Tandy never knew a stranger in his life. He was always a show-off, and full of himself, and always “got what he wanted. He could sell you a billy goat whether you needed it or not.” The description of Tandy Rice, huckster extraordinaire, comes from the person who has known him longest and best, his mother. Fanny Rice’s appraisal of her son fits him like the Brooks Bros, suits that cover his 5’9″ frame. Tandy Rice Jr. is not selling billy goats at the moment but Billy Carter—for all he’s worth, which is upward of $500,000 a year, or about two and one half times what Billy’s brother makes as President of the United States. Then there are Tandy’s other clients: comic Jerry Clower and Country & Western luminaries Tom T. Hall, Jim Ed Brown, Helen Cornelius, Royce and Jeannie Kendall and what seems like half the Grand Ole Opry roster. Not to mention Cornelia Wallace, lately First Lady of Alabama. Rice’s stable of stars has propelled his Top Billing agency into the top rank of Nashville talent and artist-management companies and has spread his name far beyond the city limits.
In the big-bucks world of talent peddling, Rice is an anachronism. From his razor-cut black hair, stylishly flecked with gray, to his gleaming Gucci loafers, he is the very model of a Madison Avenue supersalesman. Impeccably tailored and immaculately groomed, he washes his face and shaves several times a day. Every morning after brushing his teeth, he shines his Citadel class ring with toothpaste. Tandy’s smile could melt a statue, and his brown eyes are devastatingly sincere. Wherever hucksters gather, he would fit in comfortably—the bar car of the 5:40 for Westport, a corner table at Ma Maison, the gaming pit at the Sands—until, that is, Tandy opened his mouth.
Suddenly he becomes another person, a drawling good ole boy under the sleek trappings, at home on the veranda at the Hermitage when the juleps are being served—or drinking beer in the back room of Billy Carter’s gas station. As he speaks, the sorghum oozes out. His voice is alternately soft and persuasive and thunderously doomsaying in the best Bible Belt manner. The words are italicized by flailing arms and gesturing fingers (when driving, he steers with his knees, his hands too busy making conversation). “You can say that again, brother,” he will proclaim. “You can say that again. A-men.” Or he may disagree: “That ole dawg won’t hunt. Nossir, brother, it just won’t hunt.”
Tandy, now 40, arrived on the Nashville scene in 1963 after a largely misspent youth. Even though it was his native turf, he was unaware of the impending revolution that would turn country music into a billion-dollar industry. As a matter of fact, Rice hated the whining C&W sound at first and had to cultivate a taste. (“It’s a lot easier to love when you make the kind of living out of it that I do,” he admits.) He had a wife and two children to support, his physician father, who had always indulged him, was dying and Tandy was filled with a sense of inadequacy. “I was frightened and bewildered,” he remembers. “I felt I couldn’t do much more than sell vacuum cleaners or carrot graters.”
A cousin, comedienne Minnie Pearl, then as now the grande dame of the Grand Ole Opry, suggested that Tandy try for a job in one of the music agencies beginning to bud all over the Tennessee capital. When he was offered $500 a month as a publicist, Tandy snapped it up. After a couple of years he went into the PR business for himself, signing up such unsung artists as Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Kitty Wells and Chet Atkins for fees of $50 a month. “I had 25 clients,” he remembers. “I was working my ass off and making a good name for myself, but I wasn’t making any money.” So when a telephone proposal came from Bill Graham, founder of the dominant Showbiz, Inc., Tandy signed on. Graham was a legendary Nashville figure, “a ruthless, rough, tough, beautiful man,” and the business of marketing C&W was “raw, run by cowboys who looked at you suspiciously if you had a college education.” Rice’s job was to sell independently produced country music shows to TV—a novel idea conceived by Graham, but undreamed-of outside of Tennessee.
“My first trip to New York was an awful experience,” Tandy recalls. “I was laughed at by the sophisticated time buyers and program directors. Back then they didn’t know anything about country music, and there I was trying to sell them what they thought was a stupid-looking product like Dolly Parton. But it wasn’t like that in the rest of the country. I became hot as hell as a salesman, going all over thumping desks and selling the programs as fringe-time television syndication. I found out that I loved selling. Now it’s my life’s blood.”
But three years of selling for the hard-nosed Graham was enough, and he left his $38,000-a-year job to become a talent agent for a quarter as much income. Soon he heard that his old boss wanted to sell a small subsidiary booking agency, Top Billing, and he was rapping on Graham’s door again. Tandy borrowed $30,000 to buy Top Billing’s name and client list, and he was on his own at last. He was only 30. In the decade since, Top Billing’s annual income has risen from $67,000 to more than $1 million, the employee roll from one to 14 and the number of clients from five to 18.
