From Southern Rock To Punk To Christian To Country: John Huie On His CMA Lifetime Achievement Award

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CAA’s John Huie receives the CMA Touring Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 CMA Touring Awards on Jan. 30, 2023, at Marathon Music Works in Nashville. He’s pictured with CAA’s Rod Essig.

Calling CAA Nashville co-founder and co-head John Huie “a consummate agent” is like saying “ice cream’s delicious.” Who better to receive the 2022 CMA Touring Awards Lifetime Achievement Award than the gregarious man who’s served as touring pivot for a vast lineup for artists ranging from Gang of Four to Kelsea Ballerini, Amy Grant to The Go-Go’s, Zac Brown Band to Dwight Yoakam?

But even more than his impact on country music, John Huie has impacted multiple flavors of contemporary music. Getting his start at Georgia’s legendary Southern rock agency Paragon, he cut his teeth on the Allman Brothers Band and Charlie Daniels. When Paragon shuttered, he followed Ian Copeland to New York City to be part of the agency who’d unleash punk on the U.S. through Frontier Booking; there he also took Grant, then moving from theaters to arenas, and introduced her to rock promoters, ever changing the business dynamic of Christian artists.

After stints at his own agency, H-1, which was purchased by ICM, Huie went from running ICM’s West Coast Contemporary Music Department to starting CAA’s Nashville office with Ron Baird.

An eight-time Pollstar Third Coast Agent of the Year, Georgia Music Hall of Famer, 2022 Gospel Music Association Leadership Award winner and Grammy winner for “The Apostle” soundtrack, the 66-year old’s life is some story.

Pollstar: CMA Touring Awards … Lifetime Achievement?! Only given four times.
John Huie: My first reaction was ‘I’m not dead yet!’

When Ron Baird passed, Rod Essig joked, “I may tire, but I’ll never retire.” We will probably be found with our phone clutched in our hands.

But you’ve got to recognize your impact.
I make a huge effort to honor others. Barbara Hubbard – “Mother Hubbard.” She’s 95 years old and had more impact on college entertainment than anyone!

Obviously bringing CAA to Nashville in ’92 was massive. But going back to your punk days, what was working with Ian Copeland at FBI like?
Extremely freeing. There were no barriers or boundaries, no rules.

Y’all had a definite way of doing things.
(laughs) We owned two vans we paid $4,000 for each. One held 15 people; one for gear – and a tour manager who could rub two nickels together and get a quarter. We brought bands over here, sent them out – CBGB, the 9:30 Club, wherever – arguing for $500, $1000 dates. I sold Seth Hurwitz his first act, The Cramps!

You know that’s crazy.
We were too ignorant to know you couldn’t do it. Every band from England – English Beat, Squeeze, UB40 – whomever, they’d hear about what their friends were doing and want to come over. We got our hands dirty, building something no one had seen. Remember: Ian had been living in the UK, so he knew these acts.

People forget that.
Miles Copeland started IRS Records, Stewart, their brother, started the Police. Their dad started CIA. They were ahead of the times …

You brought the acts in, word would travel. Underground papers were the internet then. We signed R.E.M. out of the 688 Club in Atlanta. Maybe 100 people in the room. That didn’t last long.

You’ve always gone where the music was.
When I walked into the Dixie Tavern on a Thursday night, and there were 400 people singing every word to Zac Brown’s songs, I was in. We signed Lady A out of 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville. So, yes.

Even though you were at a punk agency, you ended up signing Amy Grant, then Michael W. Smith.
Amy was out there doing big business, and the country was split between four Christian promoters. The deal was not artist friendly. Selling out and adding second shows on the deal. It was $7,500 against 35% of the gross. Her tour manager Malcolm Greenwood booked college shows – and went on to be one of those promoters.

I was in Detroit at a Go-Go’s/INXS show and one of the bus drivers had on an Amy Grant On Tour golf shirt; the logo said “Greenwood Concerts.” It was him. I’d done college deals with him at Paragon. So I tracked him down – and in the conversation, he tells me she’s going from theaters to arenas; he was worried he was going to get pushed back. They’d sold out two Universal Amphitheaters and were going into the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden, but I told him Radio City is a better profile play. I was just trying to be helpful.

When I called John Scher, he said, “Christians, they play clubs?” I said, “No.” He asked, “Theaters?” And I said “Rochester, and it’s the arena.” He asked for a couple hours. Two hours later, he called back, saying, “You’re confirmed. How many cities can I have?”

Christian trips people up.
One of my old lines is, “When you go to Paris, you go to the Louvre. You see Christian art, but you don’t call it a Christian museum.” It’s the same thing. We put it in a category for simplicity sake, so the promoters could dictate the terms. When the world stepped in, there was competition.

Michael W. Smith followed, Stephen Curtis Chapman, DC Talk. So I started my own company H-1.

Which you sold.
I’d gotten married and had my first son, Ryan. ICM was asking me to come run their West Coast Contemporary Music Department. It was a five-year contract, which was stability. I had all my Christian acts, plus we signed everyone from the Jets to Richard Marx.

How did CAA happen?
Halsey (Agency) was being sold to William Morris. Ron Baird had Little Texas, Billy Dean and Clint Black. Clint was managed by Bill Ham, who had a strong relationship with Tom Ross, through ZZ Top. So the plan became me starting this Nashville office with Ron. I’d repped Dwight Yoakam and Dolly Parton at ICM in LA, but they’d left for CAA because of acting. When I moved to CAA, we were reunited.

We had my whole Christian roster, too. Not bad for two guys and two assistants.

Nashville had to be another world.
(laughs) This is gonna take a while to get used to, I thought, coming from punk and Christian. It was something very different. But Hal Ketchum, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, that singer/songwriter stuff I really loved. It reminded me of the California singer/songwriters.

Miles even decided he wanted a taste. So he partnered with Anastasia Brown on a three-piece called The Ranch, fronted by a kid named Keith Urban. God blesses in many ways. (laughter)

When did Rod Essig join you?
In 1993. He didn’t have any acts. We’d just signed Barbara Mandrell and said, “Let’s give her to him …” To this day, she still tells people Rod’s her agent.

That was a moment for Nashville.
The LA Times did an article about who’d moved, and I was one of them. Six o’clock showcases meant doing it before dinner so people could get home to their families. It really changed how we lived.

It’s always evolving; the pendulum is always swinging one way or the other musically. When I came to town, there were the singers and the songwriters. Artists like Luke Combs, Taylor Swift, even Kelsea Ballerini singing their stuff is the rock thing of telling their stories through their own eyes.

The content of their music is what’s leading to big success. Being true to yourself and your fan base, more than the hunk or the beauty queen is where it’s at now.

It comes down to leadership.
Look at Rob Light. He’s the only one I can call “Partner” and “Boss” in the same phrase with a smile on my face. He has a servant’s heart.

How’re you bouncing back post-COVID?
Richard Lovitz’s quote, “It’s associates first” says it all. The team approach here isn’t just what you sign. The idea of compensation is based on the overall health of the company, the idea it’s not what you do, but the overall success really helped.

When Rob said, “We’re all taking pay cuts,” I said “Thank you,” because nobody was working. Those film and sports guys were, and they helped us. You can always say CAA’s been fair, because it’s always been about the entire team.

Back to your award…
I am 66. This will be my 45th year as an agent. That really is a lifetime. It’s a humbling experience and it gave me a sense of pause and reflection. For artists, awards are an opportunity to be recognized, even being nominated, because it says you’ve done well.
It also makes you go, “I’m not done yet! How can I do better?”

We have great young agents. I want to help set them up for success. Again, the more we can promote and build people up, the more we’re making it happen.