Jay Williams is responsible agent or co-RA for several WME clients including Dierks BentleyEric ChurchLuke Bryan and Chris Stapleton and works with the contemporary department on a wide variety of artists from Preservation Hall Jazz Band to J Roddy Walston & The Business.

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Jay Williams

Other clients include Brothers OsborneThe Cadillac ThreeCaitlyn SmithLucie Silvas, and Nikki Lane.

“[The list] goes from stadium headliners to literally a band that graduated from college two years ago selling 200 tickets,” Williams told Pollstar. “I’m still as passionate about watching bands grow as watching them celebrate a milestone – even if it’s selling out the Mercy Lounge for the first time as much as selling out an arena.” 

Williams is one of the Nashville partners alongside Joey Lee, Keith Miller, Kevin Neal, Lane Wilson, Risha Rodgers and Shari Lewin, in addition to partners/co-heads Greg Oswald and Rob Beckham.

See Also: PollstarPro Executive Profiles Archive

So, did you want to be an agent when you were 7 years old?

I was born in Nashville, then my parents moved to Cleveland, Tenn., when I was in second grade. Cleveland, which is between Chattanooga and Knoxville, is a little town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s really pretty, and it’s a quiet little town. I grew up playing tennis, not even thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I went to high school in Chattanooga.

I got into architecture and was accepted to architecture school at Tulane University. I figured out I was too young to do that for the rest of my life so I ended up at the Sewanee-The University of the South.

I majored in forestry and geology, spending a lot of time outdoors. It’s a popular major there because of the 13,000-acre campus in the middle of the woods on a mountain in Tennessee. I spent a lot of my college camping. I played bass in a band in high school, then guitar. I was always around music – I took piano lessons, played saxophone in junior high, bass in high school. My parents had very diverse taste from Jerry Jeff Walker to John Coltrane to Lionel Richie.

So I carried that through college. I think seventh grade may have been my Kinks year. Eighth grade was solely The Beatles. I’d consume a whole catalog of music in a year. I got into the Grateful Dead and became a tape trader, a high school Deadhead. Looking back, my life was defined by soundtracks. I also got into folk music, which was weird for a high school student in the late ‘80s but at the same time my favorite bands were probably R.E.M., U2. I saw the first and last nights of “Life’s Rich Pageant Tour.” I saw the “Joshua Tree Tour” in Atlanta. I had a radio show on the campus station WUTS. It may have been 100 watts.

The genre on my show changed every week. I was also social chairman of my fraternity so I was booking all the frat bands. I started working on the Bishop’s Common Board, a student activities board. In Sewanee there are big concerts every spring party weekend. It had to be Widespread Panic every other year, which was fine by me, or the students would go crazy. In between we did Koko Taylor and NRBQ. We would book the shows, build the stage, produce, be the runner, do everything.

I learned a little about concert production but we were dealing with middle agents so I didn’t really know what the bigger agencies were. We worked with Crescent Moon and East Coast agencies that covered the colleges in the South. I wasn’t sure what to do after college. I was 21. Sewanee is a great school but, in a great way, it’s like a four-year summer camp where you learn a lot but there was no pre-med or business major; it was a varied liberal arts degree so a lot of students went on to law school or med school. I was confused so I moved to Jackson, Wyo., and worked in a fly shop teaching fly casting and tying flies. For an extended summer job, it was one of the more fun jobs I’ve ever had.

Toward the end of that, I thought, I could see myself staying here so I need to make a move soon. I moved back to Nashville, tried to get a job in the music business but didn’t know anybody, so I cold-called around. I was offered an unpaid internship at Warner Bros. I called my parents and said, “Great news: I’ve got an unpaid internship at Warner Bros. and have to go back to school to get credits.” That wasn’t a very popular statement.

They thought I was crazy. I would have had to enroll in an undergrad program at Belmont; they didn’t even have a graduate music program then. So I moved home and took a job at a collection agency as a marketing person. I needed a job. I started doing MBA classes at night at UTC thinking I’d do it for a few years then finish my MBA somewhere.

I’d given up on the music thing. In the course of working for this collection agency, HCA, the Hospital Corporation of America, was one of the clients that we had so I was traveling around to 25 hospitals in the Southeast, meeting with their administrator – talking about billing and receivables, then coming to Nashville to meet with the corporate folks. That’s where I reconnected with old friends through tennis and growing up, and a couple guys worked at William Morris.

One was Scott Galloway who was in the mailroom. I didn’t know much about the agent training program and mailroom. I thought, “Wow, I have an MBA. Why would I go to work in a mailroom?”

