Jimmy Bowen, the most controversial and charismatic music executive to emerge from the ranks of Tune Town, conducted his farewell tour of Nashville last week while promoting his new book,
Rough Mix. Now that he has completed his book obligations, he is forever finished with country music.
The boastful lion who once rode roughshod over his enemies didn’t burst into town with a roar. He sauntered in slowly, prepared to provide whatever was asked of him. This 59-year-old hatless Hawaii resident wasn’t a kinder, gentler, remorseful version of his former self. He could still eat his younghe simply lacked the interest or energy.
Bowen began his career in the ’50s, recording with such acts as Buddy Knox and Buddy Holly, and he spent the ’60s working with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He moved to Nashville in 1976 and began an unparalleled tenure as the head of virtually every label in town, overseeing the careers of Reba McEntire, George Strait, Hank Williams Jr., Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, and many more. After stints at Elektra and at MCA, Bowen headed to Capitol in 1989, just as Garth Brooks celebrated his first No. 1. After being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Bowen retired in 1995 and moved to Hawaii with his wife, Ginger.
While his cancer is gone, the disease clearly made an indelible impression on his spirit. “My wife told somebody the other day that over there I’m Jimmy, and I had always been Bowen over here,” he recalled during an interview last week in Network Ink’s offices. “I have changed. When you get that much stress off of you, you don’t know how much is on until you take it off. If I do four things in a day now, you’re crowding me. I used to do four things a minute.
“I always hated the business side,” Bowen continues. “It was a hassle, and I loved the studiothe music. So when I got the part I didn’t like off of me, it was like taking a deep breath. I already knew I was ready to stop producing. It was getting harder and harder to go down there for 18 hours 26 days in a row until an album was finished.
“The cancer was a sign: ‘You don’t need to work anymore. You have got to be crazy. Why don’t you just stay here?’ I went over [to Hawaii] to recuperate from the first operation, and I told Ginger, ‘I’m not going back.... My time is through in the studios, and what is left for me to do?’ ”
Bowen says it feels great to have been stripped of the power that he spent decades building. “Everybody has an opinion of what I did or thought, but I used power for speed, to get a lot done in a short period of time,” he says. “When I ran a company, I always told them I was a benevolent dictator. Democracies are too slow for business.”
Whenever he took over a new label, Bowen was as famous for cleaning house as he was for increasing sales. After taking over MCA in 1984, he fired everyone except executive assistant Katie Gillon and the man who delivered the mail. Noting that on at least two occasions he brought his staff with him, he says he has no regrets about causing such high turnover at record companies. “Not a person I had to let go didn’t find work somewhere. If people aren’t in the right places, you are doing them a favor by kicking them out and letting them find where they belong.
“Did I have regrets about it? Not really. If you are going to move and get a lot done in a short period of time and be successful in business, you’ve got to make decisions, act and move forward.... The fact that you are getting it done, you know going in that you’re going to make mistakeslike passing on a great act, well, so you did. It was also great what we did do.”
Among the acts Bowen passed on were Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, and Reba McEntire. In fact, he never really broke an act. He always came aboard after acts had been signed and helped guide their careers to the next level. “When I took over MCA, there was this huge roster,” he says. “I had a guy named Tony Brown to come in for the tomorrow, and I took care of the today. I was working with George Strait and some of these artists while Tony went out and looked for new acts.
“While I worked for George Strait or Reba McEntire or Hank Williams Jr., I had great artists. That was all luck too. But I knew what to do when I had the opportunity. That was tremendous luck to go from Universal [MCA] to Capitol Nashville, and there’s Garth.
Bowen, who vastly escalated recording budgets in the early days, believes his two most significant contributions were improving studio technology and giving control of the music back to the artists. “I explained to them that it was their music, their life, and they had to have input into it and control it, and, if possible, coproduce,” he says. “This makes it a better record. What you don’t want is for people to say, ‘I can tell that’s a Bowen record.’ Nobody said that down here. It was a George Strait or Reba McEntire record.”
Asked about the book’s less-than-flattering recollections of Garth Brooks, Bowen denies any malicious intent. “If he doesn’t come off favorably, it’s because I tried to recall almost word-for-word what went down,” Bowen says. “I didn’t set out...to do an attack on Garth Brooks.
“I worked with superstars before I came to Nashville. I understand the pressure Garth Brooks is under, and it’s tremendous. Look at what it did to Elvisit got him on drugs. You become a prisoner of your own success and you almost start believing you are from another planet. You stand apart from everyone else.
“I have no personal anger at Garth Brooks at all. I think everybody in Nashville needs to take a step back and give him the benefit of the doubt. Nobody is under the pressure he’s under, and nobody here is as intense as Garth Brooks. He’s damn sure the key artist for what has been the acceptance of country music, especially [on] Madison Avenue and [in] the advertising world and the mainstream media.”
Bowen says that in the end, he isn’t concerned whether he’ll receive the respect that’s due him, if indeed any is. “I really don’t give a damn,” he says. “I care about my artists, that’s all I really cared about. I have a lot of friends in this town, and I care what they think of me just as their friend. But I’ve been gone two and a half years, and it doesn’t take long to replace anybody.
“I don’t think it really matters, except that we did a lot of things and we set a lot of precedents and got things on track to be competitive in the world market. I don’t care what they think of me, but I’m very pleased to see so many things happening now that half a dozen of us worked so hard on 15 years ago to get to this point. I’m not the only one here who wanted these things to happen, I just had the biggest mouth.”
New ‘New Country’
The members of the creative team that launched New Country magazine in March 1994 have all resigned in the past few weeks. Editor-in-chief David Sokol, Nashville editor Brian Mansfield, and art director Jim Fletcher have all left the subscriber-only magazine, which is owned by Connell Communication Inc. Mansfield stresses that the resignations were all independent of each other and that none of the men knew the others were leaving.
Sokol has been named senior editor of Disney magazine, and Mansfield has revived his freelance writing career while exploring other opportunities. Both will continue to freelance for New Country. “I...decided that any summer where I could hear [Hanson’s] ‘Mmmbop’ on the radio three times a day had way too much promise to be spent in an office,” Mansfield jokes.
Bob Cannon, an Entertainment Weekly contributor and editor of music magazine Tutti, has been named New Country’s editor-in-chief. He’ll be based here.
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