Lisa Lee, a leading figure in the country music industry who rose up through the ranks of broadcasting and most recently served as senior VP of creative and content for the Academy of Country Music, died Saturday at 52. The cause of death was brain cancer.
The country stars paying tribute to Lee included Kenny Chesney (pictured above). “Lisa Lee and I grew up together in this business. She was a TV reporter, producer, writer and big executive.,” said Chesney. “She covered my heroes and my friends; she wrote about me and my mother. She truly cared about country music – and I absolutely cared about her. Goodbye, my sweet friend.”
Born in Arkansas and based for many years in Nashville, Lee moved to Los Angeles in 2004, when she was four years into a run of working for CMT and MTV Networks. Three years later, she joined the L.A.-based Academy of Country Music, becoming one of the genre’s foremost behind-the-scenes figures on the west coast as well as maintaining her familiar presence back in Music City.
Said Damon Whiteside, the ACM’s CEO, “The Academy has lost a huge part of its heart and soul with the passing of Lisa Lee. She was a champion for country music and fiercely dedicated to the Academy’s mission for her over 15 years of service to the ACM. She is irreplaceable, but her heart and spirit will live on throughout our industry.” Referring to an event taking this place at the Ryman Auditorium, Whiteside added, ‘ACM Honors’ was her favorite event, and I know she will be singing along and smiling down on us from above on Wednesday night.”
“Lisa was smart, and funny, and a beautiful human being,” said Jack Sussman, executive VP of specials, music and live events at CBS Entertainment. “She was a treasure trove in terms of the history and the importance of country music, and she cared about those traditions and the artists deeply. I don’t know what the Academy is going to do without her. She had a way about her that was smooth, but nurturing. When you do live TV, anything can happen (and usually does); she was a calming influence who could get things done and make people in that setting feel grounded and settled.
“Whatever was happening, she would make it okay,” Sussman continued. “Lisa could talk to anyone. When we were live on the red carpet, she could talk with everyone from a production assistant to a superstar like Garth Brooks – and make everybody feel welcome and comfortable. She really just wanted to do her job: to tell great stories, and not let the politics get in the way. And she did. Plus, she had a smile that could light up a room. She had me – as the line goes – at hello. I’m going to miss that smile, because I’ve lost a true friend.”
Born Alicia Faye Young in Cabot, Arkansas, on December 24, 1968, Lee earned her BA in journalism and English from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern. Starting her career out of college reporting for the Cabot Star-Herald newspaper, Lee switched to broadcast journalism with an early job at KTAL-TV, an NBC affiliate in the Texarkana/Shreveport area. She moved into country music journalism when hired by Jim Owens and Associates, a Nashville-based production company, to work on shows including “TNN Country News” for the Nashville Network, a now-defunct rival to CMT; her role as a producer and reporter with Owens’ company lasted from 1995-1999.
In 2000, she became a producer and news correspondent for CMT and the cable network’s website. Working with MTV Networks, she also wrote and produced specials including the Prism Award-winning “Addicted to Addiction,” “Sex in Videos: Where’s the Line” and “Controversy: Tammy Wynette.”
She was still working for CMT when she moved to L.A. in 2004, becoming the west coast correspondent and news bureau chief for “CMT Insider,” a news show.
Her base in L.A. made her a natural for the Academy of Country Music, a switch she made in 2007. Lee was a liaison with CBS’s creative departments and website for promos and creative content surrounding the annual ACM Awards. She was named producer of “The Academy of Country Music Honors,” a live industry event dedicated to celebrating the Academy’s special award honorees, off-camera category winners, and ACM Industry and Studio Recording Awards winners — i.e., the event being held this Wednesday at the Ryman.
Seven years ago, she wrote and created “This Is Country: A Backstage Pass to the Academy of Country Music Awards,” a coffee table book in honor of the 50th anniversary of the ACM Awards with a forward by Reba McEntire.
Said McEntire, “I always loved getting to visit with Lisa whether it be about the music business or an interview. She was a huge asset to our business. I sure will miss her smiling face.”
“Lisa has always been a light inside our industry,” said country superstar Luke Bryan. “Her ability for telling not only my story but the story of so many was unmatched because it was from her heart. She truly loved her job and it showed on her face every time she was around. I will miss her.”
“Ever since she joined the Academy,” said RAC Clark, executive producer of the ACMs since 1999, “she became the heart, the soul and the historian for the ACM. She was passionate about our West Coast roots and created a magnificent snapshot of the organization and its award show with a coffee table book to celebrate our 50th anniversary. On a personal level, I relied on her to keep me honest when it came to telling the Academy’s story. She had such depth of knowledge and passion. I will miss her tremendously.”
Said Keith Urban, “We lost one of our true lights yesterday. Lisa Lee was one of the most passionate and caring people I’ve ever met. Her love and appreciation of music, and the artists who made it, was everything you’d ever want. I loved being interviewed by her for that reason and because she always brought such a warmth into the room. Peace be with all of her family today.”
Lee is survived by her parents, Charlie and Faye Young; her husbandm Doug Lee; daughter Grayson, and son Jackson.
Visitation will be held Friday from 5-8 p.m. at Moore’s Funeral Home in Cabot, Arkansas, followed by a memorial service Saturday. A celebration of life will be held in Nashville at a later date. Further information about that and her memorial fund can be found here.