They say behind every good man, there’s a woman. Well there are actually a few behind Luke Bryan. Of course, thanks to his social media presence, fans are familiar with his wife Caroline and mom LeClaire but the other woman who makes his world go round is his longtime manager Kerri Edwards.
Her potent blend of business savvy, creative vision and good old fashioned tenacity have served Edwards well as she has risen through the ranks in the Nashville music community. The West Virginia native began her career as an intern for Arista Records Nashville before transitioning to prominent posts in music publishing and eventually launching her own management company with Bryan as her first client in 2006. Today she also shepherds the careers of Cole Swindell, Dylan Scott, Jon Langston, Whitney Duncan and new duo CB30.
“When you are in management, there is not one piece of an artist’s career that you are not involved in,” Edwards tells Sounds Like Nashville. “It is all consuming. You are involved in everything from approving a photo to booking a tour. It is literally all pieces of it. All contracts go through you that have their name or likeness involved in any manner. People don’t even realize this but every time they are on a TV show, there’s paperwork involved. It is 24/7. Nothing is ever done without going through their manager.”
It’s a demanding career, but Edwards loves her job and she’s great at it. “I love being a part of finding songs for them that work and help brand them and define who they are,” she says of her clients. “For me, that is probably my favorite thing and also being a part of someone’s creative vision and dream and help seeing it through. It’s actually sometimes overwhelming. It could be scary, but exciting at the same time.”
Surprisingly, Edwards didn’t originally plan to pursue a career in the music business. In fact she initially didn’t plan to stray far from her tiny hometown about 30 minutes from Charleston, WV. “I graduated when I was 17 and I was looking at Marshall and a couple schools within West Virginia. My parents were like, ‘Oh fine you can go there, but if you want us to help you pay for it, you have to go out of state,’” she recalls them saying. “I was like, ‘What?!!!’ They just wanted me and my siblings to be exposed to new things and to not stay in one little place all our lives. I think if I’d stayed in West Virginia, they would have been fine, but they were just pushing and challenging me. At the time you don’t really see it. I was just devastated. This was a very small town and people didn’t leave that often at all to go to school or anything. They were just trying to challenge us to get out and experience life.”
Edwards chose David Lipscomb University in Nashville because other family members had gone there. “I ended up loving it after I was there a few months,” she says. “I went into it thinking I wanted to be a teacher and got into that major and realized that was not for me and went into communications.”
Edwards was supposed to do an internship for Nashville’s WSMV Ch. 4-TV, but attending a music festival back in West Virginia changed her career path. A friend of hers ran the festival and she had worked for him during the summers. She was backstage talking to him when she met Denise Nichols. “She worked in radio promotions and now she’s a lawyer. That was the spark,” Edwards says. “Denise Nichols did radio promotion for Arista Records and we struck up a conversation. We exchanged numbers and she was like, ‘Well if you ever want to intern in music, let me know.’ Honestly I didn’t even know that you could. I didn’t know it was an option.”
Nichols put Edwards in touch with the person who handled internships at Arista Records Nashville and soon she was working at the label. “Even though I was an intern, there was still this camaraderie that [label chiefs] Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan had created. I was just soaking everything in from all different departments,” Edwards says of the label that was home to Alan Jackson, Blackhawk, Pam Tillis, Brooks & Dunn, Diamond Rio, Lee Roy Parnell, Phil Vassar and others. “It was exciting! You felt so much energy. The artists were so talented and I just got sucked in. If I wasn’t in class, I put in way beyond the hours I was supposed to be putting in there. I would volunteer for anything, whatever they needed done.”
Her hard work didn’t to unnoticed. She interned in the promotion department, but by the time she graduated college, she was offered a job in A&R. “Once I went into that side of things, on the song side of things, I really loved it so much,” she enthuses. “I liked working with all the publishers and writers. I’ve always been in awe of that side of things, of how someone can just come up with these lyrics and these melodies and do it day after day. It is always just blows my mind. I literally don’t get any more excited about anything than someone giving me a song that you can’t stop wanting to hear.”
After seven years at Arista, Edwards lost her job when the label merged with another company and most of the staff was let go. Edwards rebounded by working for hit songwriter Desmond Child. “I helped open a publishing company for Desmond called Deston Songs,” she says of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame member whose credits include Kiss’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “Angel” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” “Desmond really wanted to open a business in Nashville because he just fell in love with the town and the writers. He asked me to start that for him and I did that for two years.”
After exiting that company, she was recruited by Roger Murrah, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame whose credits include such No. 1 hits as Mel Tillis’ “Southern Rains,” The Oak Ridge Boys’ “It Takes a Little Rain (To Make Love Grow),” Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” and Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” It was there that she met Bryan, a young songwriter signed to Murrah’s publishing company Murrah Music. “He was just this big barrel of energy,” she says of Bryan. “He had not been writing for Roger that long, maybe three or four months and that was his first writing deal. Luke’s just always been a big personality from day one and I knew he did artist stuff, but honestly at the time I wasn’t that tuned into it necessarily. It was more about the writing.”
