She's gone country: Walker grad becomes publicist to stars

By ED HOWELL
Posted 8/26/18

Melissa Mathews, who grew up in Jasper, grew up loving country music as a child.The 1987 Walker High (now Jasper High) School graduate always knew from the time she was 10 or 11 that she wanted to …

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She's gone country: Walker grad becomes publicist to stars

Posted

Melissa Mathews, who grew up in Jasper, grew up loving country music as a child.

The 1987 Walker High (now Jasper High) School graduate always knew from the time she was 10 or 11 that she wanted to move to Nashville and be involved in the business. Now she has a hand in helping major country artists get publicized, and has been introduced herself to many country artists — including one act that will be at the Foothills Festival next month. 

"I’ve always been drawn to creative people and have loved music my whole life," said Mathews, who turns 50 in October. "I’m so grateful to my mom (Carol Mathews, who still lives in Jasper) for allowing me to fall deeply in love with music, taking me to concerts my wh ole life and helping me chase my dreams in Nashville. I owe her everything. We were always watching 'Hee Haw,' 'The Barbara Mandrell Show,' 'The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour,' 'The Mac Davis Show,' 'Pop Goes The Country.' I loved them all."

She loved country music so much that she made it a part of her first show-and-tell in pre-school. 

"I took a 45 (RPM) record of Tanya Tucker's 'Delta Dawn.' I think that song set me on to my country music path," she said. 

Her father, the late Perry Mathews, was associated with Chevron oil in Jasper, she said. 

After graduating from Walker, she attended about a year at Samford University. "As soon as my freshman year was over, I moved to Nashville. I couldn't wait to get to Nashville," she said. 

Once there, she attended Belmont College (now Belmont University), where she said she "fell into publicity" as a career.

Mathews said, "One of my first classes at Belmont was intro to music business, where I sat next to and became friends with a wonderful woman by the name of Bettye Shelton. This would’ve been in ’89 or ’90. Turned out she was Ricky Van Shelton’s wife and I helped with his first Fan Fair (now called CMA Music Fest), where I met his new publicist Evelyn Shriver of Evelyn Shriver Public Relations."  

Shriver "was a publicist who had moved from New York to Nashville specifically to work for Randy Travis. It was right when Randy Travis was just blowing up" into superstardom. 

Mathews began interning for Shriver’s then-small company and wound up working with her over the next six years. 

"When I started in 1990, she had seven artists: Randy Travis, T. Graham Brown, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Sawyer Brown, Ricky Van Shelton, The Forrester Sisters and Gene Watson," Mathews said. "When I left six or seven years later, Evelyn’s company did publicity for nearly 40 artists. She was the best in town!"

Among the artists compiled at that agency were Alan Jackson, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Lorie Morgan, Trisha Yearwood, Restless Heart, Diamond Rio, Hal Ketchum, K.T. Oslin, Farm Aid and many others.   

"I really learned so much from Evelyn and the '90s were the biggest boom in country music.  I’m so thankful I was here then because we’ll never see another time like that," she said.

She would go on to work in-house with a successful "Texas-based multi-platinum recording star" for several years for 15 years, and then started doing independent publicity for other artists. 

"As a publicist, we work hand-n-hand with the artist and their team. These days, I work with my dear friend of 25 years, Jules Wortman of Wortman Works Media & Marketing," she said. "She and I worked in the early 1990s, and she was vice president of Atlantic Records. I was still at Evelyn Shriver PR." 

She has been with Wortman now for about a couple of years. 

"We not only work with music artists like The SteelDrivers, Big & Rich and others, but we work on brands such as John Rich’s Redneck Riviera brand (Redneck Riviera Whiskey, Redneck Riviera Nashville bar, etc), Salt Life lifestyle brand, and a few non-profits."

She noted she also noted the firm works with "one of my favorite bands of all time, Exile. We were just at the Grand Ole Opry last night with Exile." 

Mathews said a day in her life includes writing and distributing press releases, scheduling phone interviews or in person interviews for artists for stories in newspapers, magazines, print, TV or digital.  

"We produce ways to get attention for our client," she said. "I’ve planned, produced, implemented and worked numerous media/marketing events including press conferences, photo shoots, media days, video shoots, red carpet" events for groups such as CMA, ACM, CMT, Doves, K-Love.  