But the more I researched it, the more it seemed like not a bad idea. I applied and, the first time, they passed on me and hired a kid from Montana who moved here without a job. I took it as the second rejection; maybe this isn’t for me. It was 20 years ago, Sept. 2, as I was walking out the door to go on a family vacation, the head of HR in Nashville called me and asked if I could start Monday.

I was driving to South Carolina, 5 o’clock on a Friday. I think I bought two or three weeks because I had to find a replacement for my job. Marc Dennis was working at William Morris at the time – I knew him through a Cleveland family – and he had also helped.

You had limited experience with the business at the time; what traits did you bring in that you think helped you?


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Jay Williams - Luke Bryan announces his first headline stadium dates ever in January 2014 alongside Jay, Red Light Management’s Kerri Edwards and Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell. 

I think a lot had to do with my college experience. It was a really social environment, a small school where you had to get along with everybody. Every fraternity party was open. That was sort of my experience. I’ve always enjoyed stories and getting to know people. I think I inherited that from my dad who is a banker. I really enjoyed combining the finance side of things, the money, with people and music. It was a perfect storm. When I started it wasn’t in my mind that I’d be doing this 20 years later.

Yeah but architecture, geology … maybe success has to do with just being well-rounded.

It probably has something to do with it. I can find almost anybody, or any situation, interesting. Part of success has to do with enjoying people and stories, and hearing shared experiences.

What are some of your hobbies? Fishing, obviously.

Yeah but I only get to do that a couple times a year and it’s usually with clients. I’m a worse than average golfer but I love it. I scuba dive, which I do by myself a lot because nobody else in my family does. Cook. In a parallel life I would have been a chef; I’ve always been interested in food. I think I get more star struck around chefs than I do musicians. And I still play in a bluegrass band occasionally.

Strictly a hobby – we’ve done one gig in the last five years. It’s funny, the other guy in the band is my best friend since childhood, John Everhart. He’s an agent, too, and we’ve only managed to book one gig in five years.

I was lucky. I think being a little older than a lot of the people who start out in the mailroom, I may have been a little more mature. I had a “real” job for a couple years.

I knew that if I was going to make barely minimum wage in the mailroom, I’d make the most of it. One weekend I rented a polisher and polished the marble table. If I was going to be in the mailroom, I was going to be the best mailroom guy they had. I was only in it for three months and I went to work on Keith Miller’s desk. Do you know Keith?  

My first executive profile interview here. Nicest man ever.

Yeah, he is. I’m one in a long line of agents that he trained and he is probably one of the best agents in the business. He’s incredibly fair, really direct and honest. He’s about the art of the deal – I learned a lot about numbers and deals from him. I couldn’t have learned under a better guy. He always gives his assistants long ropes. People are still getting promoted coming off his desk. I was his assistant for two years. Around that time a couple people left the club department. I got promoted a lot faster than was expected or normal.

So who were your first clients?

The first one was Nickel Creek. They came to me and said, “Would you be my agent?” At the time, I had been an agent four, five months. I wasn’t sure if I was in a place to be signing people. Luckily my boss, Rick Shipp, said go for it and gave me long enough rope to do some out-of-the-box stuff with the band. They were sort of my first baby because they were young. Chris Thile and Sean Watkins were 16.

So when we put them on the cover around that time, we interviewed you for the article?

I think so! Yeah! It was 17 years ago. They were sort of my first band and then Dierks, whom I lived with here. When I was starting in the mailroom, he was our third roommate. Fielding Logan from Q Prime was the other one. Our first house here had no air conditioning/no cable and just a bunch of guitars.

Just a bunch of nobodies. Such a small, small world.

It is, and Nashville still has that vibe. It’s one of the things I love about being centered here: there really are a lot of collisions that happen here. You can go to a grocery store, guitar shop or hardware store and see a lot of people you do business with.

The artist development stories can take a while.

Well, for instance, The Shadowboxers, a lot of it can depend on the record. If anything, it’s been kind of held back because they’re constantly writing and recording, so we haven’t gone full-throttle yet. We’re certainly developing a strategy in certain markets that we’re talking about but there’s still a timeline of releasing music that hasn’t been completely decided. That’s a fun one just because there’s been a ton that’s done without an album being released.

The band is so good that we’re doing it with word of mouth and replaying markets every six months or so, watching those audiences grow. The next step is to get behind a new music release strategy.

And then there’s Caitlyn Smith. 