After being with Murrah’s publishing company about a year, she decided to go to Georgia and see Bryan do a show. She admits she wasn’t prepared for what happened that night. “I got like a couple of songwriters and a couple other song pluggers in town and convinced them to ride with me to Georgia,” she recalls. “We went and I just didn’t expect to see what I was seeing in that moment. I was just standing in that club going, ‘Oh my goodness! This is for real. These people are eating this up!’ It just stopped me in my tracks. I went into it not really with any kind of motivation or plan. I was going to just be supportive. I don’t know if that’s why it caught me off guard, but it just did. I couldn’t believe how everybody was singing every single song no matter if it was a song he wrote or a cover. It was guys and girls and they were just having the time of their lives. I just couldn’t get over the response he was getting from these college kids. I came back and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was like I’ve really got to figure out how to help him. He deserves a shot at something.”
Edwards asked Murrah if she could talk to Bryan about helping him out, and he encouraged her to do so. “I just went into it saying, ‘I really want to figure out how to help you,’ and he’s like, ‘Okay,’ so that’s literally how it started,” she says. “From then on out I was just determined. I had a lot of relationships obviously from being in A&R and then in publishing so I went in and tried to work on helping him get better writes and expand that side of things. I just went after it from that side and basically I called in a lot of favors.”
While Bryan was still an unknown, she asked her cousin Jeff Stevens, who was already a successful artist/songwriter, to write with him. “When I called Jeff it was pretty nerve wracking. I was pretty scared to ask him because Luke was so unknown. I went into labor with my second child the day they were writing for the first time and I remember—this how business crazy I am—I remember after having my baby, I go, ‘I wonder how the write went,’” she recalls with a laugh.
Little did she know it would become a lasting creative partnership. Stevens and Bryan’s have worked together ever since. Stevens produced the demos that helped Bryan land his recording contract with Capitol Records Nashville, and has since produced all his albums. Steven’s son Jody has begun producing songs for Bryan’s albums too.
Edwards didn’t intend to manage Bryan when she began working with him. She just wanted to help him grow his songwriting career and land a record deal, but as things began taking off, Bryan asked her to be his manager. “Truthfully, I was kind of intimidated by it because I had never gone down that path,” she admits. “So it took me several conversations with him and with some dear friends that I trusted their opinion. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel right doing it without [Universal Music Group Nashville Chairman] Mike Dungan signing off on it because he was taking the chance with Luke because at that point he did already have a record deal with Capitol. We’d gotten that done, so at that point I didn’t want to jump into that without getting his blessing. It was a very scary phone call to make. I told him that Luke had asked me to do it and I was considering it, but I would only do it if he would sign off on it because I didn’t want Luke to not be taken seriously if he didn’t have a big name manager.”
Edwards needn’t have worried. “Dungan didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘Kerri you should do it. You’ve been doing it. You are already doing it. You should do it.’ I don’t know deep down if he was kind of freaking out about it, but he didn’t act like it,” she notes. “He definitely encouraged me to walk out on that ledge for sure. If he said no, I really would not have done it. If he would have had hesitations, I would not have put Luke in that position. If that would have happened then I guess God would have had a different path for me.”
Because she wanted Bryan to have the best possible chance at succeeding, Edwards partnered with Red Light Management’s legendary founder Coran Capshaw to co-manage Bryan’s career. (She manages the rest of her roster herself through her KP Entertainment.) “I really felt like I needed a name behind Luke and not just ‘Here’s this unknown manager with this unknown artist,’” she says. “I was just introduced to him and he agreed to go into business with me. I just felt like I had so much to learn.”
Edwards has paid her dues and worked hard. Along the way she’s grown her own company and turned Bryan into a superstar as well as launching Swindell’s successful career. She admits the pandemic has made this a challenging year. She’s had to rebook tours because COVID has killed the live entertainment business. They also made the decision to push Bryan’s current album Born Here, Live Here, Die Here from its original release date in March to August.
“We don’t regret that at all,” she says. “It was not the right time for Luke to be standing up there self-promoting anything with the state of the country. I’m thankful we found a new spot to put that out and that was a tricky thing, to try to launch a record in the middle of a pandemic. You can’t go anywhere and be in front of anybody. He worked really hard and he did everything that was asked of him. We did a lot of initiatives on the digital side of things. I became an expert camera girl because we had to film everything ourselves.”
In addition to her thriving music business career, Edwards has been married 23 years to her husband, who is a dentist, and they have a teenage son and daughter. “I look back sometimes and I’m like, ‘Holy cow! How did I do all that,” she says. “I was just so passionate about both sides of it. You make it work. And I have a supportive husband, so that was one of the biggest blessings.”
Edwards is proud of the things she and Bryan have been able to accomplish together. “He’s just a good dude,” she says. “He’s a good guy and I’m lucky. It’s not just him. I feel I do really have great artists across the board that are collaborative and respectful and hard working.
“There aren’t many boring days,” she continues. “Luke is always challenging and giving me new things to learn. That part has been awesome. Thinking back to me calling Mike Dungan to get his blessing to Luke doing the National Anthem on TV to negotiating major deals to doing American Idol and launching a beer, he’s given me many things to learn, and that’s the exciting part that I get to grow from.”