Ree Guyer B’81 makes a name for herself in the music industry
As a young woman, just starting out in the music industry in the mid ’80s, Ree Guyer B’81 walked into the office of Billy Sherrill, a big name record producer who ran Columbia Records. Sherrill was intimidating, not necessarily in stature, but certainly because of his surly nature, coupled with his intimidating history with music artists like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich — even writing the famous Wynette hit, “Stand by Your Man.”
Taking one look at Guyer, he said, “You seem like a nice midwestern girl. This is a ‘good ole boy’ business, and you’re going to get eaten alive. You’ll never make it. Be a nurse and go back to Minneapolis.”
Guyer met his chauvinism with determination and chutzpah, telling him, “You know what, just because you said that, I’m going to prove to you I can do it.” And after she got her first Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) most performed song award for “Little Things,” by the Oak Ridge Boys, Sherrill told her, “You did it. I’m so proud of you.”
Since then, as a music publisher, she’s earned two Song of the Year awards and over 30 No. 1 hits in country and one in pop.
Guyer has loved music since she was a little girl singing commercials in Minneapolis. Additionally, music runs deep in her blood; her dad, Reyn Guyer, is a songwriter who works with talented songwriters in Minneapolis. His goal was to help his clients get their music out into the world and recorded by major recording artists.
After Guyer graduated from Saint Mary’s (with a degree in studio arts and child psychology, which she both jokes and admits with some seriousness came in handy in the record business), she searched for a sales job. “I sort of raised my hand and said, ‘I would love to try to be their agent.’ ” Ree and her dad started Wrensong Publishing with a lineup of 20 songs.
Guyer knew in her heart and soul that she could help turn a particular jingle writer named Billy Barber into something big.
Under her father’s encouragement, she traveled to Nashville to pitch the songs in the capital of country music, and she instantly loved the thrill of it all, saying, “What’s not fun about running around all day and playing songs?”
She began some aggressive networking, beginning with Michael Johnson, a Minneapolis artist who made all his records (including “Bluer than Blue”) in Nashville. “I called him and said, ‘You don’t know Billy Barber, but I want to know more about Nashville and wondered if you would have lunch with me,’ ” Guyer recalls. “I left with six names of people who were music publishers, which is what I ended up becoming. I cold called them all. I started going back and forth between Nashville and Minneapolis, met with writers, and found more writers. I knew Billy Barber’s ‘Little Things’ was a hit. Everybody I played it for loved it.”
Those original six contacts would go on to be Guyer’s best friends and advisers.
Her big break happened when a friend from Nashville, Bob Doyle, called her and said he loved the song and that the Oak Ridge Boys’ bus was outside his office. He told her she should bring the song to them, and they would listen to it on the road.
Two days later, the Oak Ridge Boys told her, “We love it. We’re going to record it.”
“That was my first cut,” Guyer said. “They took me to lunch and tried to own half the song, and I said no. It had taken me about a year and a half to go through this whole process. I said, ‘I’m not giving away half the publishing.’ It was their first radio hit off that record, a No. 1 record.”
Duane Allen of the band inquired if she had any more songs they might want to record. She gave him “Gonna Take a Lot of River,” which became their second No. 1 hit (both in 1985).
With these successes under their belts, the Guyers purchased and renovated a building on Music Row in 1985. They signed their first staff writer in 1986, Jon Vezner. Vezner had his first two singles including the award-winning song, “Where’ve You Been,” recorded by his wife, Kathy Mattea.
Today, Wrensong is one of the top independent publishing companies on Music Row. Ree credits her father for being her partner through it all. She took over the business from him about 10 years ago but says, “We did it together. He supported the whole thing and was wonderful.” Their catalog now contains over 3,000 copyrights with five staff songwriter/artists.
The list of country music artists she hasn’t worked with might just be shorter than those she has. Her additional two “Song of the Year” accolades include “Where’ve You Been” and “Whiskey Lullaby” (both Country Music Award, Academy of Country Music, and Grammy-winning Songs of the Year). Wrensong received its third Song of the Year, One Man Band (by Old Dominion) at the 2020 American Country Music Awards. Additionally, “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” (Patty Loveless) was nominated for a Best Country Song Grammy.
Under Guyer’s direction, Wrensong has enjoyed over 30 No. 1 hits, including Guyer’s very first cut, “Little Things” (Oak Ridge Boys), and “Am I the Only One” (Dierks Bentley), “Ask Me How I Know” (Garth Brooks), “Better Dig Two” (The Band Perry), “Break Up With Him” (Old Dominion), “Drink On It” (Blake Shelton), “Gonna Take a Lot of River” (Oak Ridge Boys), “Heart Like Mine” (Miranda Lambert), “Hotel Key” (Old Dominion), “I Met a Girl” (William Michael Morgan), “Make it Sweet” (Old Dominion), “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart” (Old Dominion), “One Man Band” (Old Dominion), “One That Got Away” (Michael Ray), “Sangria” (Blake Shelton), “Say You Do” (Dierks Bentley), “Snapback” (Old Dominion), “Take it From Me” (Jordan Davis), “The Truth” (Jason Aldean), “Wild One” (Faith Hill), “Written in the Sand” (Old Dominion), and album cuts by major label acts like Ray Charles, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Dixie Chicks (now The Chicks), Tim McGraw/Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Norah Jones, and Kenny Chesney that have sold in excess of 130 million albums.
She knew Garth Brooks, Tricia Yearwood, and Joe Diffie before they were famous as she hired them to record demos of songs so she could pitch them to producers. Brooks told her, “I could feed my family because you were employing me.”
“It’s a small community and a supportive community. We compete but everybody knows everybody because we all interact in those ways,” Guyer said. “Tricia and Garth are normal, down-to-earth sweet people; they haven’t changed at all.”
What has changed, Guyer said, is radio; because of streaming, it is much more difficult to build connections. “I got to know Sherrill’s secretary, and she liked me,” she said. “That’s how it worked. Now everybody hides behind email. They don’t talk to each other. It was smaller and more intimate and so connected. Back in the day, I would read the trade magazines and look up what people looked like and would go to a party and go up to them and say, ‘I’m Ree Guyer and I have this new company, and you need to know about my writers.’ ”
Guyer says Nashville is still a “good old boy network,” in many ways, but women have made some big strides in publishing. “I think women listen to music differently,” she said. “They listen more to the lyrics. I think I had the confidence in the music. The songs opened the doors for me. Once I got in the door, I used being a woman to my advantage.”
She said in the music business, you have to learn to take rejection well and persevere. “Reject me 100 times. I’m just looking for that one ‘Yes’,” she said.
Guyer’s passion is evident, “I love what I do, taking a writer and molding them, setting them up with a manager and their record label and getting them their first cuts and their first No. 1s. They go on to work with somebody else, but I love working with them in the beginning,” she said. “I don’t know how I instinctively know incredible talent and songs. I just know and that’s a God-given gift,” she said. “But that’s everything.”