about country music, they can’t go back further than Eric Church. They don’t know Toby, let alone Haggard and Jones; that shouldn’t get lost. How Ben did it and saw it; in our business, Ben Farrell was Haggard or Jones.”
Over and over, people referenced how he ended correspondence. Kraft explains, “Any time I’d get a text or an email, when he got to the end, it was always his initials. Always ‘10-4, BF.”
And at Losers, when those gathered got to the end of the toasts, O’Connell recalls, “We were all there, not quite sure what to say. Then, literally, all at once, everyone went, ’10-4, BF!’ Because that’s what it always was.”