Jeff Walker: An Appreciation
August 27, 2015
There are so many reasons so many people will miss Aristo Media Group Founder and CEO Jeff Walker, who died unexpectedly on Monday, August 24th.
His wide network of industry contacts extended far beyond clients and business associates at Aristo, the marketing/media/promotion firm he successfully guided for more than three-and-a-half decades. For nearly all of those years, Jeff was deeply involved in Country Radio Seminar (CRS) and the Country Music Association (CMA), organizations whose purposes are to enhance Country music's development from the inside out.
CRS and its yearly business-to-business industry seminar in Nashville brings the radio, record and affiliated Country music communities together with the mission of "Growth Through Sharing." The CMA casts a wider, more public net that stretches internationally in its efforts to grow Country music's appeal to consumers, advertisers, and the media.
Jeff was a longtime member of both the CMA (since 1995) and CRS Board of Directors, logging 35 years with CRS alone -- all of them as its Treasurer, and most as a part of its Executive Committee, the organizations' leadership team. Jeff's service extended to the international level, as he was also involved with the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) and the Contemporary Country Music Coalition in Australia.
It was through the CRS Board that I first got to know Jeff Walker well, and when I say we served alongside each other, I mean it literally. For the entire 15 years of my time on the board, a constant at every meeting was Jeff; he was always seated directly to my left, including the three years I was privileged to be President of the organization. It was during those years in particular that my appreciation, admiration, and friendship for Jeff really grew.
He'd already been on the board for 20 years when I joined (20!). Therefore, Jeff knew how the organization and our signature event, CRS worked -- inside, outside, sideways and upside-down. He had a keen ear and the ability to quickly process and analyze any discussion, cut through the BS, and identify the real issues. Jeff taught me so much via hundreds of insightful whispers into my left ear -- some of them serious, others critical, often delivered in unforgettable, groan-worthy, eye-rolling -- yet hilarious -- puns. Anybody who knew Jeff long enough realized that sooner rather than later, and many times when it was least expected, he'd unleash one.
A big part of the pun-slinging was Jeff's great sense of humor and jovial personality. Those characteristics can sometimes make you underestimate a person's true business savvy -- not a perfect analogy, but think of the famous TV detective "Columbo" for a second. The personality, the quips, the constant smile and yes -- those puns -- were, I think, part strategic, too. They could be helpfully disarming and often, provide much needed levity in times when tension in a board room was thick enough to slice.
You can for sure count me as one of the so many people who will -- heck, already do -- miss Jeff Walker.
To give you a further idea of the appreciation this industry has for Jeff and his service to it, I reached out to other members of the CRS Executive Committee, and to CMA CEO Sarah Trahern, for their reflections and thoughts, which I have shared below:
"Jeff was a valued member of our Board since 1995. He was so instrumental in the work of CMA over those years -- it seemed a second job at times, with initiatives from CMA Music Festival to international outreach.
In fact, as news of Jeff's passing spread, we received calls and e-mails from around the globe as industry leaders and Association members wanted to share how Jeff's enthusiasm for CMA and Country music inspired them in their own business dealings to get involved in the mission of advancing Country music around the world.
Jeff understood the universal appeal of Country music, and he was a passionate proponent of international expansion. He was integral in producing our global artists' showcases for many years -- bringing artists from around the world to play during MusicFest. He also championed the export of our music and was particularly engaged in expansion efforts in the U.K., Australia, and Canada -- including CMA's 'New From Nashville' program, which spotlighted developing artists abroad. His enthusiasm for Country music and our artists will be sorely missed.
Aside from his many accomplishments in our business on behalf of our industry, the warm personal side of Jeff Walker is what I already miss the most. He was a proud husband, father, and grandfather and equally supportive of his team at Aristo. He was a huge champion of our CMA staff and the work they do. His enthusiasm was contagious.
As one Board member e-mailed me, 'Those of us who were lucky enough to know him appreciate the qualities of the man as well as the music executive.' Jeff was a force for good." - CMA CEO Sarah Trahern
"I've been coming to Nashville to do 'Country Music Business' since 1986. I realized today, I don't know Nashville and the Country music industry without Jeff Walker. For me, and no doubt for countless others, Jeff has been a fixture as a sort of good will ambassador -- a mentor, a champion, and a friend to those of us who make our living in and around the Country music industry. For me, Jeff is as much a part of my Nashville experience as the Ryman, slow elevators at the Renaissance, and breakfast at the Pancake Pantry. I am struggling to imagine Nashville without Jeff. But then, in some ways, thanks to his tireless work and his myriad of friends, Jeff's fingerprints on Nashville will be evident for decades to come.
