NASHVILLE — Jo Walker-Meador, who rose from, in her words, the Country Music Association's "girl Friday" to its executive director, died early Wednesday morning in Nashville after suffering a stroke. She was 93 years old.
Her daughter, Michelle Walker, confirmed her death through a spokeswoman.
She was the first full-time employee the Country Music Association ever hired. The fledgling trade organization brought her on as office manager in the 1950s, a time when the genre was being overshadowed by rock 'n' roll. When she retired in 1991 after 29 years as the CMA's executive director, country music was an international juggernaut.
Under her leadership, the genre flourished. During her tenure as executive director, she oversaw the creation of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, CMA Awards and Fan Fair, which became CMA Fest.
"When you thought of the CMA, you thought of Jo Walker," said country legend Bill Anderson, a dear friend of Walker-Meador for nearly 60 years. "I never knew anybody in any business as devoted to her job, her cause and her people like she was."
Anderson added that Walker-Meador was "one of the sweetest people" he'd ever known, and a fierce advocate for country music and musicians: "We had to scratch and claw for everything back in those days. Jo could scratch and claw without people knowing they had been scratched and clawed. She left a mark on this town and this business that will never be erased."
Walker-Meador was born Edith Josephine Denning on Feb. 16, 1924, in Orlinda, Tenn. An avid basketball player, she dreamed of being a high school teacher and a women's basketball coach.
During World War II, she worked at the Vultee Aircraft Plant in Nashville and also attended the Watkins Institute, where she learned shorthand, typing and other office skills. Later, she attended Lambuth College and George Peabody College.
In 1958, the Country Music Association was created. “They wanted me to be the assistant, you know, the ‘girl Friday,’ ” Walker-Meador told The Tennessean during an interview from her apartment in May 2016. "I was to help with filing, and answering the phone, those sort of things."
After a short time on the job, executive director Harry Stone departed and Walker-Meador functionally filled in as the CMA chief. When the board set out to choose a new executive director, another influential country music woman spoke up on Walker-Meador’s behalf.
“I wasn’t there, but I’m told that Minnie Pearl said, ‘Jo’s doing all the work. Why don’t we just hire her?’ ” Walker-Meador remembered.
Walker-Meador accepted the job in 1962 and held it until her retirement in 1991. More than 1,000 people attended her retirement banquet, which was hosted by country legend Brenda Lee. "Your retirement is country music's loss," said Garth Brooks in a videotaped message that was played during the event.
That evening, Walker-Meador said, "The most satisfying part of it all is that I was able to know and work with all of you — you are my friends."
Even after her retirement, Walker-Meador devoted time to the CMA.
In 2016, Sarah Trahern, who was hired to CMA's top post in 2013, said she regularly called Walker-Meador for advice, particularly about how to work with the board of directors, and that Walker-Meador would visit the office and talk about her career with the CMA staff.
In 1994, the Country Music Association established the Jo Walker-Meador Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement by an individual or organization in supporting and advocating for country music outside of the United States, in her honor.
Walker-Meador was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the highest honor in the country music industry, in 1995.
"Jo Walker-Meador looked at a mid-sized Southern town and envisioned something grander," museum CEO Kyle Young said in a statement Wednesday morning. "She listened to music that was regional and knew that it could have worldwide impact. And then she quietly and gracefully ushered these things into being. She created grand scenes, then stood behind them. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum would not exist without her, and my life is one of millions that are better because of Jo Walker-Meador."
Funeral arrangements are not yet available.