Most any true country fan can likely quote you at least a couple of the verses of the now classic country music song “Murder on Music Row.” Originally written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, and recorded by the bluegrass group Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time as the title track to their 1999 record, the song would go on to be widely popularized when George Strait and Alan Jackson performed it on the 1999 CMA Awards as a protest against the encroachment of pop into the country genre.
Far from banishing the two country music superstars from the industry, “Murder on Music Row” became both a commercial and critical success. The next year at the CMA Awards, the duo’s performance of the song won the CMA for Vocal Event of the Year. And after the two recorded a studio version of the song in 2000 for George Strait’s Latest Greatest Straightest Hits compilation, radio even began playing the song. Though it was never officially released as a single, “Murder on Music Row” peaked at #38 in the charts. The year later, in 2001, “Murder on Music Row” also won the prestigious CMA for Song of the Year. It’s now considered a country music standard.
“Murder On Music Row” is a work of fiction about how the traditions of country music were murdered on 16th Avenue just west of downtown Nashville where the mother brain of the country music industry resides. But few remember the actual murder that occurred on the Music Row campus in 1989 that left a young magazine employee who knew too much laying dead, an aspiring country music entertainer seriously injured, and a mystery that went unsolved for many years until the eventual exposure of an elaborate scheme involving cash payments to embellish numbers and help launch country music stars under false pretenses eventually led investigators to the motive, and the killer.
30 years ago this week, on March 6th, 1989, a man by the name of Kevin Hughes, who was an employee of a country music trade periodical called Cashbox Magazine, was exiting a recording studio on Music Row with up-and-coming country music artist named Sammy Saddler. As the two men were getting into their car, an armed gunman wearing a ski mask and dark clothes approached them and opened fire.
Kevin Hughes, who was 23-years-old at the time, was shot three times as he attempted to flee down 16th Avenue, including a fatal shot to the back of the head. The 21-year-old Sammy Saddler was shot in the shoulder and was severely wounded, but was able to run to a nearby building for cover. Saddler would later recover from his wounds, though his career never would. And just like in the song “Murder on Music Row,” the assailant fled from 16th Avenue without anyone getting a good description of him, and no weapon or fingerprints to trace.
When Kevin Hughes and Sammy Sadler were found, the crime was a complete mystery. Police didn’t know if it was a random act or intentional, if it was a robbery gone wrong or some other situation, and struggled to find a motive, or any possible suspects for many years. It was only when investigators began to uncover a bribery and manipulation scandal—the likes of which many love to accuse some of the institutions of Music Row of perpetrating today—that a motive and a suspect in the real “Murder on Music Row” began to reveal itself.
Started in 1942, Cashbox Magazine was one of the music industry’s first trade periodicals, and published an edition specific to country music, similar to what Country Aircheck and Billboard Country Update do today. They were especially known for their jukebox charts which kept up with spins of songs in jukebox consoles all around the country, along with their charts for record sales and radio play.
After years of investigation, police began to build a case against a fellow Cashbox Magazine employee of Kevin Hughes named Richard D’Antonio, who went by the nickname Tony D. Along with a record promoter and employee of Cashbox named Chuck Dixon, they created a scheme where aspiring country music stars could pay the publisher bribes as high as $2,000 for favorable placement in the influential Cashbox Magazine rankings, which then went onto influence many of the managers, labels, publicists, and booking agents up and down Music Row who used Cashbox to measure the appeal and influence of certain artists and songs. Other members of the media such as journalists and DJs also consulted the periodical and cited its charts.
Police began to piece together that Hughes, who was lobbying for a more scientific or data-driven approach to compiling the Cashbox rankings, either began resisting Richard D’Antonio and Chuck Dixon’s payola scheme, or was working to expose it when the murder occurred. Fearing that Kevin Hughes would become a whistle blower, Richard D’Antonio murdered him on Music Row on March 6th, 1989, with singer Sammy Sadler caught up in the crossfire.
At the time Sammy Sadler was just getting ready to release his debut album on Evergreen Records. Even though he suffered a near fatal gunshot wound in the attack that took multiple surgeries to heal, suspicion that Saddler was somehow involved in the killing helped kill his musical career, even though no evidence ever surfaced that he had any involvement in the plot to kill Kevin Hughes, who Sadler considered a close friend. Sadler also suffered from PTSD after the incident.
After years of the case remaining cold or leading to dead ends, police began to slowly piece the puzzle together when people who had paid the Cashbox bribes or knew about them began to come forward, explaining how the Cashbox scheme worked. Even when Richard D’Antonio and Chuck Dixon became primary suspects, police still struggled to find sufficient evidence to prosecute them until they were were able to pressure an associate of D’Antonio into giving them information about the gun and ammunition used in the murder.
Finally in 2003, police had enough evidence to arrest Richard D’Antonio on charges of first degree murder in the killing of Kevin Hughes, and assault with intent to commit second degree murder in the shooting of Sammy Saddler. D’Antonio was living in Las Vegas at the time, and was apprehended and extradited to Tennessee. D’Antonio was believed to be the trigger man in the murder. Chuck Dixon, who was also thought to be part of the murder, had already passed away in 2001 under somewhat suspicious circumstances as well.
Richard D’Antonio pleaded not guilty, but was eventually convicted of both counts in a jury trial in September of 2003, and was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 56. He eventually died of natural causes at the Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville in September of 2014. Cashbox Magazine published its final print issue on November 16th, 1996, before the full story of the “Murder On Music Row” was told, but after years of speculation had been swirling up and down Music Row about the murder. Cashbox still exists in an online version after being relaunched in 2015.
As for Sammy Sadler, he is now trying to relaunch a music career. In 2009 he released an album called A Heart Shaped Like Texas, and released a new song and video in late 2018 called “In America.” Sammy is also working on a new album he expects to release in 2019, as well as a book recounting his account of the “Murder on Music Row.”
Incidentally, the song “Murder On Music Row” was written before the whole story of the actual “Murder On Music Row” was fully known. But hauntingly, the song seems to foretell what happened.
“Nobody saw him running from sixteenth avenue.
They never found the fingerprint or the weapon that was used…
…The almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame
Slowly killed tradition and for that someone should hang.
Meanwhile when artists, labels, managers, publishers, and others are accused of engaging in underhanded practices to launch artists in country music—these days most manifested in concerns for the manipulations of streaming data—this accusation does not come from hypothetical scenarios or conspiracy theories. From DJs and radio station managers receiving song credits early on to entice them to spin records, to the radio payola of the 60’s and 70’s, to the “Murder On Music Row” scandal, country music has a very specific history of cooking books, facilitating bribes, and bending rules to help embellish the impact of certain artists or songs. The true story of the “Murder on Music Row” underscores this long standing-behavioral pattern, and is the reason country music fans and the media should always stay vigilant about manipulations inside of country music.