Jo Walker-Meador served as one of the vital figures in country music history, even though she never took the entertainment stage or wrote a hit song. Walker-Meador was the longest-running executive director of the Country Music Association and helped guide the organization through its early days of growth. Just as important, she helped open doors for women to take on executive positions in the country music industry. Walker-Meador died Aug. 16th in Nashville at age 93, following complications from a stroke.

After years in public relations and office management, Walker-Meador was hired as office manager, and the first paid employee, for the still-fledgling Country Music Association in 1958. She would later admit that she had only a limited knowledge of country music at the time. “I knew that Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff were members of the Grand Ole Opry,” she once remembered. “But I had never been to the Grand Ole Opry.”

Obviously, Walker-Meador was a fast study. In 1962, she was promoted to executive director of the CMA, and helped grow the country genre in a variety of ways. Under her leadership, the annual CMA Awards show was created along with the festival called Fan Fair (now CMA Music Festival), which brings millions of country music-loving fans to Nashville each summer. The CMA would also play a large role in expanding the worldwide popularity of country music and making it a well-recognized brand.

Dolly Parton presents Jo Walker-Meador with the Irving Waugh Award of Excellence after being the Country Music Association executive director for 32 years at “The 25th Annual CMA Awards” on Oct. 2, 1991, at the Grand Ole Opry House. PHOTO COURTESY OF BETH GWINN / CMA

Much of that success was due to Walker-Meador’s forward-looking direction. “Jo had a big vision for the power of country music and a determination that it could grow in popularity,” recalled former CMA Executive Director Ed Benson. “She was one of the early supporters of international development.”

Walker-Meador also blazed trails for women in the country music industry. “Jo was a champion for country music around the world and a groundbreaker for women in the entertainment business,” noted the current CMA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Trahern. “She will be greatly missed by all.”

Artist Brenda Lee, who once served on the CMA Board, remained close to Walker-Meador during and after her tenure with the CMA. “I was honored to know her personally for a long, long time,” Lee said in a statement. “I will miss her spirit, laughing with her, having lunch with her and being around the great person that she was.” Lee’s fellow artist and Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson commented to the Hall of Fame that, “I never knew anybody in any business as devoted to her job, her cause, and her people like she was. She left a mark on this town and this business that will never be erased.”

Walker-Meador served as the CMA Executive Director until 1991, the longest run for anyone in that capacity. For her efforts in expanding the scope of country music, she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.