We signed her a couple years ago and it’s been regional and local so far. She’s got a lot of fans in town. When she comes in the office and plays, the hair on the back of your neck stands up.

You knew this was really something special. And that’s another great thing about this town: This can happen sometimes two years before they get a record deal. It’s been almost three years with Caitlyn. You can feel the scales tipping.

There are a couple festivals she’ll be on. This fall will be great. That’s another one where, you know, Don Muller from L.A. has jumped on board and is a huge fan. She’s got a really great team around her now. As far as a development story, the one that gets told and retold a lot is the Eric Church story.

The short version is we were selling arenas out before he had a Top 10 single. And that was because he was making great records and we hung in there and decided to create our own path. And you could feel something happening. He put his own line in the sand and created his own fans, wherever he went. We’d start with 100 people in the club and go back and there’d be 200, then 800.

That was the hard, good way of doing things. And it’s fun to see that none of those fans have left him. When everybody in an arena is singing a song and there hadn’t been a hit single yet, that’s when you know that something is going on. When I signed him, he had played some college stuff. He went to Appalachian State and had been playing around town in a band but hadn’t played here a whole bunch. We started working with him right about the time of his record deal.

I really enjoy getting in on the ground floor and being part of the process from the very beginning. You feel more ingrained in everything and more valued. That’s sort of how I got my start, by being passionate early on and trying to figure out how to make a difference.

Any up and comers you have that feeling about now?


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Photo: Leah Puttkammer / Getty Images for WME

Jay Williams - Jay, Greg Oswald and Rob Beckham enjoy WME’s CMA Awards after-party at L. A. Jackson rooftop bar celebrating seven out of 11 awards going to WME clients including Garth Brooks as entertainer of the year. 

I have that feeling about everybody I work with! The Brothers Osborne has been really fun to watch this year. You sort of push the boulder up the hill and it starts rolling on its own; that’s rewarding. A couple years of work are validated by other promoters and other people finally understanding what you’ve been talking about.

Let’s see – Caitlyn. Lucie Silvas is fantastic. She’s the real deal; she’s on some Chris Stapleton dates. She’s also married to John Osborne and she had some pop success in the U.K. before coming to Nashville.

She’s one of those people that everybody loves, just like Caitlyn. They have fans everywhere and it’s impossible not to like them. Birdtalker is exciting. It’s a band, fronted by a husband and wife, that is writing really haunting and beautiful songs. They’re sending a song called “Heavy” to AAA right now. I think it has over 11 million plays on Spotify already.

No record deal yet but we just saw them in the office and flipped out.

And then there is The Cadillac Three. Neil, Jaren and Kelby have been my clients for 11 years. They are on their fourth band name – Bang Bang Bang, American Bang, and Cadillac Black.

They are such great guys and friends. I couldn’t be happier that we just confirmed their first Ryman headline date this summer. They are another band that has toured their asses off and it’s totally paying off now.

You also want a family life. How often do you fly out? How many showcases can you afford to see?

That’s the hardest part about what we do, any one of us who has a family. My kids are old enough now where they can certainly be vocal. My daughter’s about to be 11 and my son is 7. They’re not scared to say, “We don’t want you to go.” You can tell when you’ve been gone too much, for sure. I sort of do it in spurts. I try not to stay gone more than three nights. (steps away from the phone and talks to someone) There’s my daughter just coming home from school!

But anyway, I try not to stay away from home for two or three nights, max. Then a lot of what I do is out for a night and back. It is a lot to be on the road and your clients are always happy to see you so I’m gone a lot but it’s usually not more than 24 hours, if I can help it. I don’t travel to the West Coast as often as I used to; maybe once or twice a year. I do a lot of the East Coast, out and back.

Would you please tell us about the Music Health Alliance?

The woman who started that, Tatum Hauck Allsep, she did the first year that Dierks did his motorcycle ride charity. She was at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.

I’ve known Tatum for a long, long time. She approached me a couple years ago about the Music Health Alliance when she had been doing it for a year or two. She started this with her own money and it was her own passion, completely, that drove this thing, and still drives it. She started telling me about some of the things they were doing and asked if I wanted to get involved. It was right around the time we had a client who was hurt, uninsured and needed surgery on a wrist to even be able to play guitar.

So I got to see firsthand their work. I got a call from this client that was one of the most genuine, heartfelt thank-yous for hooking them up with Music Health Alliance. They didn’t know what they would have done and it would have bankrupted them. So I got a front-row seat for seeing what MHA did and since then, whether it’s getting insurance for an entire crew for one of our headliners to somebody who requires surgery and help and doesn’t know where to go or what to do, it’s amazing what they do.

