I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Jim Ridley, the editor and long-time film critic of the Nashville Scene, who died today at age 50. He gave me a boost when I needed it, that I’ve carried with me for years.
I first got to know Jim in 2006, when I came on board as publicist for both Nashville Public Television and the Nashville Film Festival. It was a time of transition for me, as I was leaving the music business and just getting my feet wet as a publicist. He was one of the first people I had lunch with as I made my way around town meeting with journalists and other PR folks. He was already a fan and supporter of both NPT and NaFF, so I didn’t need to convince him of either’s value and newsworthiness. What I needed to do was convince him that I valued them as much as he did. That’s a tricky thing. I already had the job, but if I didn’t have Jim’s respect, I might as well go home. Fortunately for me, I truly loved public television and film, and I relished getting the opportunity to talk about and promote work that I admired and thought had significance. On top of that, I loved Nashville. I think Jim saw all that and gave me his blessing.
It was usually a given that Jim would dedicate a cover to the Film Festival every April, so again, I didn’t need to pitch him much. There’s a lot of pitching that goes on in publicity, but most good PR folks know the most important part of the job is delivering — on promises, information, interviews, statistics, screeners, promo shots and more. I made it my mission to deliver for Jim. Between January and April, while writing press releases and working with 200 other publicists who had films in the festival, and pitching and talking with every other TV, online, radio and print outlets in Nashville and the region (and a few key national places), I was constantly communicating with Jim, setting up interviews, getting him synopses of films, driving over stacks of DVDs to the Scene’s offices and finding film stills for him to use in the paper. One of my favorite times came in late February / early March when Brian Gordon and then Brian Owens would sit with Jim and give him the scoop on what to expect at the upcoming festival. It was thrilling to just be in the room, watching Jim get excited over some film I had never heard of by a director whose work I was going to quickly have to get acquainted with. It was a mini contemporary film master class every year. When the festival arrived, I’d cherish every opportunity to chat with Jim in the lobby of the theater or outside on the concourse, talking about whatever films we had seen.
A few years later in 2009, after the Festival celebrated its 40th Anniversary, then executive director Sallie Mayne asked me if I was going to the Scene’s “Best of” Party. I didn’t get an invitation, and hadn’t planned on it, but a few hours later, on my drive home, she called me again, and insisted I turn the car around and drive to the Parthenon in Centennial Park. She assured me I didn’t need an invitation. I arrived to hugs and cheers and congratulations. I was named the “The Best PR Guy” in Nashville. The paragraph that accompanied my selection was written by Jim. I couldn’t believe it. Other publicists will understand that things like that don’t happen to us. Unless you’re of a member of the PRSA (of which I was not), you don’t win things. Writers and producers and videographers win Emmy Awards; actors and screenwriters and directors win Film Festival awards. We publicists are behind-the-scenes people, and we like it that way. But there it was, all that hard work for the past four years, recognized.
Jim gave me one of his famous hugs when I found him at the party, but he refused to accept any gratitude for what he had done. It was all me and well deserved, he insisted. What Jim had done for me, with that one designation, has been immeasurable. Both organizations that I served were proud to have me working for them, but the recognition provided a little extra security and authority. I worked hard and believed I was good at what I did, but here was proof that maybe I really was. It raised my profile in the community. I was asked to sit on a number of panels about publicity and the arts, and invited to speak to students studying PR. One intern, who herself went on to work in PR, even put on her resume that she interned with the Best PR Guy in Nashville. All of it made me work even harder to live up to Jim’s endorsement.
Through it all, Jim and I had become friends too, sitting down over sandwiches at Savarino’s, talking about film and collectively mourning good friends from the restaurant that passed on. Becoming friends made it hard when things would happen and I’d have to take on a hardline/spokesman role for one of the organizations I represented. There were a few times that someone abruptly left one of the organizations I represented, and Jim called me to find out what happened. I would give him our statement and say that was all I could say on the matter. It was a difficult thing to do. I felt like an asshole, but it was the thing I was paid to do. Jim would continue to dig, because that was his job and he was very good at it, and I would continue to deflect, because that was my job. I never got the sense that Jim saw it any other way than two people doing their jobs.
In addition to motivating me as a publicist, Jim also made me a better writer. Twice he published an essay I wrote in the Nashville Scene, one a reflection on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, and one a personal account of taking care of my mother while she struggles with a mood disorder and early onset dementia. The latter was a particularly difficult piece to write and share, but Jim, as an editor, brought out the best in me. When the story was published to coincide with Mother’s Day, I received dozens of emails and messages from people I had never met who empathized with me and shared their own stories.
While I am no longer a publicist, at least not in the traditional sense, I have no doubt that Jim’s encouragement and support of my work not only made me better at what I did, but contributed to my being offered new opportunities. Being able to put “Best PR Guy” on your resume is not a bad thing. Just ask my old intern. One of the few things I brought from my old office at NPT to my new office at the Community Foundation is a framed copy of that Nashville Scene “Best of” piece. I look at it every day to remind myself of what’s possible when you really care about something and work hard. It’s also an invitation to pay it forward, and encourage others to be their best.
I continue to write and occasionally get published, encouraged by editors like Jim that my reflections matter. Reflections like this one, that I had hoped Jim would get to read and be embarrassed by when he woke up from his coma. Sadly, that didn’t happen. And so I share it now for the rest of us, in hopes we all live by Jim’s boundless enthusiasm, selfless example and supportive spirit.