Top Billing’s best-known client—and Tandy Rice’s biggest coup—is, of course, Billy Carter. When the William Morris Agency, the nation’s largest, announced that it had signed ex-President Gerald Ford and his family to multimillion-dollar contracts, Tandy’s competitive yeast began to rise. His thoughts turned to another presidential family. Within days he was off to Plains, Ga., in greatest secrecy (to avoid the public humiliation of possible failure), armed with a contract, a financial report on Top Billing and all the stem-winding salesmanship at his command. He buttonholed Billy in his peanut warehouse, after beating a path through lawyers and hangers-on. Four hours later Tandy had signed him up and was barreling back to Americus to the nearest pay telephone to relay the news to Nashville in a pre-coded message: “The eagle has landed.”
Since then Rice has personally handled the Carter account, and all complaints about the exploitation of Jimmy Carter’s baby brother just roll off his well-tailored back. “I don’t see anything immoral or illegal in what Billy’s doing,” Tandy says. “Don’t ask me about taste. If you don’t like the act that he’s selling—Billy Beer or T-shirts—you have a surefire way of dealing with it: Exercise your option of not buying. Walk away. But don’t criticize him for being caught up in the same system we are all caught up in.”
That system is a far cry from the way of life in the little town of Franklin, 10 miles south of Nashville. Rice was born there, the third-generation scion of middle-Tennessee gentry. As the third child and only son of the local doctor (his grandfather was the town M.D. too): Tandy was brought up in an atmosphere of social privilege and appalling family indulgence. The boy’s pet monkey was allowed the freedom of the house, says a childhood friend, even though “it fingerpainted with its own dodo all over the walls.” Such pranks as a boozy night of dumping over the tombstones in the Confederate cemetery were all but winked at. From an early age Tandy, an athletic, darkly handsome youth, “could pat any lady in town on the heinie and get away with it.” He lacked for nothing and could do no wrong. “I was raised a spoiled brat,” he admits. “I never had a serious thought until my father died.”
The carefree days continued well into manhood. Flunking out of Vanderbilt University, Rice tried various jobs, including Bible salesman. But, after using his wiles to sell a farm woman a $65 Bible she could ill afford, he was so conscience-stricken he sent the money back. “I decided there had to be a better way to skin the cat than that,” he recalls. “I went to Dad and told him I’d come to appreciate two things—a college education and a stick of deodorant.” He was packed off to the Citadel, the military college in Charleston, S.C. After graduation in 1961, he went on a family-financed trip to Europe. On board the U.S.S. Atlantic he met Debbie Buck, the daughter of a Coral Gables, Fla. doctor. The two found they were booked on the same tour and began dating. Later that year Tandy was on active duty as an Air Force lieutenant at a snowbound SAC base in Caribou, Maine. He called Debbie in Florida. “If you will come up here to Caribou,” he told her, “I will marry you.” She did, and he did, and they are now the parents of three children, Cynthia, Clint and Marjorie.
In 1963 Tandy resigned from the Air Force and brought his young family back to Franklin. “I came home expecting Daddy to take care of me,” he says, “but he was dying of cancer.” Belatedly, Tandy came of age. “It was the great moment of truth, at last. Dad left me a legacy more valuable than money—the honor of his name and reputation.” That’s when Cousin Minnie made her suggestion about country music, and the rest is a thousand yellow ribbons round the old oak tree.
For a man of his means and sartorial splendor, Rice lives an otherwise understated life in the maple-shaded home in Franklin where he grew up. He drives a gray pickup truck. He retired his Cadillac several years ago because people might think he was too “uppity”—and clients might wonder about the fees he charges (as much as 25 percent of their earnings, depending on services). He keeps country hours, rising at 5:30 a.m. to make coffee, read the Nashville Tennessean and watch Good Morning America before going to the office at 7:30. Nightlife is severely curtailed these days: “I used to be a great party boy, but not any more. If I drink whiskey, you might as well shoot me the next morning. I ain’t worth nothing. But I do like beer, the same way my old dawg, Streaker, likes a coon.” His children attend expensive private schools, but with a dose of humility. “Honey,” he once told daughter Cynthia, “you just ought to get down on your knees every damn night and thank God for Roy Acuff, because Roy’s the one that’s keeping you in that damn school, helping you to be such a snob.”
In Tandy’s Nashville office the walls are papered with photos of clients, and country music wafts through overhead speakers. There is no doubt who is boss, though Tandy is quick to delegate authority to the staff. He insists on evenhanded treatment of the artists. No agent is allowed to refer to “my” clients—they are the firm’s. Office mail and a synopsis of telephone calls are shared with every employee, and all of them report regularly on opportunities for other clients. Tandy retains sole ownership of Top Billing because, he explains, “In the go-go revolution of our business we wouldn’t be around if I had to stop and call a board meeting before I could make a decision.”
These days he tries to spend Sundays with his family, but for years he was a seven-day-a-week compulsive worker. “I think I was trying to prove to the people in Franklin that I wasn’t shiftless, that I could accomplish something on my own. I’d give anything in the world if I wasn’t so competitive, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. I enjoy competition to such an extent that it’s something I can’t live without. I’m hooked on it, God help me.”