It’s five ladies in a basement over in Green Hills here that spend all day telling people it’s going to be OK. They work their tails off and just do it out of this great place in their hearts. It’s an underserved segment; you have all these great creators who, for whatever reason whether it’s financial or don’t know how to navigate the system, end up without insurance or under insured. Sometimes an event or an illness can totally take away a dream of being here.

They’re just wonderful about putting an emotional element to what is often not a fun situation, be it hospitals or collection agencies, they’ll step in and help. For every dollar that someone donates, it equals $30 in healthcare resources to Heal the Music. It’s something I love being a part of.


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Jay Williams - Pro golfer Brandt Snedeker (2nd from L) visits Bridgestone Arena for a Luke Bryan concert in Nashville May 6. and brings along the Ryder Cup. Seen with the winning pair are real estate developer Mark Banks, Jay and Blackberry Farm’s Roy Milner.

One agent told me it made him sick that promoters wouldn’t invest in club shows anymore because there was no money in it. He practically yelled, he was so passionate. Anything that gets your goat to that degree?

If anything I found that it’s been kind of the opposite. I don’t see that. I think independent promoters and Live Nation and AEG have been more aggressive about the club world because it’s become, for a lot of bands, a volume business that they need to be a part of.

Let’s see. Things that tick me off. Well, I’m still not a fan of poaching. It’s one of those things that is part of our business that doesn’t go away.

I didn’t build my career that way so am not a big fan of it. Fighting the traffic out there, too. There are so many things touring that you have to be so far out that you can’t, a lot of times, be reactive when a band is blowing up.

You’ve already booked so far out, and there’s so many bands touring. A great example is I’m going out to get holds on 2018 a year from now at the Ryman, on a weekend in the spring and I’m already third or fourth hold.

Not every venue, by the way, but, like Red Rocks for next summer? It’s hard to find a weekend date to clear.

That makes some sense but it’s gotta be awkward to call up a client and go –

“ – I got your Red Rocks, baby! October of ‘18!” Yeah. But the flipside is it’s a sign that the touring business is incredibly healthy. Again, I wake up every day thankful I ended up on this side of the business. I’ve had friends that have lost label gigs and publishing gigs and changed jobs every four years. Meanwhile, I’ve been in the same place for 20 years, with the same phone number.

Dick Alen told new agents, and I’m paraphrasing, “One, be honest and, two, your first day with your client is the first day of you getting fired.” In other words, the agent gets the blame, not the client with the bad habits or anybody else on the team.

That happened to me. It absolutely happened to me. And I think if you have done anything for 20 years, and you have a big volume of business, it’s inevitable. Can you look back and think, “Could I do it differently?” Sure. But sometimes it happens and everybody’s scratching their head. But there are legitimate reasons when people change agencies, and then there are not. I think everybody, after these many years in the business, has had that experience.

On the other side, I’ve been fortunate to work with some clients from the very beginning and are still the same person; none of us have changed – other than throwing kids in the mix.

Anybody out there – venue execs, promoters – that are persona non grata, and why would that be?


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Jay Williams - Jay snaps one with his kids Oliver and Caroline in December 2014.

(laughs). No. No! I’ll put somebody in the penalty box and, two years later, pull them out if I feel like whatever the situation was wouldn’t happen again. There are certainly people I won’t deal with because they screwed one of my artists over. That is usually across the board, though – if somebody cancels a date or is not truthful – everybody knows about it. The agents talk internally, we talk agency to agency, if somebody has a problem with a buyer.

The days of being completely rogue are behind us. That’s one time you’ll find competitors on the same page: trying to deal with a bad situation with a buyer. Some buyers require a little more time and attention and some I trust more than others.

At the end of the day, if I think you did a good job and were honest, and did everything you could to sell a show, I’ll remember that. I love that there are a lot of independent promoters out there that are still around, doing everything from club shows to amphitheatres to arenas.

Between your four main headlining clients, that inbox has got to be filled to the brim with ticket requests.

It is. It varies by artist but we’re not in the ticket business. I’m not, at least. But it’s a byproduct of having tours that people want to go to. But the alternative could be nobody wanting to see your clients. Even when we do a ticket request or ticket purchase, I do ask people to donate to Music Health Alliance.

My assistant, Alex, will usually send them a link and ask, out of the kindness of their hearts, to give 10 bucks a ticket to MHA. It’s just part of the territory. It bugs me when people expect free stuff all the time because I will always offer to pay, whether it’s a club show for $5 or “Hamilton.”