Hilley was born in Birmingham, Ala., and began her career in the music industry at radio station WKDA, where Jack Stapp, founder of Tree International, was program director. After working at the radio station for eight years, Hilley became the assistant to the president of a Nashville advertising and public relations firm.
In 1978, Hilley was named executive vice president and COO of Tree International. Sony purchased Tree International in 1989, and Hilley, who negotiated the purchase, became president and CEO in 1994. She was instrumental in negotiating more than 60 acquisitions including Acuff-Rose, Little Big Town, Maypop, as well as the catalogs of Conway Twitty, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Entertainment Weekly magazine ranked Hilley fourth in its “Ten Most Powerful People in Country Music” in 1992, and Mirabella magazine named her as one of the “Women We Admire” in 1994. She was named “Woman of the Year” by the Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1978, and in 1984 she was honored as “Lady Executive of the Year” by the National Women’s Executives.
Belmont University’s Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business awarded Hilley with the first Robert E. Mulloy Award of Excellence shortly after her retirement from Sony/ATV Nashville in 2005. She was also a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
“Donna Hilley’s influence on Music Row’s artists and songwriters and on the broader Nashville community could never fully be expressed with words,” said Troy Tomlinson, president and CEO of Sony/ATV Nashville.
Visitation will be Friday evening at Woodlawn Funeral Home, with the funeral service scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Forrest Hills Baptist Church.