Industry Insiders: Meet Mary Hilliard Harrington, Senior Artist Manager at Red Light Management.

She steers the careers of Dierks Bentley, Caylee Hammack, LANCO and others.

Industry Insiders: Meet Mary Hilliard Harrington, Senior Artist Manager at Red Light Management.
Photo courtesy of Mary Hilliard Harrington

From building one of Nashville’s top public relations firms to becoming a successful artist manager and president of the CMA Board, Mary Hilliard Harrington has become a force in the Nashville music community. Her extensive resume includes working in the fashion industry in New York and the Miss Universe pageant before relocating to Music City.

“There are very few managers who were always managers,” Harrington tells Sounds Like Nashville. “They all came from some place else like either the road or they were an agent or a business manager or an attorney or whatever. I have noticed, for whatever reason, there have been a lot of publicists who have turned into managers. So much of what a good strategic publicist does is they figure out what’s different about each artist and try to tell that story and that is a really big piece of artist development in general. So if you are starting with a new artist, if you are a good strategic publicist, it seems like a pretty easy jump to me. Everybody comes from somewhere else and brings some level of experience from one sector or another and learns the rest on the job.”

Harrington compares being a manager to “being sort of the center of the wheel with an artist” and though it’s a lot of responsibility, it’s a life she enjoys. “You’re responsible for setting goals and a plan for their career based on what their goals are, so if you are sitting at the center of the wheel with them and the artist goes and is able to go and be creative and write songs and play shows and make appearances and do all the things that they have to do, you are left there to sort of manage and make sure the rest of the people on the team are all working towards that original goal that you and the artist set. So you work with the record label, the business manager, the publicist, the agent, the sponsorship team, the attorney, the songwriters, the producers, all of these people that sort of make up the bigger structure that surrounds an artist.”

A native of Quincy, FL, Harrington amassed a lot of experience in different areas before moving into artist management. After graduating from the University of Alabama, she moved to New York City. “I started in fashion PR and I actually worked for Donald Trump before moving to Nashville,” she says. “I did some of his entertainment properties like Miss Universe prior to all his political aspirations.”

By the time she moved to Nashville in 2005, Harrington was ready for a change. “Everything in New York moves at such a fast pace,” she says. “I got so much great publicity experience, but also just business and life experience living there. When I moved to Nashville, I was really prepared, and maybe a little even a head of the game for [someone] my age because of that experience in New York.”

After moving to Music City, Harrington briefly worked for another public relations firm before launching her own company, The GreenRoom PR, in 2006. Dierks Bentley was her first client and they have worked together ever since. “When I first moved to Nashville from New York, I didn’t really know much about current country music,” Harrington admits. “I only knew the stuff back from like the ’80s and the ’90s when I was growing up in my little hometown and the stuff my dad played. When I moved to New York, I listened to rock music so when I landed in Nashville, I didn’t know anything really and I was kind of searching because the genre is so wide with different types of music. I was really just searching for which part of it got me excited musically and creatively. Dierks always did from the beginning.”

When asked what it was that made her connect with Bentley’s music, Harrington responds, “It’s because he wasn’t really singing about super rural type ideas. He’s from Phoenix and at the time he was putting out Modern Day Drifter. He had all those love songs and I was like, ‘Oh I get this!’ So I connected with him musically right from the beginning.  Then I met him backstage at a show in Mississippi that he and Miranda were playing together. I remember vividly how energetic and almost how sort of like that rock and roll mentality his live show was. I was able to connect with that immediately and he is the most personable guy. I definitely remember him being so welcoming to me as a newcomer and that made a really big impression on me. Coming from New York, [I thought] ‘God he’s friendly.’ I wasn’t expecting it honestly. We really just kind of hit it off.”

Harrington and Bentley began working together and as his career continued to accelerate, she built the GreenRoom into a successful PR firm with Lady A, Rascal Flatts, Kip Moore and Jason Aldean among her stable of high profile clients. In 2010 Bentley asked her to become his manager full-time. “Dierks and I are wired the same so we’ve always been able to communicate really clearly with each other. Our instincts are sort of in line with each other,” she says. “We’ve always been in lock step that way and so it was kind of natural. And when he was not loving his previous management situation, I was often the person he would talk to about that because we are wired the same way and could communicate about it. So it just sort of naturally and organically happened. There was no grand plan.”

