When former aspiring country singer Austin C. Rick accused powerhouse Nashville public relations executive Kirt Webster of sexual misconduct last November, an accusation Webster has repeatedly denied in statements to the press, it was viewed as the sounding bell that some had been waiting for along Music Row. In the weeks preceding Rick’s announcement of being sexually assaulted by his former publicist over the length of their year-long working relationship, the #MeToo movement had swept through the entertainment industry. Yet the music industry remained relatively unscathed.
Nearly seven months after Rick, who formerly went by the stage name Austin Cody, made his allegations against Webster, little has changed. Few within the country music industry will speak publicly on the matter, whether in support of the former singer or his former powerhouse publicist, while the local news media barely covered the story, despite it being the most high-profile #MeToo accusation within the Nashville community. And Nashville’s Metro Police didn’t pursue sexual assault charges, with a police report obtained by the local ABC news affiliate showing that there was enough evidence to prosecute, but the statute of limitations for sex crime violations — eight years — had passed. Webster, meanwhile, was awarded Publicist of the Year by the public relations industry organization PR News in early December, though the award was rescinded once unflattering news coverage began to circulate the following day.
Early last week, Nashville’s local CBS affiliate reported that Webster was once again working within the Nashville public relations industry, this time under the business name Strategic Brand Alliance, which has no known website or physical address. The company was listed as “Project Management” on the website for the locally-produced television program Larry’s Country Diner. Currently airing on RFD-TV, the show is promoted on its site as a “wholesome, down-home…variety show.”
Within an hour of being contacted by local news outlets, the listing had been deleted from the Diner’s website, and host Larry Black had issued a statement saying that he and Webster were longtime friends without a formal business arrangement. Webster released a statement that read, “I am a friend of Larry Black and he has remained a friend of mine. Just like all the previous reporting over the past six months, you can’t believe everything you read or hear.”
Now, Rick announced this morning the title of a forthcoming book, Surviving Possession: Inside Kirt Webster’s Twisted Toy Chest. In an exclusive first interview since that announcement, Rick tells Billboard that the book will be his attempt at taking Webster — and the broader country music industry — to task for what he has experienced firsthand as a toxic work culture. Billboard has reached out to Webster for comment, but has yet to receive a response.
Billboard: Has it occurred to you that Surviving Possession will be one of the first books to ever delve into the issues of sexual harassment and assault within the country music industry as a main theme?
Austin Rick: It’s not been something I’ve thought about, no. But, perhaps that’s a sign that now is the time for it. Maybe it was needed long before I ever came along. I don’t mince details in the book, and some readers may find that uncomfortable. The reason for my decision to remain frank and true to the events, if you will, is hopefully to show people on the outside looking in that there is a horrible evil going on inside Music City, that it has been present for a long time, and that it will persist if we don’t stand against it. CMA Fest and CRS are fine and well, but they are just more tools, more charades, that are used to romanticize the ugliness that lies beneath. I encourage someone else to join me in writing, so that there might exist a productive conversation that will yield positive change. That’s been my goal from the beginning, and it will remain my goal as I share more about this much-needed book.
Were you disappointed that there wasn’t more public support from fellow country artists after your allegations against Kirt Webster became public, especially compared to the reaction that the #MeToo movement received in other fields of entertainment?
Nashville is super tight-knit. Music Row is where the decisions are made, and everyone basically knows everyone else. We know that in any organic culture there are going to develop norms and expectations for any individual aiming to remain within said group. I’m not excusing this passivity, nor am I at all interested in explaining it, but what I think is important to note is that people working in the business knew — and still know — that to speak out is to be kicked out. I didn’t know what would happen when I [went public], but I knew very well I shouldn’t be expecting to receive any calls from label heads or publishing houses asking compassionately to learn more about my abuse. That just isn’t how it works. The (mostly) men in power want to stay far, far away. It’s pretty sickening.
It’s been years since music was your primary focus as a career, but what reaction have you received from those you once worked with as a recording artist?
There are people that I spent significant time working with while I was still marketing myself as an artist — people I considered friends. I thought they’d show up and take a stand with me. These are people like my former manager, the Grammy-nominated producer I was creating my second studio album with at the time this was all going down, and others. Yeah, my heart sank over them. I trusted them. And really, I’ve learned that I trusted far too much. I’m going to reserve names and details for the book. I will say, though, that I’ve very recently been in contact with a few significant industry shot-callers who each sought my assurance that they wouldn’t be cast in a negative light in my book. Of course, no assurances were given, as the truth is the truth.
I’ve been highly outspoken, and this has led to more media coverage for the issue. My hope is that I’ll begin hearing from Music Row before long. I don’t think they’re going to enjoy reading my book. And that’s okay.
So you believe this kind of behavior is still ongoing in Nashville music industry?
Oh, it’s absolutely still going on in Nashville. [It wasn’t] just Austin Cody who happened to be singled out by this sex predator. It’s already been extensively documented that there are at least 23 other Webster victims — and those are just those we’re aware of, and are only Kirt Webster’s crimes. There are people with ultimatums being slung over their heads right now. They feel trapped and like they don’t have any choice but to give up the very most important thing — who they are, their personhood. [They are] why I will continue to advocate, speak, write and demand accountability and justice. As I continue on this journey, I will be looking for those who have taken advantage and I will encourage victims to reach out to me or to anyone they trust.