Stephanie Wright is a music industry survivor. In a business where record company executives are routinely tossed about in the turmoil that accompanies mergers, closures and regime changes, Wright holds the distinction of being with the same company for two decades and along the way has helped build the careers of many of country music’s most acclaimed artists. Her creativity, intelligence and enviable people skills have made Wright one of Nashville’s most respected executives, but it’s her passion for great music that continually puts her ahead of the curve.
As Universal Music Group Nashville’s senior vice president of A&R, Wright helps shepherd the careers of Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Little Big Town, Keith Urban, Lauren Alaina, Luke Bryan and many others. “We are talent scouts and we also work a lot once the talent is found,” Wright says of being an A&R person. “It’s all in various stages. Sometimes they are a lot further along in their ability to write. Sometimes they need some help in developing something special about the way they sing or maybe it’s their stage show and their performance piece. We help them develop all of that and get them in the right spaces and places to develop their chops whether it’s writing or performing. We also help them creatively in getting them in the rooms with the right producer, making the right sounds for their projects.”
The road that led to Wright’s career in A&R wasn’t the conventional one. She was raised in Salt Lake City, Utah and spent the early part of her career in healthcare. However, when she began looking to make a move, her cousins suggested Nashville. Those cousins— Kristyn, Kelsi and Kassidy Osborn—had moved to Music City themselves and were making a name for themselves as the trio SheDaisy, who recorded for Lyric Street Records, releasing five albums between 1999 and 2010.
“The first visit I made to Nashville, I got to meet Doug Howard, Randy Goodman and Dann Huff, Linda Edell Howard, Connie Harrington and Bonnie Baker. At that time I didn’t really know the magnitude of who I was getting to meet,” Wright says of meeting some of Nashville’s most successful songwriters, producers and executives. “I got to see Phil Vassar, Steve Mandile and Carolyn Dawn Johnson all perform before they had deals. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I definitely want to live here and I want to do something in this business because this is exciting.’ I’m sure that happens to a lot of people who come here. You have exposure to music and then the reality struck when I got here and realized that you don’t just magically get a job in the music business.”
She took a job at a heating and air conditioning company and kept her eyes open for something in music. Friends recommended her for jobs in the industry, but she was too qualified for entry level positions and didn’t have music industry experience for the upper level jobs. Finally she saw an ad in the newspaper for an executive assistant for the CEO of a major record company. Turns out it was for Pat Quigley, a brash New York executive who had just moved to Nashville to become president/CEO of Capitol Records. “I remember Pat saying, ‘You know what? You talk fast and you’ve never worked in the business before. You’re hired.’ So that was the start of it,” Wright says. “That two years that I worked for him was sort of my internship and a glance to see how all the different departments worked.”
At the time, Garth Brooks was the label’s top-selling artist. “I remember the first day, the big instruction that Pat gave me was, ‘If Garth Brooks calls, do not let him get off the phone. Keep talking to him until you can get me on the phone with him because I’ll never get him back on the phone,’” Wright recalls of Quigley’s directive. “I was panicked, but Garth made it easy because he said, ‘You must be new.’ I said, ‘I am’ and he asked me where I was from and the typical Garth thing. Three months later he walked in and asked about my family out in Utah.”
When Quigley’s reign was over, he let Wright know he would soon be leaving. “Pat came in one day and he said, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m getting fired and the guy they are bringing over has an assistant already so you need to find another job if you are smart. I’m just giving you that heads up.’ He was kind just matter of fact about it,” Wright recalls.
A friend tipped her off to an opening in the A&R department and Wright landed a job as an assistant, thus launching her career in A&R. “I’ve been here since then, which is crazy, different jobs and capacities in the A&R department, but it’s 20 years this year,” Wright notes. “Actually it’s 22 years, if you count the two years before with Capitol.”
During her time with the company, her ear for great talent and passion for songs have propelled Wright from that early assistant post to senior vice president. Along the way, she’s had many memorable, very rewarding moments. “When Kacey Musgraves won her first Grammy, I would say that was definitely something that was overwhelming, being a part of getting her signed to the label, that felt like something special for sure,” she says with a smile.
Sam Hunt’s success has also been a source of pride for Wright, who discovered him and signed him to the label. “I remember the first night I met his mom and I remember saying, ‘I can’t wait to see you all at the Grammys.’ And it happened,” she says. “His uncle was also there that night. I remember it was probably about a year and a half ago, I saw him again and he said, ‘Oh my gosh! You are the one that said we’d be at the Grammys together and it happened.’ I said, ‘Yes. I have to start putting that in the atmosphere a lot more.’”
Meeting George Jones was also a major moment. At the time, Wright was working with legendary producer/A&R man Keith Stegall. “Keith worked on a project with George Jones and I remember that morning being so nervous, making sure I had everything prepared,” she recalls. “I remember calling my mom after that going, ‘Oh my gosh! I can’t believe this happened today.’ I had some great experiences because of Keith. I got to meet George Jones because of him and same with Alan Jackson. I was there that day that he played in the studio, ‘Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning.’ We tracked it knowing full well that several days later he was going to perform it on the CMAs and it was just going to blow everyone away. It was a magical moment.”
Wright has some of the best stories of anyone in the industry. “There’s the time I made out with Willie Nelson,” she laughs and then proceeds to share details. “Fred Foster was doing a project for us with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price and at the time, I was doing recording admin. So I had to go over and get signatures from the artists on the budget and I remember Luke Lewis [formerly Universal Music Nashville Chairman/CEO] kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘When you see Willie, give him a kiss and tell him it’s from me.’ I said, ‘Now Luke, you know I’m not going to do that. I’m too shy. I’m not going to do it.’
“I don’t know if it was the second hand smoke when I opened up the studio door or what moment I had, but for some reason I remember I talked to Fred for a few moments and he walked me to the vocal booth. I saw Willie, shook his hand and I pulled him in close and gave him a kiss on the cheek,” she continues. “He kind of looked at me weird and I said, ‘That’s from Luke Lewis !’ He went, ‘I knew I liked that Luke.’ We got signatures and Willie grabbed the side of my face and he kissed me and he goes, ‘Will you please give that back to him from me?’ And I went, ‘Oh my gosh! I’d be happy to.’ I remember I walked back out to my car and my girlfriend was in the car at the time. I was kind of laughing and said, ‘I think I just made out with Willie Nelson.’”
During her 22 years at the label, Wright has built an impressive career while balancing life as a mother of three. She credits her mom and her supportive husband with their help in making it all run smoothly. “We have a village,” she says. “Both of my girls are in competitive dance, which is a very hectic schedule between school and dance, but they are instrumental in me being able to do all the things that we get to do.”
Wright’s maternal instincts also serve her well at work as she helps steer newcomers towards their dreams. “The best part of it is just seeing these young artists come in, get signed and reach their goals,” she says. “Every time they reach a goal, I feel my heart burst because we got them in the right place and we’ve done the right thing for these artists. When you’re in a city and you hear a song played and it touches people deeply, and they are all singing it back and the artists is moved to tears—all that is extremely rewarding. I don’t take that for granted because I’ve watched life and death happen in a hospital on a daily basis when I used to work there. Seeing the impact of what music can do for people is amazing.”
It also never gets boring. “It’s just the unexpected. I really truly don’t know what amazing things I’ll hear during the day,” she says. “I know every day I’m going to go into the office and I’m going to learn something I didn’t know the day before. That part of it is so invigorating and exciting to me.”