Among the activities she enjoys the most is "celebrating the victories with the artist, when they've had that number one record, when they've had a great show, when they've landed an appearance on a big morning show. Things like that are a lot of fun." 

She noted she has loved country music her whole life. "I think country is the most beautiful music there is," she said. "I think it is because of the way it makes you feel. I can remember in a little girl sitting in my room and listening to Reba (McEntire) sing, 'Somebody Should Leave' over and over again. That song made me feel an achiness and I wanted to hear more songs that made me feel that way. And country music was where I would find it." 

She also came to love the country music artists and their down-to-earth qualities. "They are the most genuine people you can work with, as far as celebrities go," she said. 

When she was with Shriver, country guitarist and producer Chet Atkins had an office down the street.

"He would say, 'Can the girls come over and play?'" Mathews recalled. "And my boss would say, 'Chet, when the girls finish working I'll send them over.' So we would finish work and we would go over to his office, me and a couple of other girls in the office. And he would have out a cheese tray and popcorn, and he would tell us these amazing stories and play guitar for us. And he was so kind and sweet and charming." 

She also recalled working on Farm Aid with singer Willie Nelson. She recalled taking a friend to see one of his shows. "I told him, 'When we go on Willie's bus, if he passes me a joint, I'm going to smoke it with Willie.' 

"We go on the bus, and you know his reputation? So we go on the bus, and they had been to Georgia the night before and they had been given a big crate of peaches. Willie was sitting in the bus, slicing up this peach. While we were visiting, he would just slice a bite of peach and hand it to us. So I had a peach with Willie instead." 

Asked about a favorite, she recalled Tammy Wynette, who grew up near Red Bay and got a big break on Country Boy Eddie's WBRC early morning program while living in Midfield. 

"She would call me her little Alabama girl, because she was from Alabama as well," she said. "Tammy Wynette was super special to me." 

Mathews  is also amazed about working with Exile. "I love those guys. They are really extra special to me, too." 

She said publicists also have moments the public doesn't see that can also be frustrating.

"It's really hard to make schedules line up the way they need to. When artists are on the road and playing all the fairs, festivals and concerts they do, it is really hard to schedule TV appearances and phone interviews. You are working around a lot," she said. 

Things have also changed so much, noting in the 1990s she would have mail photos and fax releases. "Now, these days it is just a touch of a button," as materials can be emailed in an instant. "I can send send you a Dropbox (referring to the file hosting service) that has the bio, the photo, the tour alert with the time and date they will appear at the Foothills. That is really neat," she said. 

Mathews is  married to singer/songwriter Gil Grand, who is a Canadian country music artist who was nominated and won several Canadian Country Music Awards a number of years ago. In 1997, he moved to Nashville from Canada and had a deal with Monument Records, the same label that the Dixie Chicks were on. She met Grand and helped with his publicity. 

"His career in the states did not take off, and so he moved back to Canada and he had a really great country music career for about 12 years in Canada before moving back to Canada and opening up a publishing company." 

While he no longer has the publishing company, Mathews said he is producing and managing a couple of Canadian acts, as he is still very involved in the Canadian country music business.  

The couple lives in Nashville with two daughters, Liza and Ruby, both of whom are juniors in high school. Ruby was adopted from China, with the girls 12 weeks apart in age, she notes. Liza plays guitar and has started a band.

Mathews has never been to the Foothills Festival in Jasper. "I know my Mom is very proud that Jasper has the Foothills Festival. From what I have heard from friends, it is a really, really great event," she said. 

She is eagerly coming this year to the festival as one of the clients at her firm, the Grammy-winning band The SteelDrivers, will be performing. 

"The SteelDrivers are world class musicians. Each one of The SteelDrivers have played on so many different records you have heard on the radio," she said, noting individuals in the band have played with Dolly Parton, Tricia Yearwood and Reba McEntire. "Each of them are the best you can hear as far as musicianship goes." She added, "You couldn't ask for a nicer bunch to work with." 

As for herself, Mathews continues to love the music in her business and the fact she is still in the heart of Music City USA.

"I never get tired of going to the Opry," she said.