The Nashville publicity firm with by far the biggest client roster in country music continued to be rocked late Wednesday by allegations of abusive behavior and sexual harassment, most of them now coming from anonymously sourced former employees, in a series of articles published in local newspapers and on a country news website.
The Tennessean, Nashville Scene, and Taste of Country all published separate articles containing further charges lodged by employees and artists against Kirt Webster, the president and CEO of Webster PR, whose 100-plus client roster includes such artists as Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Charlie Daniels, and Meat Loaf. (Until this week, it also included Kid Rock, one of a number of acts to defect over the last few days in the wake of the controversy.)
The Nashville Scene set the flood of allegations in motion Tuesday with an on-the-record interview with a former client named Austin Rick, who claimed he’d been sexually assaulted by Webster in 2008. (In a statement, Webster’s firm claimed the relationship between Webster and Rick had been brief and consensual.) In a Wednesday follow-up story, the Scene reported now having spoken with a second “young male country aspirant” and former Webster client, this one wishing to remain anonymous, who said that he had been pressured into stripping and eventually offering oral sex to Webster.
“He was just like, ‘You want to meet Reba and Dolly, don’t you?’” the unnamed singer said, according to the Scene. “And then he was like, ‘You know you have to make sacrifices to be a star, don’t you?’ He told me after that he was going to have to see me naked. It ended up happening, and I’m definitely not proud of it.” Later, said the singer, “He wanted to give me a blow job, and he kept going on and on, and I let him that night… And I haven’t seen him since.”
The allegations in the Tennessean and Taste of Country stories, meanwhile, came from an array of former employees, who described a sometimes belittling, sometimes sexually charged working environment.
“It was the darkest period of my life,” a male ex-employee told Taste of Country. “There was plenty of groping going on, I’ll tell you that. Butt grabbing, that sort of thing. Kinda chuckling about it. It was a common occurrence.”
Taste of Country said that another ex-employee told the site that Webster “pressured him into both giving and receiving oral sex and fondling himself at Webster’s direction.” The site said the employee claimed he had acceded and kept quiet for fear of Webster’s political connections. “He’s just gotten done running [publicity for] John McCain’s political campaign, and people were nervous that he was having them followed,” the employee said. “I didn’t know what he was capable of. He was dropping (former Fox News head) Roger Ailes’ name, and you realize how connected all that was and you just don’t know who he had access to, in what part of government that could have ruined your life.”
According to the Tennessean, two former employees, one male and one female, both alleged that Webster “bragged about soliciting photographs of men’s genitals and sexual favors from Parton fans in exchange for meet-and greet passes.”
Additionally, the paper reported that one male employee complained of unwanted massages and nipple twisting, and a female employee said that Webster made a remark about cutting her genitalia. The article also contained allegations of rude hand gestures and pantomimes and an office viewing of a pornographic video said to feature the wife of one of the firm’s clients.
A Nashville police spokeswoman acknowledged to the Tennessean that sex crimes detectives have reached out to Rick, the Nashville Scene’s original complainant.
Wednesday brought on an often confusing whirlwind of activity for Webster PR, which began the day by putting up notice on the firm’s front page that the company had closed down, and that VP Jeremy Westby could be reached for further client info. Later in a day, a press release said that the closing notice had been posted in error, and that the firm would continue on, led by Westby and now bearing his name, “while Kirt Webster takes some time away from the business to focus on combating the egregious and untrue allegations made against him.” As of Wednesday night, though, the firm’s website continued to show Webster as president and CEO, and there had been no update to the company’s name.
Attempts by Variety to reach Webster, Westby, and the company’s current lineup of publicists were unsuccessful. One of Webster’s execs, Scott Adkins, issued his own press release Wednesday, announcing he was leaving Webster PR to start a new firm.
Between Wednesday morning and Wednesday night, a number of names fell off the artist roster listed on the Webster PR website, most prominently that of Kid Rock, who has an album coming out Friday that had been heavily promoted by Webster. Others who had their names taken off the roster Wednesday included Cyndi Lauper, Kiefer Sutherland, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich, Billy Ray Cyrus, Olivia Lane, William Michael Morgan, Tim Rushloe, and Jimmy Fortune. (At least one of those, Cyrus, now lists ex-Webster publicist Adkins as his new rep.) Other artists to leave the Webster fold in recent days or weeks include Justin Moore, Lee Greenwood, Taylor Hicks, Jewel, Randy Travis, and Aaron Lewis.