CAS Magazine: Alumni

Playing by Ear: How Sarah Trahern (C’86) Became One of the Biggest Names in Country Music

Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern (C’86) is a lifelong learner. 

Trahern, who recently celebrated her 10th year as head of the nation’s premier trade association for country music, believes that remaining curious and passionate about the work you do is not only essential for success but, importantly, it keeps life interesting. 

“It’s not like I woke up one day when I was 21 and decided that I was going to be the CEO of the Country Music Association — that was just not in the purview of things that I would think about,” said Trahern. “But I have always had a passion for music, a passion for journalism and a passion for history. Pursuing my American studies degree enabled me to dip my toes into those areas while in school, but chasing those passions after graduation has led me to jobs that are fascinating and that have kept me learning and growing.” 

Four woman stand in front of a blue step-and-repeat for the Country Music Association.

Senior Vice President for Legal and Business Affairs Tiffany Kerns and O.N.E. The Duo attended the CMA Foundation’s sixth Music Teachers of Excellence ceremony.

Founded in 1958, the Country Music Association, or CMA, was the first trade association established to promote a single genre of music. Throughout Trahern’s tenure, the CMA has celebrated several milestones, including the 50th anniversary of the annual CMA Awards and CMA Fest, among the biggest and best country music festivals in the world. These events bring out the biggest names in country music and unite fans in a celebration of all things country. 

“Country music has the unique ability to speak to our shared experiences and unite us in a way that feels both personal and universal,” said Trahern. 

A Broad Toolbox for Unique Problems

As an undergraduate on the Hilltop, Trahern studied a wide array of subjects that not only expanded her horizons but equipped her with a unique set of skills drawn from across the curriculum. 

“I’m still to this day a big believer in the liberal arts education,” said Trahern. “It gives you a basic skill set for how to read and interpret materials and move nimbly between disciplines.”

The skill set Trahern developed throughout school, which drew on lessons learned in class, as an RA in Harbin Hall and from internships held throughout college, helped her navigate an unlikely career that began in Washington, DC and led to Nashville, TN. After graduating, Trahern took a job with a political consulting firm where she had interned as a student. Then, after the election of 1986, she was out of a job. 

A woman wearing a black leather jacket and blue dress smiles. One hand is on her hip. Behind her there is a mural of Dolly Parton.

Sarah Trahern (C’86) in the Country Music Association’s offices in Nashville.

“A year after graduation, all of my friends were working their jobs and on their individual paths and I was out there looking for a new gig,” said Trahern. “This led me to my job at C-SPAN, which was an incredible place to work as an American studies major and a lover of all things politics and history.”

At C-SPAN, Trahern covered races for the U.S. Presidency, Senate and House. She also produced Booknotes, a weekly program on nonfiction books that was hosted by C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb. 

“We were covering these historians that I’d read and studied in school, like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin,” said Trahern. “I was able to introduce Douglas Brinkley (M’83) to  C-SPAN founder and then-CEO Brian Lamb, which led to the creation of the C-SPAN School Bus, which was inspired by Brinkley’s book, The Magic Bus.”

While living in Washington, DC, Trahern was an avid concert-goer and lover of music. Immersed in the worlds of politics and history, Trahern was pursuing her passions, but had let her lifelong love of music function as a hobby rather than a profession. The daughter of a university professor and a classical violist, Trahern learned how to play the violin, piano and guitar at a young age. Eager to bring music into her professional life, Trahern moved to Nashville, using her technical savvy and production know-how to transition into a role with The Nashville Network. 

“Country music has the unique ability to speak to our shared experiences and unite us in a way that feels both personal and universal.”

Sarah Trahern

Since her initial plunge into the waters of country music, Trahern has made waves in the industry, revamping CMA’s membership structure to broaden its base, championing Nashville as the epicenter of a uniquely American art form and beating the drum across the globe for all things country. Trahern has won numerous accolades during her time as CEO, including being named “Executive of the Year” by Billboard in 2017, the same year that she topped their County Power Players List. Trahern was also inducted into the Academy for Women of Achievement and has been honored by the Country Music Hall of Fame.  

“When we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards, we opened with a montage of artists from the history of country music, from Charley Pride to Carrie Underwood. We had everyone at that show — from Beyonce to the Dixie Chicks,” said Trahern. “This has been such an amazing chapter in my life — to be able to sit in this chair, particularly with my love of history.” 

Trahern on the Hilltop

Trahern’s experience on the Hilltop mirrors her professional career around a central, defining pivot — from questioning her government major to pursuing American studies. 

“I almost left Georgetown,” said Trahern. “I looked into transferring to pursue a career in journalism, but the wonderful Hugh Cloke convinced me to stay and encouraged me to pursue American studies.”

Two people pose in academic regalia. One, a man, is taller and wearing glasses. The other, a woman, has medium-length blonde hair.

Professor Emeritus Hugh Cloke encouraged Trahern to major in American studies at Georgetown.

Cloke, who spent 40 years in the College of Arts & Sciences as a professor and dean, helped found the American Studies Program and was honored with the Patrick Healy Award in 2013 in recognition for a lifetime of outstanding achievement and service to Georgetown. 

“Both Father Davis and Hugh Cloke were instrumental in my Georgetown experience,” said Trahern. “I think there’s something unique and wonderful in the way that the Dean’s office of the College of Arts & Sciences engages students that is not typical of the college experience.”

Trahern was first exposed to the kind of problem-solving and critical thinking required for American studies in a class on the history of the American South. 

“There were all these students making great points and pulling things from other classes and disciplines and they were all American studies students,” remembered Trahern. “I realized that’s what I wanted to do rather than just learning sequentially. It seemed to me what synthesis is really like.”

The synthesis of information from disparate sources is at the center of interdisciplinarity and, according to Trahern, good business. 

“All of the interdisciplinary programs that the College of Arts & Sciences has developed over the years emphasize the synthesis of information in different ways and that’s basically what business is,” says Trahern. “Today, I take inputs from a variety of sources and make decisions whose outcomes aren’t guaranteed and require the same kind of mental nimbleness that I learned through my American studies degree.”

When reflecting on her pivot to American studies, Trahern sees much of her life story in that single decision. 

“I believe strongly in following your passion and pursuing your curiosity,” said Trahern. “I think the liberal arts teaches you curiosity and I hope and pray that everybody can keep that curiosity throughout their careers.”

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American Studies
Spring 2024