By Jessie Williams
COVID may have been a time for many to slow down, but John Cook, proprietor of the historic Donoho Hotel and Entertainment Center took that time to brainstorm and consult with entertainment executives to further expand tourism in the Red Boiling Springs area. As the Donoho Hotel was recently featured in the Tennessee Magazine for its historical heritage as one of the resorts of yesterday, famous names who have either performed or rested their head in the hotel have included President Woodrow Wilson, Ed Asner, Dinah Shore, Lorrie Morgan, Doug Stone, T. Graham Brown, Irlene Mandrell, and in his residency Ronnie McDowell.
“I am really excited about the future of the Donoho. I met with music industry consultant Kirt Webster over the COVID lockdown and started to build out a strategy that could help bring tourists to the area. Now that Kirt is consulting for our Entertainment Center, we are going to be scheduling family-friendly shows for everyone in the community,” says John Cook. “We hear all about the ghost hu.”
Webster’s vision for the local destination has already started to take shape. The Donoho Hotel and Entertainment Center will host the “Always Loretta” Christmas Show on December 1 and 2 with tickets already on-sale and ranging in the price of $25 to $250 for a VIP table which includes the famous family-style country dinner for four. “I am really excited about working with John to create a fun-experience for fans when they come to the Donoho. This first production show is a tribute to Loretta Lynn, one of the most honored Country female artists to have ever lived. Her original band members “The Coalminers” will be performing with Emily Portman, who Loretta helped hand-select to portray her while she was alive. It’s family-friendly, its Country music at is finest, and it’s gonna be a collection of both Christmas and hits,” says Webster.
Ronnie McDowell is a staple at the Entertainment Center and can be seen on most weekends. Having his history as an 80’s hit-maker of songs like “Older Woman,” “Wandering Eyes,” and his 5-million seller “The King Is Gone,” attracts fans from all over the United States each weekend either in-person or watching online through their Facebook live stream. “Ronnie has really brought more attention to the Red Boiling Springs area. We have seen people come, especially during COVID, that probably would have never looked up the Donoho as a place to come visit so for that we are extremely grateful to Ronnie and his band for choosing us as their home during that time, and for that matter sticking around,” adds Cook.
As an award-winning consultant, Webster learned of the Donoho Hotel and Entertainment Center while working on a Hee Haw touring production, “Hee Haw Remembered.” “Diana Goodman, who was a Hee Haw Honey, asked me to come meet her for dinner one night at the hotel. I did and I had no idea Ronnie McDowell was performing that night. I had represented Ronnie for many projects so I decided to stick around and watch the show and see some old friends,” adds Webster. “I had a blast and it was a place to get away since everywhere else was closed up for COVID and no shows were happening. All of a sudden, I found myself driving an hour and twenty minutes back and forth to go see the shows and enjoying a great meal. I fell in love with the area, the people, and the hospitality.”
Having moved to Nashville at 20, Webster broke into the music business selling merchandise for Clay Walker, who was hotter than ever in the mid-90’s. A year into that, a career move into publicity and coming off the road was the shot in the arm he needed and only could dream about. From there he built a public relations business that exceeded every expectation he would ever have. “I launched a PR firm with Janie Fricke, Freddy Fender, and Carl Perkins as clients and grew it to over 70 clients that included Pat Benatar, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams, Jr., Don McLean, Lee Greenwood, Megadeth, 3 Doors Down, and so many others,” says Webster. “I was blessed beyond belief to garner the trust from so many managers and artists to help take their music and brands to the next level.”
In 2009, Kirt Webster was named one of the most successful businessmen in Nashville under the age of 40 by the Nashville Business Journal. Around the same time, he served on the boards of directors for the Academy of Country Music (ACM) and the Nashville Association of Talent Directors (NATD).
Over the course of his career, Kirt Webster has represented many world famous entertainers and elite musicians, including Dolly Parton, Cyndi Lauper, Randy Travis, and The Judds, among others. He has also received several industry awards, such as a TELLY Award in 2021 as a consultant on Rainy Night in Georgia, and a 2022 TELLY Award as the producer of Tyson Fury/Dillian Whyte Heavyweight Championship Fight Opening featuring Don McLean, which won in six categories. He also served as an executive producer to Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountains Rise telethon, which won an Emmy award.
