Our Stories

Nashville Takes Buchanan to the Top

Following the music (and staying in Music City) was right choice for Opry president

Steve Buchanan
President, SteadiBeat Media

Vanderbilt MBA 1985

As country music performers play on the Grand Ole Opry stage, look off to the side and you might spot a low-key, conservatively dressed man looking on. That would be Steve Buchanan, president of Opry Entertainment and co-creator and executive producer of ABC’s nighttime TV drama, Nashville.

At Ryman Hospitality Properties, Buchanan is also a music business executive, a type represented on the TV series as a heartless and manipulative character. But the television Nashville world exists because of the vision of this real-life executive with a heart for the music and a business sensibility forged at Vanderbilt.

Raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the son of a nuclear engineer and a chemist, Buchanan first enrolled in Vanderbilt as an undergraduate in the engineering school, intending to become an environmental engineer.

He got involved with the Vanderbilt student concert committee that regularly brought great shows to campus. Through these extracurricular activities he discovered his vocation. “It was enlightening for me because despite my complete love for music, I had never necessarily thought of it as being a business,” he says.

Upon graduation, Steve rejected suggestions that he move to Atlanta or New York, he got a job at Buddy Lee Attractions, a booking agency on Music Row. There, he was in a position to meet music industry people in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles.

“Two of the agents I worked with had played with Hank Williams (Sr.),” he recalls. “So I was both learning the business and learning the history of the business.”

Still, Steve had a nagging feeling that there was too much he didn’t know. He questioned if he even wanted a career in the music industry. “I made the decision to quit my job and go back to school full time because I wanted to do a specific concentration and immerse myself,” he says.

Steve entered the MBA program at Owen, focusing on marketing and gaining a strong foundation in the fundamentals of management. At Owen, Buchanan learned to be disciplined in his approach to business. “It really made me focus,” he says. “I learned to be methodical and strategic about things.”

Coming out of Owen, Buchanan faced a crossroads between a managerial training program at Northern Telecom and becoming the first marketing manager in the history of the Grand Ole Opry. Again, he followed the music.

He found himself in a unique situation. “The Opry had never had a marketing manager, meaning it had never had a marketing budget,” he explains. “Most freshly minted MBAs don’t really want to go to work for a place where they don’t even have a budget. That doesn’t fit in with the typical scenario.”

But he launched a simple campaign to address the identity problem his marketing research showed was holding the country music institution back. It worked.

In what he regards as the proudest moment in his early career, Steve went on to oversee the revitalization of the history Ryman Auditorium, which had fallen into disrepair during the 1960s and ‘70s and was no longer even regularly used as a venue for live music.

Under his direction, Gaylord made a substantial investment in restoring the property. Just as important, concerts at the “mother church of country music” (and not just by country performers) began drawing crowds around the time that downtown Nashville experienced a similar revival.

Fast forward to the second act of Steve’s Nashville career in 2010, when, as president of the Grand Ole Opry and senior vice president of Gaylord Entertainment, he was part of a meeting with West Coast television executives. Those conversations led to the idea for a TV show about the music business and the city. Steve became one of the show’s executive producers, and it was largely his influence —demonstrating how and why Nashville itself was an important character in the series — that led once-skeptical Hollywood executives to agree that the series should be filmed in Music City.

It’s easy to look back now and conclude that Steve made the right career choices. But even as he left Owen, Steve says he new his direction was clear.

 “It ultimately wasn’t a hard decision to pass on the Northern Telecom job,” he says, sitting in an office that overlooks the Cumberland River. “Yes, it was a better paying job and had a more defined career path. But I thought that the Opry job offered me the opportunity to be in a more traditional business environment while at the same time being engaged in the entertainment and music industry.”

“Most freshly minted MBAs don’t really want to go to work for a place where they don’t even have a budget.”