Up Close at Fan Fair’s Artists Booths

A beaming young woman stands tiptoe on a chair and waves a hastily lettered sign that reads “VERN IS HERE!” Instantly, a layer of people peels away from the crowd and curls in for a closer look. Yes, it is Vern Gosdin . The Voice. Mr. Chiseled-In-Stone himself. Right there he sits in that booth, and he’s already signing autographs. Better get in line. Now this is Fan Fair.

Fan Fair opened the doors Friday (June 15) to its new exhibit area, a cavernous, air-conditioned space at the Nashville Convention Center. Dominating the exhibits were 75-or-so booths dedicated to specific country artists of varying degrees of fame. While there were some exceptions, most of the acts who sponsored booths visted them during opening day to greet their fans. For the first time in Fan Fair’s recent history, the exhibit area was big enough for fans to move about comfortably at their own pace. “I’m lovin’ it here,” said musician/entrepreneur Billy Block from his Western Beat booth.

There was much to love. At the Grand Ole Opry exhibit near the main entrance, dapper Jack Greene leaned on the counter in front of the Opry’s familiar red barn and chatted amiably with passersby. Several yards away, Doug Stone emerged from his booth to lean down and pose for a picture with a fan in a wheelchair. Sitting in a row in front of a banner that read “Still Going Strong,” the newest edition of Exile signed photos and swapped stories with longtime supporters. Always a potent draw, Billy Ray Cyrus nearly clogged the aisle with the devoted and the curious when he made an early afternoon stop at his booth.

Many of the booths were designed around themes — a hit song or a particular image. The front end of a vintage Chevy, its hood wreathed in painted flames and its headlights flashing, dominated ’50s-loving Eric Heatherly ’s display. Steve Wariner ’s featured the front of a roadhouse, a nod to “Burnin’ the Roadhouse Down.”

The International Fan Club Organization (IFCO) booth, presided over by the legendary Johnson sisters, was one of the most-visited sites. Veteran Fan Fairgoers came by to extend best wishes to Loretta Johnson, who, while still fighting a devastating illness, seemed as chipper and charming as ever.

At the Black Country Music Showcase exhibit, singer Linda Terri autographed copies of her album, The Time It’s Taken, and spoke with visitors of the warm reception her music is receiving in Europe.

One of the abiding joys of this part of Fan Fair is its openness to new or little known artists. Salted democratically among the displays for bigger names were booths for such strivers as Pat Compton, Joseph James, Thom Ellis, Deborah Kay and Kassie DePaiva. A steady stream moved by DePaiva’s booth, encouraged, no doubt, by the large photo of her arrestingly illustrated album Naked.

Newcomer Phil Vassar , fresh from his knock-‘em-dead performance on Wednesday’s TNN/CMT/Country Weekly Awards show, drew so many enthusiasts to his booth that an attendant had to cut off the line. A latecomer, however, pleaded so earnestly to meet Vassar that she was waved in. Fan Fair may be frenzied, but it’s always polite.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.