Webster PR, the Nashville firm with the biggest client roster in country music, continues to experience mass defections in the face of sexual harassment charges being publicly lobbed against the company’s president and CEO, Kirt Webster, including flagship client Dolly Parton, who disappeared from the firm’s website Thursday morning.
An artist roster that numbered 71 clients in September was down to 37 by Thursday morning, with most of those exits happening in the previous 24 hours. A list of corporate or non-music clients was down from a peak of 33 in September to 23, putting the total number of recent departures at close to 50. Early Thursday afternoon, the list of clients was finally taken off the Webster PR site altogether.
Meanwhile, the former second-in-charge at Webster PR, Jeremy Westby, now tells Variety he is starting afresh with a new firm, rather than taking over the old one, as announced just a day earlier. “Fresh start, new firm,” he texted.
Among those disappearing from the Webster website since the Nashville Scene first reported allegations on Tuesday afternoon, besides Parton: Kid Rock (whose impending Friday album release had been heavily promoted by Webster), Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Kenny G, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich, Cyndi Lauper, Kiefer Sutherland, Don McLean, the Oak Ridge Boys, William Michael Morgan, Roy Clark, KC and the Sunshine Band, Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely, LoCash, Lucas Hoge, Lacy J. Dalton, Olivia Lane, John Conlee, Gene Watson, Johnny Lee, Moe Bandy, Tim Rushlow, Leroy Van Dyke, Denny Strickland, Johnny Lee, and Deborah Allen.
Parton’s manager did not return calls for comment, but she eventually addressed the matter in a Twitter post late Thursday afternoon. “I’ve worked with Kirt Webster for many years and he has done a wonderful job,” Parton’s Twitter statement said. “I am hoping the accusations are not true,” she added, without confirming or denying whether she had severed ties with the firm.
Kid Rock addressed his departure in a letter Thursday to industry blogger Bob Lefsetz, saying that “the shocking accusations of sexual assault and mistreatment of others I take dead seriously. I never witnessed or heard about any of this outside that he was probably gay, which I could care less about. We (BMG) cancelled his and his company’s services upon not only hearing about these but other rumors that are starting to swirl. I hope to God this shit he is being accused of is not true as he has been nothing but a good friend to me. But if it comes to light that it is, I will be the first to cut the head off the snake.”
Others who parted ways from Webster in recent days or weeks include Justin Moore, Lee Greenwood, Taylor Hicks, Jewel, and Aaron Lewis. It was widely reported Thursday that Randy Travis had “fired” Webster in the wake of the allegations, but Travis actually had not used Webster’s services since February.
Travis’ new publicist, Zach Farnum, left Webster PR in May to start his own company. He tells Variety it was purely a coincidence that he finally announced signing Travis last Friday, the same day that a little-known country hopeful named Austin Rick first took to Facebook to post sexual harassment charges against Webster.
Over the past two days, former employees of Webster PR have alleged to Variety and several other publications that Kirt Webster did a mocking impression of Travis, who still suffers after-effects of a debilitating stroke, in the office. “I hate the accusations that are being made about [Webster] making fun of Randy and all that,” Farnum said, while declining to comment on whether he’d ever witnessed the mockery himself, or anything else about his former employer.
Another former Webster employee, Scott Adkins, has also started his own firm, and he confirmed to Variety that he only resigned as a Webster VP on Wednesday morning. Adkins declined to comment on his tenure with Webster. One of the newly departed Webster clients, Billy Ray Cyrus, already lists Adkins as his new publicist on his web page, although Adkins declined to discuss the developing client roster of his day-old firm yet.
Not all the clients listed on Webster’s site this week were still affiliated with the firm. A rep for Meat Loaf said the rocker hasn’t worked with Webster since the completion of his album cycle late last year, despite still being pictured as a client. A longtime publicist for Lauper, Patrick Confrey, said her label had only contracted the firm for a brief Nashville campaign around a one-off country album in 2016, and that it was unclear why she was still listed as a client on the Webster site.
More than a dozen other former employees of Webster PR have been speaking with the press, albeit mostly not for attribution, telling their own stories of emotionally abusive or suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, and viewings of pornography in the office. There is apparently no shortage of ex-employees to talk with: One publicist who spent years at the company said her long tenure there was the exception, and that the turnover rate was so high, the firm would sometimes cycle through around 50 employees a year in an office of 8-10, many of them recent college graduates getting their first gig in the music industry.
Managers of Webster’s clients have been taken aback by the quick turn of events this week. Parton’s manager, Danny Nozell of CTK Management, had several clients with Webster earlier in the week. By Thursday morning, three of them — Parton, Kenny G, and KC and the Sunshine Band — were gone from the roster, but two others (Seether and Vivic) were still listed. Nozell did not respond to requests for comment.
The succession of power at Webster’s firm has been unclear to most in Nashville over the past two days. Wednesday morning, a notice appeared on the front page of the Webster PR website announcing that the company had shut down and all clients should speak with Westby. Then an unrelated PR agency in Nashville sent out a press release saying the post had been in error and that the firm would continue with Westby at the helm, changing the business name to Westby PR, while the embattled CEO temporarily stepped aside to “focus on combating the egregious and untrue allegations.”
Yet on Thursday, the Webster site appeared as it always had, except for the diminishing and eventually disappearing artist roster, still listing Kirt Webster as president and CEO. A new page appeared for Westby PR, initially consisting of nothing but a list of 19 clients, all of them formerly with Webster — including Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys, Kenny G, and the controversial NRA Country initiative. Westby eventually confirmed that this was to be an all-new company, not a revamping of the old, without elaborating on whether Webster might be involved.
Joyce Moore, Sam Moore’s manager and wife, says she will go with Westby, and regrets what she sees as Webster’s instant conviction in a trial-by-social-media. “I think it’s in transition and they’re trying to get everything up to speed,” she says. “Whether this [Austin] Rick guy is telling the truth or not, the idea of how he’s going about handling his private personal business has had a dramatically devastating effect on artists like Sam, who are in the middle of trying to promote their careers and new product.” (The former member of Sam & Dave just released a new album of patriotic music.) “I am actually quite angry at what this guy has done to my 82-year-old client. It has cost him setbacks because of what had to be done at the company, and it has caused us personal sadness because of a 20-year-plus relationship with Kirt and his family.”
Many ex-Webster employees are feeling less sadness about the hit the company is taking. “We’ve all been through hell,” said one of the firm’s more prominent former publicists, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He had one of the best PR teams in the business, and we all just wanted to do our jobs and pursue our dreams. We all witnessed harassment, and some of us were the brunt of it and some weren’t, but it affected all of us. Karma’s a bitch.”
In other developments Thursday, the Tennessean published a report that three more former employees had come forward to the paper with complaints of unwanted sex, groping, or sexual advances involving Webster. The website Taste of Country, meanwhile, published a more detailed follow-up interview with Rick, the former country artist whose allegations in the Nashville Scene first caused the stir.
Webster has not returned requests from Variety or other publications for comment on the allegations or any business restructuring. His persona bio and those of the remaining staffers were also removed from the company website Thursday.