Tony Conway is a legend in the Nashville community who has one foot planted firmly in country music’s past success and another striding into its future. A well respected booking agent/manager, Conway has worked with the top names in the industry, among them George Strait, Willie Nelson, Alabama, Emmylou Harris, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap, George Jones and Bill Monroe.
Conway is one of the industry pros that helped Fan Fair move from the Nashville Fairgrounds to downtown and morph into CMA Music Fest. He was also a key player in helping Willie Nelson launch the first FarmAid and grow it into such a successful event. Such accomplishments helped earn Conway the CMA Touring Lifetime Achievement Award, but has he no plans to rest on his considerable laurels. “I’ve been blessed,” says Conway, owner/founder of Conway Entertainment Group/Ontourage Management. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do and I have no intentions of retiring. I still have fun doing it.”
That’s not to say it hasn’t been challenging lately. As a booking agent, Conway is responsible for keeping his artists on the road, working with promoters and talent buyers to put them onstage performing for their fans. Of course, with the current pandemic, all that has changed. “I don’t think it’s ever happened in the history of the entertainment business, maybe back during WWI possibly, but it’s never happened during my lifetime,” he says of venues closing and artists having to cancel tours. “The sad part about all of this is that not only do the shows stop, but all the people—all the musicians, crews, drivers, musicians, engineers, agents, managers and publicists—that all just comes to a halt because 95% of those people are paid per show. They aren’t on salaries, so when there is no show, there is no pay. Most of those people have families to support and that’s really been difficult to deal with.”
Conway doesn’t know how the situation will resolve and is concerned about the future, particularly how audiences will feel about attending shows in the future. “The promoters and talent buyers are going through a very difficult time because there’s no way for them to recoup their money unless they replay the show and at this point we don’t know how that’s going to go with ticket sales,” he admits. “Even when this bell curve is on its way down, I still feel the public is going to be hesitant to get in large groups. I don’t know what the future will hold, but I know music has always been something that has helped people during hard times. It’s been something that’s been uplifting and helpful, and I think that will not change. We just have to figure out ways to make it happen.”
Growing up in Bardstown, KY, Conway could not have foreseen the challenges that would one day attack the live music business. “When I was 15-years-old, I decided that I wanted to start promoting concerts,” says Conway, who was also a drummer at the time with a local band. “I did that on my own and didn’t really consult with my parents. I didn’t even have the money to do it, but I called a couple of agents and kind of disguised my voice to make it deeper, and then ended up somehow buying some shows, promoting them in the high school auditorium and selling them out.”
His first show was a stressful experience for the young entrepreneur when the lead singer of the band got sick and they cancelled the night before. Luckily, the agent offered to replace them with Steam, who had the No. 1 song with “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” “I only refunded maybe 10 tickets. That was the first show I ever did,” he recalls. “The second show was B.J. Thomas. I got lucky on that because it was when the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ was a monster hit. It was his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday and I had him in Bardstown on Monday night. That sold out and that was the beginning of my career.”
His next move was to open his own agency in Lexington, KY, working mostly with pop and rock acts. One of the bands he was working with suggested he should try his hand at country music and offered to let him move in with them if he came to Nashville. In 1974, he took them up on their offer and moved to Music City to open his own agency.
His big break came when legendary agent Buddy Lee recruited him to work for Buddy Lee Attractions. Lee’s well-established agency occupied the second and third floors of the same building Conway was working in. “One night there was a knock on my door,” Conway recalls. “I was on the phone, and I said, ‘Come in.’ In walked this gentleman in a three-piece suit, very dapper. He said, ‘Hi I’m Buddy Lee and I wanted to meet you. Every night when I leave the office— and this was like at 8 o’clock at night—I see your light on under the door and I hear you on the telephone. You’re the kind of agent I would like to have work for me. If you’d be interested, I have a desk for you. Just walk down the hall, go up the elevator and you could start tomorrow.”
Initially, Conway turned him down and said he preferred to keep running his own agency, but later that night when he talked to his then girlfriend Nancy (now his longtime wife), she encouraged him to take the job. “That was the beginning of my national agency career and I thought I knew a lot,” he says with a chuckle, “but I didn’t. Buddy was my mentor and he taught me a whole lot about being a talent agent and how promoters worked.”
Conway started at Buddy Lee Attractions in 1976 and spent the next 33 years working at the company. He was named president of Buddy Lee Attractions in 1987 and became CEO and co-owner of the company in 1998. “My family used to say I was a workaholic, but I never felt like that,” he says. “I just I couldn’t wait to go into the office in the morning and go to work. I just love what I do and I think that was another important part why I was able to represent some of the biggest acts in the world, which has been amazing. I’m very blessed in my career to have had some of the biggest artists in the world that have allowed me to negotiate on behalf of them.”
In 2009, he struck out on his own and launched Conway Entertainment Group/Ontourage Management. “I was dealing with some of the biggest managers in the business, people like Erv Woolsey, Bob Doyle, Irving Azoff, Mark Rothbaum and Lou Robbins—people that managed all these superstars [including the Eagles, Nelson, Strait, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks]. I learned from them as I went along,” Conway says. “I thought, ‘I think I could probably do that. I might enjoy doing that. That was really the reason I decided to start my own company. I sold my interest in Buddy Lee Attractions back to the Lee family, opened my own company in 2009 and that’s been very successful every since.”