"People get things done in many different ways; some are loud and demand attention, some are quiet and work behind the scenes. Some make a splash then fade away as quickly as they came. Others are steady, reliable, and consistent in their impact. Jeff Walker was a force. But not in that 'demands attention' way. He disarmed you with his charm. The ever-present smile and that accent immediately put you at ease. He was the first to offer a handshake and warm hello. A gentlemen. But I learned not to underestimate Jeff just because of his mild manner. When Jeff latched onto something he believed in, he was doggedly determined. He might still be smiling, but he was not letting go until you heard what he had to say. And when you listened, you learned that it was a damn good thing you did. He paid attention to detail. He understood people. He stood up for the little guy. What I respected most was that in a town and industry where seemingly everyone has a hidden agenda, Jeff always took the bigger view. He spoke from what he genuinely believed was best for the organization, the team, and the greater good. That was the refreshing breath of fresh air that Jeff blew into many industry organizations he so passionately served.
"I knew Jeff best through the CRB. And why wouldn't I? He had been the organization's only treasurer for the past 35 years! When I was fortunate enough to be able to salute him this summer at the Country Radio Hall of Fame event with the CRB President's Award, I noted that 35 years of continuous service to any organization is unprecedented, but to serve as TREASURER for 35 years may indicate some level of insanity! While I cannot picture Nashville without Jeff, I am struggling even more thinking about the CRS without Jeff. His steady hand, diligence, and grit guided us through some very dark days. I am so grateful that we got to say thank you and that he got to see the organization in such solid financial shape before he passed. As President, I tortured Jeff by not liking to stand for the hundreds of press photos he choreographed. I would frequently quietly disappear during these photo sessions only to have him track me down and tell me to get back in there … we have more photos to shoot! Jeff, I promise to stick around for the photos this year. Out of love and respect for you.
"I have often thought, I have no idea what Jeff saw in me that made him become such an advocate and friend. In reflection today, it is crystal clear, he saw the best in EVERYONE and brought out the best in ALL of us. It wasn't me at all, it was Jeff! We are all his legacy!" - Emmis/Indianapolis VP/Market Manager Charlie Morgan, CRS President
"Words cannot express the sense of loss for our friend & Board Member, Jeff Walker. Jeff has been a foundational element of CRS for the last 36 years. His dedication to the organization and CRS Annual Event is totally unprecedented in my mind.
"I believe in my heart that his commitments to service for CRS & CMA were his highest priority, and he felt the greatest achievements in his entire career.
"Jeff was a great friend through the good times and an especially good friend when times got tough. He was always one of the few to step up to any and all adversities to work for a solution to any issue.
"His never ending smile, positive attitude, and energy were tireless. Jeff loved giving back for the advancement of Country music and Country radio. He truly loved making people feel good about our industry and themselves.
"Jeff will be missed in ways that we cannot even imagine yet, but will never be forgotten!
"I will miss my friend." - CRS Executive Director Bill Mayne
"The news has rocked all of us. I have never met a more positive life force than Jeff Walker. The way he treated everyone, the manner in which he always gave a compliment, the grace in his constant smile -- Jeff exuded humanity in everything he did. We've lost a major cheerleader and a great human being." - UMG Nashville Chairman Mike Dungan, CRS/CMA Board Member
"This wonderful spirit welcomed me to this town in a way I will NEVER forget. His passion for our genre and dedication to the organizations on which he served, was boundless. I was fortunate to serve on two boards with Jeff, and will forever be indebted to him for his grace and guidance. RIP dear Jeff." - Warner Music Nashville President & CEO John Esposito, CRS/CMA Board Member
"Jeff was instrumental in getting me involved in CRB, CMA and CCMA. His experience was invaluable in teaching me the most effective way to serve. He was such a good friend; he knew that 'out of town' Board members were often left to their own devices after the meetings, so he would always make sure I had something to do or a ride to the airport if needed. I remember one time he asked me, 'Have you ever experienced a meat and three?' I had no idea what he was talking about. We still laugh about that wonderful lunch outing to The Pie Wagon! Those shoes will never be filled." - Albright & O'Malley & Brenner Partner Becky Brenner, CRS/CMA Board Member
"Jeff was always so welcoming and such a great guy that you wanted on your team. He loved Country music, the industry, the people in it, and gave back so much more than he ever received. I guess the thing I take away the most from Jeff was the way he wanted everyone else to be successful and really prosper in this great business. He always met you with a smile, wanted to know how you were doing, and genuinely celebrated your accomplishments! Jeff was a kind and sweet man that I will miss dearly!" - Big Loud Records President Clay Hunnicutt, CRS/CMA Board Member
Finally, for anybody searching for the ideal model of how to achieve a personal legacy, or perhaps a shining example of ways to represent and serve both their industry and community, may I suggest you look no further than the outpouring of admiration and grief over the loss of Jeff on his Facebook page this week.