One of the most well-known publicists in Nashville has been accused of sexual misconduct by former client and country singer Austin Rick.
Kirt Webster is the head and founder of the now-defunct company Webster PR, which represented major artists like Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson and William Michael Morgan. Austin Rick, who performed country music under the stage name Austin Cody, claims that Webster drugged and sexually assaulted him in 2008. He says that Webster offered "publicity opportunities and magazine columns in exchange for sexual acts."
"He paid me to keep my mouth shut," Rick wrote. "And he did everything under threat that he'd make sure nobody in the industry ever heard my name again. It took me a year to escape from him and get away to where he couldn't find me or reach me any longer -- although he still continued to harass me via phone and text messages for years -- up until this year, even."
In an interview with the Nashville Scene, Rick describes how the alleged abuse started very early in their professional relationship. "I trusted him completely, and he wanted to make me a star just long enough to sexually molest and abuse me," he said. "And I remember one time he told me, 'I want there to be fireworks in your career, but only if there's fireworks between us.' And that was like pretty early on in our relationship."
Rick left Nashville after only a year, after three separate abusive incidents involving Webster. He allegedly told Rick that he needed to strip naked in front of him if he wanted to be featured in Playgirl magazine. At a separate party, Rick says Webster fondled his privates while he and others were in a hot tub. The final incident, according to Rick, was when he suddenly woke up in Webster's bed to him kissing his neck and body after having a a couple drinks at his holiday party.
"I know I was sexually assaulted, I don't know if I was raped," Rick told the Scene. "When I woke up in his bed, I knew after that I had to leave."
Shortly after the incident at Webster's house, Rick returned to his home state of Maryland and stepped away from his country career. While he was in Nashville, Rick performed at the Grand Ole Opry and played as support for artists like Jason Aldean and Gretchen Wilson. Although he left Nashville nearly a decade ago, Rick says Webster has tried to contact him multiple times over the years, and as recently as this year.
Webster PR did not respond to Wide Open Country's requests for a comment. They publicly released the following statement in regards to Rick's allegations.
"As a single adult, Mr. Webster has had multiple relationships over the course of his professional life, all of which have been consensual. This includes a brief relationship with Mr. Rick. It saddens Mr. Webster that nine years later, after Mr. Rick's music career has been stagnant, Mr. Rick has taken the opportunistic approach of mischaracterizing that relationship and posting untrue allegations."
However, News 4 reports that there are additional individuals who have experienced similar behavior from Webster. According to their report, a former Webster PR employee blacked out after their drink was drugged during CMA Fest in 2010. That anonymous individual says that they were then forced to stay at Webster's home.
Previous employees have also shared multiple anonymous online reports of Webster's alleged abusive behavior over the past three years.
"The owner and CEO, who is prone to intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety, runs his business using fear, intimidation, and harassment," a review of Webster PR, posted on GlassDoor last month, reads. "I'm fully aware of the difference between a bad boss and a hostile work environment, and I am not exaggerating in my accusation of Webster PR as a hostile work environment where employees are subject to sexual harassment, sudden and inappropriate anger outbursts, constant deconstructive criticism, extreme mood swings, discrimination, and severe and pervasive behavior that creates a volatile and unstable environment, making it impossible for employees to do their jobs."
"Kirts [sp] is an extremely unhappy person who balances that unhappiness by intentionally making others around him unhappy," a 2015 review from a former employee reads." This was the single most uncomfortable work environment I have experienced yet to date and hopefully for the rest of my career."
"Harassment is a word I will use for you to consider before taking a job here," another review from 2015 says. "About 6 publicist were hired when I was and we all left under a year almost exactly the same time."
Webster is also a member of the Country Music Association and a former director-at-large for the Academy of Country Music. Neither organization has commented on the allegations.
Rick has started a GoFundMe account to help with legal expenses from an expected civil suit over the allegations. He says that he hopes his story will help others come forward about their experiences with Webster and other abusers.