There are three divisions to his current operations. Ontourage Management steers the careers of veterans Alabama, Lorrie Morgan and Randy Travis as well as three new acts—singer/songwriter Thomas Mac, female trio The Heels and up and comer Savannah Keys. CEG Live is a production company that produces festivals and conventions. Conway Entertainment is a boutique talent agency whose roster includes Johnny Rivers, the Steeldrivers and Monte Montgomery.
When Conway reflects on his lengthy career, one of his proudest moments was helping launch FarmAid. He has fond memories of the conversation in Nelson’s bus that started it all. “We were producing the Illinois State Fair and we had booked Willie,” he remembers. “Willie said, ‘Is the Governor going to come to the show tonight?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well I want to see if he could help us find a place to do a concert. I want to do a concert for the American farmers kind of like Live Aid, but I want it for American farmers and we’re looking for a venue, like a stadium. Do you think he could come on the bus and talk to me about it?’ I went and got his representatives and he came on the bus. That’s where it all started.”
Conway put together the talent for the show, held September 22, 1985, in Champaign, Illinois at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium. “The show sold out. There were 80,000 people,” he says. “We got The Nashville Network to televise it live and it became a telethon to raise money. That first year we raised about two million dollars on the telethon and a little over a million dollars on the ticket sales because back then they weren’t what they are today. It was low-ticket price. We had 65 artists and groups on one stage in one day to perform. I won’t forget that. It was the music industry coming together for the first time to help a common cause. These farmers and families were going out of business as fast as you could count. It was unbelievable. It turned out to be one of the greatest accomplishments of my career. We had everybody from Bon Jovi to Loretta Lynn to The Highwaymen to The Beach Boys and Kenny Rogers to George Jones and Van Halen.
Another legendary initiative that Conway played a key role in was moving Fan Fair from the Nashville Fairgrounds to downtown where it became CMA Music Fest. “At the time Fan Fair was the biggest country music festival in the country,” he recalls. “There weren’t any Country Thunders or Jamboree in the Hills or whole day festivals of any kind going on, so it was unique back in the early Fan Fair days.”
It started at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium and when it outgrew that venue it moved to the Nashville Fairgrounds, but then it outgrew that location. “They just didn’t have the facilities to accommodate what we needed and at the time they weren’t willing to build any additional facilities, so those last four or five years at the fairgrounds were pretty difficult,” he admits. “We would sell out the 17,000 tickets, but we really had a hard time accommodating those 17,000 people with parking and exhibits and concerts.”
As the Country Music Association Board began looking at new locations, Conway suggested moving the event to the new Nashville Super Speedway, but then Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell called Conway and began lobbying for the event to be held downtown. “I said, ‘If we stay in town, we would need to have access to the stadium, to Bridgestone Arena, Municipal Auditorium, Broadway and Second Avenue. We’re going to need the whole downtown campus to build this thing,’” Conway recalls. “He said, ‘Well let’s see what we can do.’”
All parties involved worked together and in 2001, Fan Fair moved to downtown Nashville with the shows and activities began taking place at multiple venues, including the stadium that is home to the Tennessee Titans football team. The event has since grown, becoming increasingly successful each year and the money raised at the event goes to support music education in Nashville schools. “It took a lot of people and a lot of work to move it from the fairgrounds to downtown and turn it from what it was to what it is today,” Conway says, “but it was very satisfying. I had a ball doing it.”
A conversation with Conway is a first class education in country music history and he has had so many memorable moments in his career that he could regale any reporter for days. He speaks warmly of getting Strait his first booking at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo when the headliner had to cancel at the last minute. Strait and his band were flown down in a private jet, wowed the sold out crowd and thus began a Texas tradition.
He also recalls the White House calling him to say President Reagan wanted to present Monroe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He found out that day that Frank Sinatra was a big Monroe fan and gushed over the icon as they made their way in to see the president. As Conway and Monroe were flying back to Nashville for the Father of Bluegrass to play the Opry that night, screeners at the airport found a .357 pistol in Monroe’s briefcase.
“They took us down to a jail under the airport and put us in this holding area,” Conway says. “I said, ‘We just had lunch with President Reagan at the White House. Get the secret service on the phone,’ so they got the secret service on the phone. They came over and said, ‘Yeah that’s them. They were there.’ It’s just unbelievable that we had that briefcase on the [White House] property loaded and nobody ever discovered it. Nobody discovered it in Nashville when we got on the plane.” [Monroe had to pay a fine but avoided jail time.]
Conway feels blessed to have such a long distinguished career. He has a lot of great memories and is still making new ones. Does he have any advice for someone looking to get into the booking business, perhaps a teenager in Kentucky as he once was? “Follow your dreams. Don’t take no for an answer, just keep going and going and going,” he says. “If somebody says, ‘No, I’m not going to hire you’ or ‘You can’t do that.’ Just keep marching forward because if it’s something that you really want to do you’ll make it happen.”