For a while, Harrington continued to run the GreenRoom while managing Bentley, but in 2014 she decided she wanted to focus more on management so she sold majority interest in the firm to two of her employees, Tyne Parrish and Kristie Sloan, who continue to run the company.

Even though she has relinquished her role as a publicist, Harrington’s career continues to be extremely busy. She balances life as single mom to her six-year-old daughter Scarlett and her workload at Red Light Management where she manages Bentley, Elle King, Caylee Hammack and LANCO. “I have a lot of great people around me at both work and at home to help keep things going, and thankfully my clients are understanding,” she says. “I have a really strong work ethic. It’s really hard to outwork me, so even with having a really active daughter and being a mother, I know that I’m getting my job done and they do too.”

Harrington admits she’s learned to set boundaries, even in what can be an all-consuming profession. “I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be a 24 hour a day job,” she says. “I used to always be available and now I’m pretty good about setting boundaries. Of course, if somebody calls me in the middle of the night, I answer the phone, but all of my clients are so respectful of me, my time, my family life and my other obligations and it’s because they are good people. Those things are also important to them, so it hasn’t really been a problem for me, but you are always the first phone call if something goes wrong and if they need something. While we have some boundaries, you do have to be ready for that. It just sort of comes with the territory.”

Though a manager’s job covers a lot of diverse territory, there’s definitely a facet Harrington enjoys most. “All of the creative stuff is the part I love,” she says. “I love the process of selecting songs and going in the studio and creating the marketing plan and all of the things that go around releasing music. I also love the touring aspect of building the show and working with the production team and crew guys to create a musical experience for people. Those are the things that get me pumped.”

She admits other parts of the job are challenging. “I’m not great with like logistics,” she says. “I know how to run a good schedule, but I have a hard time organizing my own schedule, so when I’m thinking about organizing artist’s schedules I can get really bogged down and that can take me way longer than it can take someone else who is really great at that. And then I hate a budget.  I hate anything that comes on a spreadsheet, but thankfully we have great business managers who really sort of lead that charge and I rely on them heavily because that’s not my favorite thing to do. I choose to put my time and energy into the things that fill me up.”

When asked what qualities she thought were essential to being a manager, Harrington cites patience, being a good communicator and being “not afraid to tell the truth even if the truth isn’t always what people want to hear, but to do that in a very loving way.”

Like everyone else, Harrington and her clients have been impacted by COVID-19. “Dierks is such a generous guy. He doesn’t have any income coming in the door, but he is continuing to pay his band and crew,” she says of Bentley’s loss of income due to tours being cancelled. “All of my artists are songwriters, so they do have some publishing income which helps and will help keep them afloat for a while. I think it definitely has had an emotional effect on some of them. There’s a little bit of anxiety for sure in the artist community about how long this is going to go on and how it’s going to affect their band and crews, and not just the people they have on full-time, but the ticket takers at the venues and the venues themselves. They are all feeling the weight of it, but I do believe we’re going to be okay. I think if we can start seeing some shows happening in 2021 and a couple little glimmers of hope, I think we’re all going to get through it.”

These days Harrington is one of several high profile female managers in Nashville. It’s an elite group that also includes Ann Edelblute (Carrie Underwood), Marion Kraft (Miranda Lambert), Kerri Edwards (Luke Bryan) and Virginia Davis (Thomas Rhett).  “When I first came along it was a little bit more challenging for women in management because there weren’t any female managers,” she says, “so that was a bit of a challenge, but now that shift has totally reversed and now there is almost more female managers—definitely of headlining artists—than there are male managers and so I feel like the Nashville community kind of did that together.”

Harrington appreciates the way the Nashville community rallies to support each other. In fact, she credits that encouraging atmosphere with bolstering her success. “I actually don’t think I could be doing this in other places because so much of my success, and the things that have given me the confidence to go out and try things and kind of have no fear in terms of growing my own career, happened because of the support of the Nashville community,” she says. “There have been managers with more experience than me that have never had a problem with me calling and asking them questions and agents who, when I didn’t have any touring experience at all and I started managing, really had no problem helping me along. I don’t know I would have had that without the Nashville community and so it is like the most special place in the world to work. It really is.”