The Dark Side of Nashville's Music Business

ByABC News

N A S H V I L L E , Tenn., Nov. 10, 2003 -- Even if you're a country music fan, you may never have heard of Kevin Hughes. But along Nashville's music row, he's a fallen hero.

Hughes, 23, was shot to death on March 9, 1989, after coming out of a recording studio.

He was chased down by an assailant "firing shots at him as they're running down the street," said Nashville police detective Bill Pridemore.

"He fell facedown, the assailant walks over to him, stands over his head and points a gun and fires at least two more rounds," he said. Hughes was shot almost at point-blank range, said Pridemore.

The case remained unsolved for 13 years — until this fall, when the life and death of Kevin Hughes became the talk of Nashville once again.

What He Wanted to Do

When Kevin Hughes arrived in Nashville, he was an innocent small town boy from Illinois who wanted to make it behind the scenes of the music business.

He got a job at Cash Box , the now-defunct trade journal that once dominated the country music industry.

"He was just excited to be there," said Hughes' brother, Kyle. "Because he was doing what he wanted to do. He loved it."

Hughes wasn't dealing with famous artists on major labels but with hopeful unknowns trying to break in. He managed the independent music charts, which kept track of the unknown artists and how often their songs were being played in the radio.

The Power of Payola

Radio airplay, key to the success of any newcomer, was the field where record promoters play hardball.

Promo kingpin Chuck Dixon and his partners knew all the tricks of the trade — and one of them was to get disc jockeys to move his records up toward No. 1 on their playlists.

The playlists were supposed to reflect real airplay. But they never did, said promoter Gary Bradshaw, a former partner of Dixon's.

Bradshaw told ABCNEWS' Primetime he got the DJs to move these records through the age-old practice of payola. "You brought them to Nashville. They couldn't afford a hotel rooms and meals, and so we purchased that for them."

There were offers of free cruises, house payments, car tires — even new septic tanks, he said.

Dixon and company were manipulating the charts, and in turn making a fortune from aspiring artists like Mickey Jones. Jones told ABCNEWS he spent thousands of dollars on promotional fees to Dixon.

In return, Cash Box made him "Male Vocalist of the Year" — even though he never sold a single record.

Death's Long Shadow

Dixon was lining his pockets with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in cash, according to Bradshaw.

But rigging the charts wasn't something Hughes was willing to do. "He mentioned to me that he was being offered money and other things to put songs on the charts that weren't legitimate, weren't even being played," said Kyle.

"He was getting ready to blow the whistle on Chuck Dixon and the whole way that Cash Box was being run," Bradshaw said.

Hughes knew he was in danger, and his brother could sense it even over the phone. One hour before Kevin died, the brothers spoke for the last time.

"He was very concerned about something, you could tell by the tone in his voice, he was nervous, and almost scared," said Kyle. "At the end of the conversation he told me he loved me on the phone. And when he said that I knew something was wrong because we didn't talk about that on the phone."

The Dam Breaks

For years, police had theories about who killed Kevin Hughes, but they couldn't prove anything. But three years ago, Dixon died of cancer, and everything changed.

Bradshaw said Dixon had told him a couple of times, "'If anybody gets in my road or anything happens in this Cash Box situation that gets in gets in my road … the same thing will happen to them that happened to Kevin Hughes.'"

But Bradshaw added that at no time did Dixon ever admit killing Hughes.

New evidence and a flood of witnesses eventually led police to one of Dixon's partners. Thirteen years after the murder of Kevin Hughes, police arrested Tony D'Antonio.

Prosecutors believe Dixon ordered the murder and D'Antonio carried it out. Earlier this fall a Nashville jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.

Kyle Hughes said his brother died only trying to do a good job. "My brother was trying to clean it up and make it a reputable chart," he said.

"That's what he was trying to do, because he didn't want to work at a place where his integrity would be questioned at all."