Don Light

“Repeat business is the key to a
long-term career”

Interview with Don Light, legendary music agent
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly.

On October 8th, 2013, I made my way to the office of Don Light Talent on Music Row. Don Light is one of the first music agents in Nashville. He started in the early 1960s and worked with some of the greats in country, bluegrass and gospel music. Don was the first director of Nashville’s Billboard office and president of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences). He played a part in the history of Music Row and has received several awards. Don Light knows the music industry very well. He shared with me some interesting stories. Here is part of the interview:

Don, tell me about yourself, how did you get involved with music?

I’m from Tennessee; I grew up not far from Nashville. My uncle had an orchestra. We went to see shows at the Opry. I was playing drums at the time and got a job with the Opry band. I kept busy doing lots of sessions. I backed up all the stars, the big names: Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, George Hamilton IV, Ernest Tub, the Carter Family. Later, I started working at the Nashville office of Billboard magazine. I was there during the day and playing the Opry on Friday and Saturday nights. When I left Billboard, I started my own agency with a couple of gospel acts. I quit playing – I didn’t want the distraction.

Who were the gospel quartets that you worked with?

The Oak Ridge Boys, the Happy Goodman Family and some others.

When did you come to Nashville?

In 1961.

How did you become a drummer?

It is just an instrument I gravitated to. I play guitar also. I tried to play bass a little bit.

How did you discover country music?

I listened to the radio. There was rock and roll, country, gospel, swing, jazz. I listened to everything. I still do. Good music is good music. I’m based in Nashville, the center of country music, it is everywhere.

What do you do for an artist when you sign him?

A manager is like a steering wheel. The first thing that I try to do is formulate where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. Find the right label, the right publisher, the right agency, all the right elements and the right crew.

Who are your most successful artists?

Jimmy Buffett, Delbert McClinton, Steve Wariner, Keith Whitley, Dailey & Vincent, Doyle Lawson.

How did you meet Keith Whitley?

He was in the Ralph Stanley band together with Ricky Skaggs. They were 17 when I met them. Then Keith moved to the Doyle Lawson group [actually, J. D. Crowe & the New South – ed]. One day he walked into my office and said “Here I am”. I got him a label and managed his solo career.

And what about Delbert McClinton? He is also a great harmonica player?

Yes, John Lennon was influenced by him. Delbert still sounds great and works a lot.

Is it different to manage artists now, compared to the 1960s?

Sometimes you discover someone somewhere. Like I saw Keith and Ricky at a festival. But usually when you have a good track record, you get a lot of referrals. That’s how mostly I become aware of talented people. I get invited to shows all the time.

What do you think about bluegrass music?

It is a niche music, like there are many others. It has been around now for about 60 years. Now and then someone discovers it. The good thing is that it is a 100% repeat business. Artists get invited back, especially Daily & Vincent. Repeat business is the key to a long term career.

You have worked with Lester Flatt?

Yes, I booked Lester after the breakup (Flatt & Scruggs). He didn’t get along with Louise (Earl’s wife) and she ran the business. Also, Earl wanted to play music with his boys. Randy (Earl’s son) is a very talented man. I believe there are talented and gifted people.

What is the difference?

The gift is given to you, the talent – you have to work towards.

Have you met Bill Monroe?

Yes, sure. He was very confident – “This is what I do”. He didn’t copy anyone, he experimented with music. The early sessions had drums or piano. It was not in the final mix, of course.

Did you meet Hank Williams?

No, but my friend Chet (Atkins) used to know him. He played me his records in the office.

Is artist management a good living?

It was good for Colonel Tom (Tom Parker).

Have you met Elvis?

Yes, couple of times, at the RCA building.

What do you like about country music?

All of it. I like Nashville and the people. It is an industry built on respect. When the ship goes down, everyone is in it.

And what about the new trends in country music?

Things change and move in cycles.

Thanks very much for your time! It was nice meeting you Don!

Lilly Drumeva