Fans’ Jury Still Out on Downtown Fan Fair

Fan Fair goers who want to hear live music and get autographs have to do a little extra planning at the 2001 edition of the event, transformed by a move to downtown Nashville.

At Fan Fair’s former home, the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, the grandstand, where concerts took place, was just steps away from the exhibit halls where fans interacted with country stars at their booths.

This year, the daytime musical offerings take place five long city blocks away from the up-close experience. Walk out onto Commerce Street, in front of the convention center, and you won’t hear thundering music or sustained cheers coming from a country concert.

“The fairgrounds was a much more intimate venue than this is,” said Boston resident Diane Dow, 54, as she waited in line for a Lonestar autograph on Friday morning (June 15).

“It felt more homey,” added her 28-year-old daughter, Daneell. Both women have been to Fan Fair twice before. “It’s more difficult to get from one section of Fan Fair to the next, whereas at the Fairgrounds, everything was right there. She could be watching the shows, I could be in the autograph line. You didn’t have to worry about anything. You were all in one place.”

For young legs, the five-block walk to Riverfront Park and back again to the convention center poses very little problem. At midday on Friday (June 15), around 1,500 people sat on the Cumberland riverbank listening to a long roster of artists from independent labels including Elbert West, Great Divide , Sonny Burgess and T. Graham Brown . The crowd grew steadily, until a torrential downpour sent most scurrying for cover.

But for older Fan Fair attendees, the prospect of trekking down to the river seemed daunting. Two ladies who would admit only to being “in our ’60s” sat in the air-conditioned comfort of a Broadway bar, waiting for two others who had gone around the corner to the convention center in search of autographs.

“They don’t want to hike up and down these hills,” one said.

Not everyone was in a funk about the new arrangement. Autograph lines that would have stretched outdoors into the hot sun last year were completely contained in air-conditioned comfort this year.

Winnie Mullins, 33, came to Nashville from Floyd County, in Eastern Kentucky. “This is my first year and I love it,” she said. “I wish Faith and Tim were here, and I wish Toby Keith would show up. But I love it. It’s not as chaotic as everybody told me it was going to be. Everything’s moving smoother.”

Britney Boles, 9, and Haley Boles, 8, were among the first in line Friday morning as they waited for the exhibit hall to open for the first time. Paul Hamilton, 37, and their mother, Dawn Boles, 30, brought the sisters to Nashville from McComb, Miss., to get a glimpse of 13-year-old singer Billy Gilman . They worried that they might “fall out and faint” upon meeting the young star.

A full 90 minutes after doors opened at the exhibit hall on Friday, the line to get in stretched from Commerce Street down Fifth Avenue to Broadway, but it moved briskly, and most seemed not to mind the wait.

Good reports came in Friday for the shuttle buses that transported concert goers across the river to Adelphia Coliseum on Thursday night. Nightly concerts continue through Sunday in the big stadium. Shuttles also run to Nashville’s Bicentennial Mall, site of a carnival, a barbecue cook-off on Friday, and a family-friendly concert on Saturday.

A veteran of eight Fan Fairs, Pam Asquith, 50, from Perry, Mo., reserved judgment Friday on whether the move downtown is a good thing. “It’s cool in here and it’s not bunched up yet,” she observed, “but we had to stand outside quite a while. Ask me Sunday night when I go home.”