Wade Jessen: An Appreciation
March 10, 2015
A lot of people knew Wade Jessen far better than me -- as evidenced by the heartfelt outpouring via Facebook and the trade media in the hours following his sudden, nearly unfathomable passing last Thursday (3/5) at just 53.
Nine North President Larry Pareigis perhaps said it best, posting, "I believe it's pretty safe to say that Nashville and Country music feel like it's been punched in the gut today. I know I do."
The gut, the kidney, the stomach and for us guys, somewhere else, too.
Wade had become a Nashville institution, helming Billboard's Country, Christian and Gospel charts for 20 years. And now that he's gone - words which, days later, still seem so incredible and unbelievable to write, say or hear - I've been reflecting on the nearly three years we worked together. A series of events caused our paths to intersect in 2006, starting with Billboard's purchase of Radio & Records Magazine that summer. Within a week or two, longtime R&R Country Editor Lon Helton left to create Country Aircheck. Shortly after that, KZLA/Los Angeles flipped formats, rendering my services immediately available.
For a few months, Wade continued handling the charts, while multi-tasking as R&R Country Editor too, but I don't think he loved the latter role. I joined R&R in December of '06 to fill that position.
Of course I knew Wade - hell, everybody did. I first met him while he was still at WSM-A as MD/air personality. My initial memory of Wade was sharing a ride to RCA's General Jackson Boat during CRS. He was holding court - on a shuttle bus, no less - and wisecracking on that quick trip from the Opryland Hotel to the General Jackson boarding area.
When we started working together, I was pleasantly surprised at how accommodating Wade was. I knew he sometimes had a prickly personality. Please note I didn't say he WAS a prick. I believe there's a big difference between the two characterizations!
I think Wade gave me the benefit of the doubt because we both came from radio, but by 2006, he was firmly established as the Billboard chart guy, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Country music and strong, enviable writing skills. A compete rookie as a columnist and - using this term VERY loosely - "journalist," I'd been in the Country format for 27 years at this point and thought I knew it inside and out.
Compared to Wade Jessen however, uh, not so much. I quickly realized compared to him, my Country music reference point was similar to that of a millennial when you start talking with them about classic films. You know ... the kind of conversation where we say "Citizen Kane," and they counter with "Legally Blonde."
But he was immediately a solid, supportive teammate; always encouraging, patient and instructive. He provided invaluable counsel when it came to navigating the tricky political waters Music Row can sometimes be. That was incredibly helpful, because at the time, I had a long-distance relationship with Nashville, handing the Country Editor position from Los Angeles.
I remember a lunch conversation during CMA Music Fest week in 2008 that forever summed up Wade Jessen to me. He wouldn't be available the rest of the week, he explained, because he was undergoing, "a minor cosmetic procedure" the next day. Not really knowing Wade well enough on a personal level to comfortably ask for specifics (I thought it might be intrusive), I simply wished him good luck. Wade tipped his hand just enough by smiling and saying, "I told my Dr., don't screw this up; when it's all done I want to look awake -- not surprised."
And there it was. A modest, truly funny, well-constructed quip that was equal parts radio personality - concise, well executed - and experienced writer, cleverly juxtaposing "Awake" and 'Surprised" while exercising supreme word economy.
I ran into Tom Roland of Billboard the day after Wade's passing and while expressing my admiration for Jessen, I added, "He could also be a real grump sometimes." To which Roland replied, "Sometimes?"
As a casual acquaintance of Wade on the outer periphery of his inner circle, I chalked up his prickly, grumpy side to Wade having an old soul, usually being smarter than the rest of the room and not suffering fools gladly.
Everybody seemed to forgive Wade for those aspects of his personality. He'd clearly established enough equity over the years with his other trademark characteristics: Dignity, integrity and an unmatched passion for Country music.
I know Wade's colleagues at Billboard already miss him dearly - and so do the rest of us.