North Catholic grad having a 'wonderful life' helping fellow musicians
When a teacher gave Shawn Pennington a copy of Dr. Seuss' “Oh, the Places You'll Go” upon his 1994 graduation from North Catholic High School, neither may have imagined how prophetic that title would prove.
“Something tells me she knew I was in for an eventful life,” he says.
The former Brighton Heights resident is now a mover and shaker in the country music industry as a high profile manager and producer. As vice president of artist management for BBR Management, he works as the in-house artist-management arm of Broken Bow Records/Stoney Creek Records, home of such hit artists as Jason Aldean and Thompson Square.
At only 36, Pennington, who started out as a touring musician, already has a career full of moments that remind him he has been blessed with a “wonderful life.”
Pennington's first big break came in 1997, when Sara Evans, who became a platinum-selling artist and the Academy of Country Music's female vocalist of the year, gave him the opportunity to not only become her guitar player, but also her bandleader.
His first gig in Nashville after moving there was playing with Evans as the opening act for country legend George Jones at the historic Ryman Auditorium.
“I'll never forget how large my guitar sounded reflecting through that hall as I started playing the first notes of her single, ‘Three Chords & the Truth.' It was just me and my acoustic guitar,” Pennington says.
By 25, when he made the decision to move behind the scenes into management, where he felt his skill set was best suited, he already had most of his performance bucket list ticked off.
“I've played the smallest, dingiest clubs with 40 people who didn't even care you were there, to stadiums (on bills with Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and others) with 50,000 in attendance,” he says.
Along the way, he sat in with Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs and other legends.
He's performed on the Grammys telecast, “Austin City Limits,” the 9/11 Freedom Concert, Kenny Chesney's pay-per-view special and on the Country Music Association awards show. He even performed in China during the Olympics on NBC.
“All this was in such a short period of time, more than most people even dream about, all the while in my head I was thinking I wasn't that great of a musician in the first place,” Pennington says.
His last visit to the Civic Arena as a performer was Feb. 2, 2001, with Sara Evans.
“I can remember stepping off the bus that morning to walk into the arena through the loading dock and just having a feeling of ‘I did it! I pulled it off.' It really helped me in my own head feel validated,” he says of the return to his hometown.
Pennington's final gig as a full-time musician came in May 2004 with Kellie Coffey, 2003 Academy of Country Music's new female vocalist of the year. He was Coffey's bandleader and then became her tour manager.
“Shawn is one of the good guys,” Coffey says. “He is passionate about what he does, extremely hard-working, fun to be around and, in a business where sometimes it's hard to find, he has integrity.”
Such observations are echoed by executives and artists throughout the industry.
“He is very well-respected, someone you always look forward to seeing,” says Bob Romeo, CEO of the Academy of Country Music, on whose board Pennington served two terms. “Shawn is still someone who can always be counted on. He's not jaded. He's a hard worker, respectful of everyone around him and just an all-around cool guy.”
Getting a start
The first defining moment of his career came before Pennington even had a career. He was all of 13 when he and a school friend rented a live performance of Def Leppard's “Hysteria” tour.
“That Def Leppard video is literally what made me want to play guitar,” Pennington says. “Simple as that! From that moment forward, music and the dream just became a huge part of my life.”
He began immersing himself in music, buying his first guitar for $25 at a yard sale. It became all-consuming at North Catholic, where he was involved in school musicals, choir, symphony and the marching and jazz bands, playing guitar, bass and percussion.
He admits that he sometimes let other subjects slide, but he received encouragement from his band teacher, Kevin Johnson, to apply himself.
“He was always on my side. He knew and was very aware of my dream,” Pennington says.
Johnson, now band director at Bishop Canevin High School, recalls Pennington's senor class as “a really special group of kids.”
“They completely turned around a mediocre band program,” Johnson says. “Shawn was a really passionate musician with a great spirit. I knew he was going to do something.”
