Friday night (June 15) at the Grand Ole Opry, Vince Gill asked the audience how they liked the changes at Fan Fair 2001.
“They said, ‘No! We hate it,’” Gill recalled Saturday afternoon at Adelphia Coliseum. “I go, ‘Well, I think it’s pretty neat. It’s all air-conditioned now and I really like it.’”
An informal poll by Jessica Andrews during her Saturday morning performance at Bicentennial Mall Park drew a similar response.
Depending on whom you talk to, this year’s edition of the annual gathering of country music artists and their fans was a rousing success or a bit of a letdown. The event moved to the Nashville Convention Center, Adelphia Coliseum, Riverfront Park and the Bicentennial Mall Park, abandoning the more compact Tennessee State Fairgrounds, where it was held from 1982 to 2000.
“Considering the magnitude of the change, in an overall sense I’m extremely pleased,” CMA Executive Director Ed Benson told country.com on Sunday. “Operationally — with the production, with the arrangements overall — it’s just been outstanding. It’s gone much better than you’d ever expect for the first year.”
Final attendance figures will not be available until Monday (June 18), but Benson offered a rosy projection. “It will be, without question, the biggest Fan Fair in the history of the event,” he said. “Advance tickets went on sale at 2 o’clock today [Sunday] for next year’s Fan Fair, to long lines at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.”
A capacity audience at the fairgrounds was 24,000.
Benson witnessed Fan Fair’s last major venue change, from Municipal Auditorium to the fairgrounds, in 1982. “Some of the things I’m hearing from a few people I’ve talked to are almost verbatim what I heard then,” he recalled. “‘I don’t like it, you’ve ruined it, I hate it, I’ll never come back again.’ We sorta knew that any kind of change would be greeted with a mixed response.”
Gill also understands that this is a transition year and it will take some time for Fan Fair regulars to grow used to the new setting. But he joins a near unanimous chorus of artists praising the revamped event.
“I’m sure, with a big change like this, there are going to be people who like it and a lot of people who don’t,” he reasoned. “Everybody’s intention is just to make this better for all of us. We’re going to make a few mistakes, but I can’t fathom how the fairgrounds would rank better than Adelphia and the Ryman [where the Opry staged a Saturday matinee] and the convention center. When you really look at it, logically, this is a much better idea. But let us work the kinks out.”
“The booth count was down about 15 from last year,” Benson said, to 121. As of early Sunday, about 126 artists had been through the exhibit hall. “Not every artist plays Fan Fair every year, especially now, with the major label shows being four nights.”
The nightly concerts at Adelphia Coliseum, featuring first-tier artists from major labels, followed the format used for years at the fairgrounds. Artists alternated between adjacent stages, with only brief pauses between sets. Large video screens ensured that performers could be seen throughout the cavernous stadium, and a mammoth sound system occasionally drove the music to ear-splitting levels.
There were complaints about Adelphia, too. To join the photo line parading by the front of the stage, fans had to line up in the stadium’s east concourse. While they waited, they could not see the show.
“We’re going to take a look at that,” Benson promised, “and see if there’s any way to bring the line in from the south end zone, so that while they’re waiting to get up to the front they can actually be seeing the show.”
But Fan Fair will never go back to the fairgrounds, Benson said. It will either continue in the current venues, move somewhere else or end altogether. Next year, the CMA expects to expand the exhibit hall’s operation from three days back to four.
“There are going to be a few people who resist the change,” Terri Clark said on Saturday at Adelphia, “because they’ve been coming for 2,000 years and it’s been at the fairgrounds. ‘I don’t like this. Everything’s all spread out.’ I heard that a couple of times.
“All in all,” she continued, “it’s much cooler, climate-wise, and … I think I like this a little bit better. I’ve been going to Fan Fair for 14 years, the first seven as a fan and the last seven as an artist. There’s a tradition to the fairgrounds that I feel like we’re not getting. At the same time, things change, things evolve, and it’ll be kinda cool to see how it works out.”