Fan Fair’s Last Day: Prize Booths, Minnows and Phil Vassar’s Butt

Speaking Sunday (June 17) at Fan Fair’s last press conference, the Country Music Association’s Ed Benson announced that Chely Wright and Alan Jackson had won awards for having the best fan booths for this year’s event. Wright’s honor came from the votes of fellow exhibitors and Jackson’s from fan votes. Benson called the 2001 Fan Fair a success and noted that some changes will be made to make next year’s festival more appealing.

It was Day 4 of country music’s most grueling love feast, and the fatigue was beginning to show. The press conference had been arranged to give reporters access to the RCA, BNA and Arista Records artists who would perform on the final show of Fan Fair. But only a few of those promised showed up. Among the missing were Tracy Byrd, Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Jackson, Martina McBride, Lorrie Morgan and Sammy Kershaw.

While this would be her first time to perform, Arista newcomer Carolyn Dawn Johnson said she had attended Fan Fair — as a songwriter — for the past five years. “I’m really moved that the fans are so dedicated that they’ll put up with all this bossing around and telling them where to go,” she marveled. Before she relocated to Nashville from Canada six years ago, she explained, she had been an active member of fellow Canadian Michelle Wright‘s fan club. When she told Wright she was coming to Nashville and sought her advice, she said Wright told her to “sing, sing, sing until you get your own voice.”

Johnson will be a member of this summer’s Girls’ Night Out Tour, which features Reba McEntire and McBride, among others. “I’m looking forward to watching them perform,” she said. “I’m a big concert fan. I spent most of my money on concerts and CDs before I moved to Nashville — and got them free.”

RCA’s Andy Griggs recalled his first Fan Fair with horror. His first appearance in the record label’s autograph booth was with superstars Alabama. “A little old lady came up to me and said, ‘Who in the world are you?’” Noting that he had always worked as a sideman before he got his contract as a solo artist with RCA, Griggs revealed that his debut performance at Fan Fair was another grim memory: “I thought it would be fun. It wasn’t. I was terrified. I walked off the stage sick.”

Wisecracking Phil Vassar allowed that he had “probably eight” singles on his current album but then modestly downscaled that estimate to four. Like labelmate Johnson, Vassar was a popular songwriter before turning to recording for Arista. This enabled him to stockpile an “arsenal” of songs for himself, he said, perhaps as much as three albums worth. Asked what most of the fans who flocked to his booth wanted to talk about, he said, “My butt,” and quickly shifted to a profile stance to better display the said attraction. Fans were also keen, he added, to tell him they liked or hated the goatee he had started growing. “They’re brutally honest,” he observed.

BNA group Lonestar, whose single “I’m Already There” perches at No. 1 this week, brought reporters up to date on the war of pranks they had waged with Brad Paisley on their tour with George Strait. “We never strike first,” Dean Sams explained, “but we always win.” He went on to relate skirmishes involving “Bad Parsley” stickers, disrupters planted in the audience, elaborate onstage distractions and minnows in Paisley’s drinking water.

Lead singer Richie McDonald was in a more somber mood. “I was on an airplane this morning, flying in from my 20th high school reunion,” he said, explaining that he had committed to attend the reunion before he realized that it fell during Fan Fair. Because he couldn’t take his family with him on such a whirlwind trip, he continued, he went to a mall and had his family’s picture printed on his shirt. McDonald admitted that having a No. 1 on the charts made his attendance at the alumni gathering more satisfying.

In his remarks, Paisley dismissed Lonestar’s boasting as the compensatory raving of losers. He conceded that their minnow gambit was an inspired touch but thought his retaliation — singing their hit “Amazed” before they could — was a better one. He said 500 of his fan club members attended his Fan Fair get-together at the Gibson Bluegrass Showcase at Opry Mills. In a party lasting from 4 p. m. until 2 a. m., Paisley said he greeted all the fans at their tables, instead of having them stand in line. He also did an acoustic show for them, with fellow Grand Ole Opry members Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens as guest performers.

“There’s a renewed sense of respect [for the Grand Ole Opry],” he said, noting that the venerable radio show is gaining esteem among younger artists by inviting so many of them to perform there. The Arista artist seemed annoyed when a reporter told him that some had complained that his current single, “Two People Fell in Love,” implies that everyone is born from an act of love. He responded that some had also criticized his hit “He Didn’t Have to Be” because “not all stepfathers are nice.” “That’s stupid,” he snapped. Although he joked that “cloning” or other advances may someday require the rewriting of “Two People,” he said he’s happy with it the way it is now. “I like to feel it’s that way. It’s like a big greeting card.”

The final act to face reporters was 17-year-old Kristy Lee, who has just been signed to Arista. She also has a contract with Britney Spears’ new production company and said that Spears has agreed to appear in her first music video. Lee still hasn’t chosen a producer. Her album, an Arista spokesman said, could be out as early as next spring. The spokesman also announced that the RCA Label Group is currently in negotiations with George Jones and the Wilkinsons. Jones lost his record deal with the closing of Asylum Records, and the Wilkinsons were similarly dispossessed when Giant Records shut down.