In a recent interview with Macon County Chronicle, Kirt answered questions about the things that inspire him, his goals for the future and what big lessons he’s learned over the course of his career.
Q: What do you currently do at your company?
A: Ever since the COVID pandemic, the music and entertainment business has become very Zoom-oriented and technological, so my daily routine largely consists of checking emails and making phone calls. A lot of the in-person daily activities have shifted to Zoom, but the same basic work is still being done. Beyond those activities, I work on brand deals for both corporate clients and entertainers and act as a consultant to several entertainers for marketing and touring.
Q: What was the inspiration behind your business?
A: Having worked as a marketing and PR executive for 25 plus years, I saw every great manager and every bad manager do their job. When I say good manager versus bad manager, what I mean is that some are proactive and some are reactive. Some are forward-thinking, and some put up roadblocks. Everybody has a different style in the way they work, and I was able to sit back and observe all those styles and see which ones worked. When I decided to launch into project management and consulting, I took the knowledge that I had gained from working with other companies, then asked myself what the best style and approach was to accomplish things. When all is said and done, the clients only care about what you accomplish. Clients care about wins, so I chase wins each and every day.
Q: What defines your way of doing +business?
A: I think what sets me apart from a lot of people is that I’m bold, I’m direct, and I’m blunt. I get excited about good things and I don’t sugarcoat bad news. I don’t try to make things that nobody wants to hear disappear. In the past, I’ve been told I’m like sushi—meaning you either love me or hate me. Nobody ever has to second guess what I am thinking and I believe that is why my phone is still ringing with potential clients on the other end of the line.
Q: Tell us one long-term goal in your career.
A: Honestly, I’ve achieved all my career goals. I’ve represented members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry stars, actors who’ve begun a recording career—I’ve done everything I wanted to do. Now, I’m in a position where I’m able to help people with their careers because I want to. In fact, that’s really what enables me to be bluntly honest with people. I don’t really need anything from anyone anymore. I’m equally fine hearing the words “You’re hired” as I am “You’re fired.” I’m okay with both because I’m happy with the way I do my work.
Q: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned through the course of your career?
A: Always be truthful. I’ve always been honest, whether people like it or not. My reasoning is that there’s no point being dishonest, deceptive, or evasive because the truth always comes out anyway. Although sometimes people might doubt the truth, eventually they realize what’s real and what’s not.
Q: What advice would you give to others aspiring to succeed in your field?
A: I never give advice, I give information. Everybody has an opinion, but being in possession of good, solid information allows people to make their own judgements. So, in answering the question, the information I would give somebody trying to break into the entertainment industry would be based specifically on what they’re trying to accomplish and what I think they need to know. Define yourself and what you want and then go after it!
Q: How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
A: For the first 25 years of my career, my whole life was work. Now, I go fishing, I go boating, I visit people. I still get work done, but I now take time for myself and live life to the fullest because there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring. Over the past few years, I’ve started adding personal appointments to my calendar and it’s worked out very positively.
Q: Who has been a role model to you and why?
A: Early on in my career, it was Merle Kilgore. He gave me one of my first very big positions in the music business which was representing Hank Williams, Jr. Merle gave me a lot of advice on how things worked in the business; what to look out for and who to watch. I learned a tremendous amount from him and worked with him all the way until he passed. He was an unbelievable mentor to me.
Q: What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
A: Merle Kilgore once told me “If a deal starts out squirrelly, it’ll probably get squirrellier. I’ve always remembered that line and, to this day, if something starts out weird, I walk away from it. If it starts out great, then I move forward.
Q: What does success look like to you?
A: The key thing for me has always been to remember that we’re here to put smiles on people’s faces. I’m not curing cancer; I’m not a doctor or a lawyer. Those jobs are tough. It shouldn’t be hard for me to put a smile on somebody’s face. If we’re entertaining people and making them leave their worries at home, then we did our job. That’s what success means to me.