Pennington's enthusiasm for music made a believer out of his longtime friend George Nowack of Brighton Heights, who still attends a Def Leppard concert with him almost every year.
“Every time someone told him ‘Don't be a dreamer, get a real job, you'll never make it in show business,' he told them, ‘Watch me,' ” Nowack says.
Pennington left Pittsburgh in 1995, with the encouragement of his mother, to pursue music professionally.
“I was completely green, with very little understanding of what the music business is all about. I was just dreaming of ‘making it,' whatever that means, and playing guitar as the means to do so.”
He hit the road with his band, playing along the East Coast, eventually settling in as the entertainment on a cruise ship for almost two years.
That led to Nashville in 1997, where Pennington, though “not knowing a soul there,” says he applied his Pittsburgh blue-collar work ethic to learn all he could about a genre and an industry that was new to him, developing a reputation of being willing to take on any challenge to accomplish whatever task was at hand — from helping unload the tour bus and tuning guitars to leading bands and negotiating major deals.
Moving to management
Clint Higham, president of Morris Artists management, who manages Kenny Chesney, met Pennington while he was working as a musician and quickly saw his leadership abilities, recruiting him to manage a tour for an emerging artist. His talents led him to Dale Morris & Associates, working with country stars Big & Rich as their tour manager.
“He is a man of his word, a natural-born leader respected highly in the country-music industry,” Higham says. “He puts his artists first. We're all extremely proud of him.”
That includes “Big” Kenny Alphin of Big & Rich.
“Shawn is a good man, greatly focused, energetic and a blast to work with. He's got the talent to go a long way in the entertainment world,” Alphin says.
A longtime friendship led to a business partnership for Pennington and the husband-and-wife team of Shawna and Keifer Thompson, who are Thompson Square. Pennington could be seen smiling broadly last month on national television at the County Music Association awards, congratulating Thompson Square for having just won vocal duo of the year.
They previously won the same title from the Academy of Country Music. Their No. 1 hit, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
“Shawn got us a record deal, which is the reason why we are even here. He's got our best interests. It's really hard to trust somebody in this business, especially a manager,” Keifer Thompson says.
“Shawn is a go-getter who does things and treats people the right way,” says Shawna Thompson. “He is very passionate about anything he does. I respect that he invests the time in us and wants to see us succeed and we want to see him succeed.”
Pennington resides in East Concord, N.Y., south of Buffalo, with wife, Heather Pennington, a professional violinist and teacher and their daughter, Madison, 5. He regularly travels across the country 15 days each month, and maintains a Nashville office.
Marc Oswald, manager of Big & Rich, says that artists appreciate that Pennington — whom he praises as “a really accomplished guitar player capable of producing and arranging music” — understands the musicality of artists.
“When you understand that, you know how to organize your priorities for the day to make sure your artist is able to deliver the best possible product,” Oswald says.
In addition, Oswald says, Pennington possesses a “valuable sense of fairness” and is capable of extreme grace under fire.
“I never in a million years imagined that I would end up on the business side of the industry,” Pennington says. “Honestly, I'm better at it than I ever was on the creative, musician side. To me, it's really simple and just makes sense: It's hard work, and we lose more than we win, but it's not hard to figure out: Execute.”
Jon Loba, executive vice president of BBR Music Group, likens Pennington's career path to that of Jerry Maguire, the agent portrayed by Tom Cruise in the film of the same name.
“It would have been real easy for Shawn to take the easy road … big money at a big company dealing with established acts,” Loba says. “Instead, he took the tougher and longer, but more rewarding, road of championing a brand-new act in Thompson Square and pouring his heart and soul into it. It was a huge risk, but in the end the right path.”
Pennington does not take it for granted.
“I've been so blessed to get to do what I've always wanted to do,” he says. “They say if you love what you do, then you never work a day in your life. That's me. My worst day never feels like work, it's just a bad day.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.