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Del Bryant Keeps Humming Along

Long before Del Bryant was named president and CEO of the music rights giant BMI, he was a boy growing up in a unique Nashville home. His parents were a highly acclaimed songwriting pair, and country music royalty—Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, Minnie Pearl—were familiar faces around the house, working with Boudleaux and Felice Bryant on that confounding art of songcraft.

Bryant had a taste of songwriting success himself, but felt his best service to the industry was helping artists make the most of their creative gifts while at BMI.

The B&C Hall of Famer will retire from BMI in June, at which point he will return to Nashville, work on his family’s vast song catalog, raise horses and cows and teach his young son, Thaddeus, about life on a farm.

Bryant will receive the Golden Mike award on Feb. 24—honoring his dedication to the industry—from the Broadcasters Foundation of America, which has distributed millions of dollars in aid to broadcasters in need. He spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about his colorful life and career.

An edited transcript follows.

What are you most proud of across your four-plus decades at BMI?

Golly, I hear that question and it’s impossible to say. I guess I’m most proud that, in a world where people switch horses so often, I’ve been able to manage a career at one incredibly grand company. And I’ve been able to work in so many different ends of it and truly feel that I’ve made a meaningful contribution to something that’s important to me and to my family and to so many people in the creative business.

Your parents were famous songwriters. Are you a songwriter yourself?

I have dabbled in those waters on occasion. In 1972 I’d written a few songs, some with my father and mother. Then in 1978, I guess you could say I just got lucky. I wrote something quickly and pitched it to a friend who was getting ready to produce an act. The song was sung by a country artist by the name of Billy “Crash” Craddock. It appeared in the movie Convoy, which starred Kris Kristofferson, who will be singing on my behalf at the Golden Mike Awards. My song went to No. 4 in Billboard magazine; I had my 15—I don’t know if it was minutes or seconds—of fame.

I was already at BMI, working with writers on a day-to-day basis. But I have to say it made me feel like I’d made my bones, that I was truly in the right place, doing the right thing. I knew I had not been adopted—it was in my blood! My father said, ‘Wow, you’ve got a hit, you need to pay more attention to this, be a songwriter.’ But I was just happy to have it under my belt. It’s easier to get hit by lightning than be a hit songwriter. And to repeat a hit is the hardest thing ever. I’m a one-hit wonder!

What’s the song’s title?

I’m not all that proud of the title, though I’m tickled to death to have written it. It’s called “I Cheated on a Good Woman’s Love.” It’s a standard rockabilly cheatin’ song. If it had been done by an R&B act, it would be a standard R&B cheatin’ song. If it was a pop act, it would be a standard pop cheatin’ song.

Tell me about the stars around your house growing up.

We had everybody: People like the Everly Brothers and Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, and a lot of the one-hit wonders, like Mark Dinning, who [sang] “Teen Angel,” which my dad produced and wrote the B side for. Ray Peterson, a one-hit wonder with “Tell Laura I Love Her.” They were looking for hit songs, and my folks were one of the big suppliers. It was a who’s who of country, a who’s who of pop and rock ‘n’ roll, and people like Burl Ives and Robert Mitchum, who were very good friends of my family; from time to time they would come to town to cut an album, and have my dad write it.

I remember their faces because they’d get right down in your face when you were in the cradle. Chet Atkins, Eddie Arnold, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Minnie Pearl. Jimmie Rodgers, who sang “Honeycomb.” We had a zip code smack dab in the middle of country music.

How do you discover music these days?

I’m uniquely blessed in that I have a staff in Nashville, L.A., London, Atlanta and New York that turn me on to what’s happening. I don’t really have to go looking, I just have to keep up with the ears of BMI employees.

How does the broadcast business look from where you sit?

It’s certainly had its challenges with consolidation and so many other things happening.

