Q&A: Cindy Watts discusses her career in country music journalism
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
By Tayhlor Stephenson, Studio M staff //
Best known as The Tennessean’s country music/celebrities reporter, Cindy Watts, 38, has been writing for nearly 20 years. But stumbling upon a career in music journalism wasn’t something she intentionally set out to do.
Music journalist Cindy Watts. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Kelly Photography)
Nonetheless, Watts has excelled in the field and was even recognized in 2015 with a Country Music Association (CMA) Media Achievement Award.
Watts recently took some time to talk about her time in the field and how she’s preparing to cover country music’s biggest night: the CMA Awards.
What inspired you to become a music journalist?
It was an accident. I was a recording industry major at MTSU, and they made you take journalism classes as part of that major. I turned out to be good at it, and when the Daily News Journal, which is Murfreesboro’s daily paper, told my journalism teacher that there was an opening he suggested that I apply. And I did, and I got it.
On my first day they said, ‘What do you want to write about?’ And I said music. That was 18 years ago.
You studied at MTSU. Would you say there’s anything that the university did for you that has directly contributed to your career in music journalism?
Beverly Keel has been a mentor for me since the day I stepped foot on campus in 1997; the first thing I did was go to her office. All along the way when I had a career question or I wasn’t sure what to do next or I needed guidance in how to write a story or how to handle a source, I always called her.
What does a typical work day at The Tennessean look like?
There is no typical. Last Tuesday I wrote my first story at 4 a.m., and I finished my day at midnight … hopefully today will just be 10-6:30.
We are coming up on the CMA Awards, and you’re actually an award winner yourself with the 2015 CMA Media Achievement Award. Can you explain how you prepare for that type of coverage?
Hopefully you start early. The way CMA winners are crowned is there are rounds of voting that start months in advance, so I know that when a round of voting is coming to an end the pitches I get are going to multiply tremendously. So you kind of prepare for that; like I know that I can’t go on a family vacation the last week of CMA voting, because it would do me no good: I’m going to get calls constantly, pitched constantly, and it’s people like Garth Brooks and Luke Bryan and Keith Urban. It’s people that I can’t really say no to.
So plan your family vacation around CMA voting then you know that that’s coming and you just do it, and it is several days of getting up at 4 a.m. and working until 11 o’clock at night to get everything done. And you just know that. You know that from experience and you know what that feels like; you just kind of mentally prepare yourself for that — knowing you’re not going to get any sleep, knowing that you shouldn’t plan to do anything else during those times other than CMA coverage.
Right now is a little bit of anomaly because we have this sexual harassment stuff happening so now I have to handle that, too. Typically I would just doing CMA now and that would be a 15-hour work day but now we have this harassment case on top of it, so that’s just adding to the pile.
But basically you just do it. That’s just what you do. You get up, you write your stories, hopefully you get to sleep four hours at night and then you hope your kids understand when they’re adults.
Over the years you’ve interviewed many country music artists, some of them on several occasions. Do you have someone who is a favorite of yours to interview?
There are several people I feel that way about. I hate to single out just one, but I always look forward to Brad Paisley. He’s somebody who I’ve worked with since the beginning of my career, and we have a pretty causal relationship … I always look forward to him.
I look forward to Carrie Underwood, again I’ve just known her for a really long time. Luke Bryan is great, Garth Brooks is great, Keith Urban is fabulous. I have a long-standing relationship with Chris Young, I enjoy talking to him. There’s really nobody in country music that I don’t enjoy talking to, and it just goes back to having done this job for so long.
What advice would you give to an aspiring music journalist?
You have to be present to win. You don’t have to be the best writer, you just have to show up. You have to show up at everything you can. You have to be nice to people, you can’t be overbearing, you can’t be super pushy. I feel like when you work with people, you get what you need just as well as when you are trying to force them to do things they don’t want to do.
I just think you have to show up, you have to build relationships. I work when I’m sick, I work on my children’s birthdays. Do I like it? No, I don’t, but that’s what you have to do to do this job at a level that exceeds a lot of people. Everybody wants to write about music, it’s cool. But people who do that don’t understand the dedication that it takes a lot of times. So to rise above that, you’ve got to be the one who’s willing to work the hardest.
Tayhlor Stephenson is a student journalist with a strong interest in music. She currently studies at Middle Tennessee State University, where she serves as the Lifestyles Editor for MTSU Sidelines.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.