Jim Free Stands Up for Country in Washington, D.C.

Born and raised in Columbia, Tenn., seasoned in the ways of doing business in the corridors of power that thread through Washington, D.C., Jim Free has proven himself to be invaluable as an advocate for a high-powered list of clients, which he serves as President/CEO of the influential lobbying firm The Smith-Free Group, co-founded in 1995 with Jim Smith.


His contributions to CMA specifically and to Country Music in general are perhaps even more impressive, given that he makes himself available to these constituencies at considerably below his normal rate — in other words, true to his name as well as his passion, for free.


“I serve on the CMA Board out of love,” the ex-officio CMA Board member insisted.  “In the spirit of that great television series from years ago, working with the Board keeps me close to my ‘roots.’”


It’s hard to imagine anyone better situated to inform CMA’s Board on how Congress, the White House and the nation’s leaders see issues of importance to the music industry in general and Country in particular.  Equally important, Free can draw from his extensive background in state and national politics to realistically assess the likelihood of legislation on those issues and offer suggestions on how each member can plan for and possibly influence its development.  “I talk to CMA leadership frequently and report on the issues that affect all the players,” he explained.  “And I try to provide advice to the Board on how to sometimes interact with different players in public policy.”


As an example, Free pointed to the CMA Board meeting held during March in Washington.  Using his long-established contacts, he assembled a list of guest speakers that included administration officials and leaders of both parties in Congress, each equipped with insight into topics of concern to CMA members.  “At lunch, we had a preliminary briefing from Julius Genachowski, the Chairman of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), on the national broadband plan, a week before he would address these issues before the public,” he noted.  “We had Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, talk to us about intellectual property rights worldwide — and then, in a broader discussion, he talked about Afghanistan and other hot spots.  We also had Sen.  John Thune (R-S.D.), a younger member of the Senate who is becoming a leader in technology policy.  You’ve got to keep learning, in any business you’re in.”


Free’s commitment to CMA is fueled by his love for Country Music.  “If you are my age and you grew up in Middle Tennessee, you had two radio stations you could listen to late at night.  And now that I’m a grownup,” he said, with a laugh, “my two favorite forms of music are Country Music and rhythm and blues, which were what I could hear back then on WSM and WLAC.”


After earning his bachelor’s degree in Economics and Political Science and a master’s in Public Administration, both from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Free worked at his alma mater until accepting a position as Administrative Assistant to Speaker of the Tennessee House Ned McWherter, who later served two terms as governor, and then as Chief Clerk and Executive Officer of the Tennessee House of Representatives.  As Southern Regional Coordinator in Gov.  Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in 1976, he earned an appointment in 1977 as Special Assistant to the President for Congressional Affairs, which in turn led indirectly to his first contact with CMA.


When Carter opened the door toward normalizing diplomatic relations with China, the Chinese sent Chai Zemin as their representative in Washington.  Somehow word leaked back to the White House that the Ambassador was fond of Country Music, which cued the President to present Free with an unusual request: Could he arrange a trip for the Ambassador to Nashville? He could and he did, with help from former CMA Executive Director Jo Walker-Meador and former BMI President and CEO Frances Preston.


“The weekend ended with a brunch on Sunday, out at Dixie and Tom T.  Hall’s farm,” Free remembered.  “Some of our greatest legends were with us: Johnny and June Cash, Miss Minnie Pearl and the list goes on and on.  We were getting ready for the meal, and this being Nashville, you gave a blessing.  That was awkward for a second, but then from the back of the room Johnny and June started singing ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ I still get goose bumps when I think about that.”


Cash’s instincts for diplomatic outreach to the Ambassador were instructive in Free’s subsequent work on behalf of CMA.  “Nashville is such a harmonious town in the way its players get along,” he said.  “A lot of that is because of the Country Music Association.  We can’t ever lose that part of our mission, which is that the different commercial interests within the music industry leave their guns and swords at the door for the betterment of Country Music.”


Originally published in Austin Music News, August 10 2010