Radio can benefit from the kinds of personalities my generation grew to love, whether it’s a Porky Chedwick or a Wolfman Jack—golly, if we sat around I could name six or seven or eight classic disk jockeys. You associated with those people. We all know the importance of local and speaking to your community. If we could unleash more of these local star jocks, radio could go through a rebirth. I love personality on local radio and would love to see it come back.

There’s a big competition out there for ears. Whether it’s satellite, a device you put in your ear, broadcast radio—there’s a plethora of ways to get your music. Music is more important than ever, not simply because we listen to it in so many different fashions but because we still want to listen to it—more hours are consumed than ever before, more products are branded with music. There are more music shows, music in the Super Bowl. Every one of the Olympians sits around listening to their iPod, trying to become inspired.

It’s very important to monetize all the streams, performances, all the ways people enjoy music to make sure the people who created it are fairly compensated in a way that engenders tremendous amounts of new music. There are so many more genres, so many different appetites for a broader array of music—it’s important we keep nurturing that.

Why is the Broadcasters Foundation important to you?

It is serving an important constituency, people from all parts of broadcasting who are part of the fabric of the entertainment industry. They are people who through no fault of their own have fallen on hard times, whether it’s because of their health, or a Katrina or Sandy or some other catastrophic situation. I feel very proud to be part of an organization that helps them.

It’s safe to say the reason I’m involved is [Foundation chairman] Phil Lombardi just doesn’t take no from anybody. He’s a forceful power for this organization and has really taken this on in a very, very personal way and brought together people who can make a difference and convinced all of us to do God’s work. I’ve read many accounts of people affected by the contributions. I’m sure you have too.

This year we are giving out close to a million dollars in grants. That’s probably not enough, but it’s so much more than it used to be. The people who it helps are changed. I’m very proud to be a part of that.

What are your retirement plans?

I’m gonna go down to Nashville. I say I’m going back home, but I’ve been in New York for 28 years! My home is Nashville. My brother and I own my family’s copyrights and of course the writer’s share of hits like “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Love Hurts” [and] “Rocky Top,” our state song. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done with that catalogue that we kind of gracefully ignored. My parents were very fortunate to write a handful of standards, but they also wrote thousands of other [songs]. I’m going to immerse myself in their past creations and see if I can introduce them to people who might be interested. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open— who knows what opportunities will come up that might have nothing do with the industry but might be a helluva lot of fun.

More importantly, my 9-year-old son—I really look forward to raising him in a world where you can have a cow and a horse and a dozen dogs and a few cats in a barn. So we bought a farm. “Green Acres” is something I keep humming.

What has kept you at BMI for so many years?

It’s really great work, serving creative types. My folks, as you know, were celebrated songwriters. Being involved with creators is a different kind of involvement. They’re strung a little different than the average guitar; what’s important to them is a little bit different, the way they look at the world is a little oddball. Serving and working with types of people that generally are not as geared toward business and taking care of their own business interests as well as creating works of art out of the ether—working on their behalf has just been a joy. At BMI, we work with broadcasters that provide that bridge which ensures that the artists’ work is heard by a broader community, that it is compensated for, that people who want to hear [the music] can use it. It’s just been a wonderful experience.

What is it like for a songwriter today versus when you started at BMI 42 years ago?

I think it’s a lot different yet very similar in many ways. The writer is still desperately looking for someone to appreciate his wares and help him bring his music to a broader public and help him feel as though his creations are important. BMI is very involved in nurturing all those emotions and helping people make the next step in their career. That still is very, very much the same.

The things that have changed are, it used to be so many, many, many independent publishers who were involved in listening to the music—what I call music men or music women, who really listen to songwriters and knock on doors aggressively to look for the next big thing, as we at BMI are doing on a day-to-day basis. So many small and vibrant independent companies have been absorbed into extremely large international corporate structures. There was a time when the relationships were far more organic, and came from so many different corners of the musical landscape. It was easier for a writer to find someone really interested in their music, whether in a publishing or production capacity. These days it’s a little bit hard for a writer to know exactly where to go. It certainly keeps BMI busier than ever. Sometimes I think the hugeness of several primary companies has really made it more difficult for a writer or creator to find their public easily.

Phil Everly recently died. Were you close to Phil?

I was very close with Phil. I spoke with him shortly before he passed. What a tender-hearted, unpretentious, wonderful guy. He was, without a doubt, the master of harmony.

No one harmonizes like a pair of brothers…

I’ve heard that repeated my whole life. I would suggest, no brothers ever harmonized as well as the Everlys.

Do you watch Nashville on ABC?

I’ve seen it. I’m good friends with the executive producers and I’ve met many people who work on it. I really, really hope the show can build on its success. It’s really nice for Nashville to have a show that in many ways is representative of some of the actual mechanics of city. It truly uses really well written contemporary country songs and some classic country music. I think that’s good for Nashville and I hope the show continues to build.

Which musical acts are catching your attention, whether or not they are part of the BMI stable?

After 42 years of working at BMI it’s very hard to take an agnostic view. But I will say I’m most impressed by Bruno Mars in his short career. I really think he is a talented gentleman. Others who have caught my eye and indeed caught the eyes of the world—it doesn’t seem much beyond yesterday when Taylor Swift came to BMI at 14. I’ve had the occasion over quite a few years to talk with her and, as everyone else has, watch her career. Every time I’m around her I’m impressed with the maturity that she displays, even from her youngest age. Her intellect, her passion for what she does and her great concern not only for whomever she is speaking with but fans and the industry itself—I think that she is one impressive young lady.

I am more and more enthusiastic about what we’ll call urban or rap music, which has become more infused with melody and what I would call pop elements. So many people really propel that music, such as Drake and Lil Wayne, to so many of the pop groups that use those techniques to further elaborate on the story and the song. It’s a little bit more mainstream than it was a number of years ago and a little more entertaining.

Country music couldn’t be more vibrant—it’s great to see all these young stars like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert.

Are songwriters and artists properly compensated on digital platforms like Pandora and Spotify?

I was raised and fed and clothed and sheltered on the pennies and nickels and dimes my family made from record sales. I’ve never been one to say yes, everyone gets everything they deserve. I’m always pushing to try to find fair payment for the creative community. I’d be the last guy to say it’s all well and good. I think certain areas of our business more fairly compensate the creator than others. I believe Spotify and Pandora and a lot newer business models are operating, to a certain extent, models that don’t fairly compensate writers and publishers. It makes their business model work and returns [more] to shareholders, a better promise of growth to shareholders. But the developers of those business models, I don’t think they necessarily [are entitled to say] writers and any of creative [entities] that go into their presentations are fairly compensated.

Final thoughts as you work towards retirement?

I couldn’t be happier at this time of my career. I’m leaving BMI in the hands of an extremely strong team led by [CEO] Michael O’Neill, who has all the right instincts to head a company such as ours. I’m very proud to have somebody come from the inside; I of course came from the inside. Mike is a sharp, sharp gentleman, well liked in the industry. BMI is in the right hands.

And I couldn’t be happier be honored with the Golden Mike. I’m honored to be among many of the pioneers of the broadcast industry, [past winners such as] Virginia Hubbard Morris, Catherine Hughes, who revolutionized black radio, [former BMI president/CEO] Frances Preston, one of my dearest friends in life and a mentor. The fact that she was honored with the Golden Mike is very heartwarming to me. So many great broadcasters—Ken Lowe, Anne Sweeney, Alan Frank, David Barrett—I’m in such incredible company. I seem unworthy.

And I couldn’t be prouder that Kris [Kristofferson] is going to be there. I don’t know how many people know Kris’ chops as songwriter or a country music legend…forget country music, just as a legend. He said, Del, I will be there for you. [Singer-songwriter] Brenda Russell, an old, old dear friend. Michael Bolton, a friend for 20 years; I met my bride through an event for his foundation. I’m just happy all the people are going to be there to celebrate this evening and the success of the foundation.

I couldn’t be happier.