NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Whither Fan Fair? Event’s Nature Shifting Again

One of country music’s unique assets is in the process of change -– again. As an event offering fans an almost unparalleled access to their favorite country music stars, Fan Fair (which runs June 13-16 in downtown Nashville) has for more than three decades reigned as the only such phenomenon in popular music. With multi-artist concerts daily and especially with the stars available in their booths to meet and greet, Fan Fair was truly a fans’ event.

As such, it has perhaps not always gotten the support it deserved -– from the city of Nashville, from the country music industry and, now, from some of the artists themselves. It’s a cliché, but it remains nonetheless a truism, that country music is like no other form of popular music in the loyalty that country fans have demonstrated to their favorite stars. It was long a matter of fact in country music that artists made fans for life. They could count on the same people turning out, year in and year out, to support them.

And Fan Fair, as an event demonstrating that mutual admiration society, took on an organic life of its own. Shania Twain met her future husband and producer, Mutt Lange, at Fan Fair in 1993. The Beach Boys closed the shows in 1996 with one of the most spirited singalongs I’ve ever seen -– the bootleg CD of that concert still sells well on the Internet. George Jones and Tammy Wynette reunited on the show. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton did a farewell performance as a duo. Legends popped up for unexpected duets with newcomers: Dolly Parton with Lee Ann Womack , Waylon Jennings with Andy Griggs . Garth Brooks showed up unannounced in 1996 and –- trapped by the press of fans –- he stood in one place and signed autographs for just over 23 hours. With no bathroom break. Now, that’s repaying your fans.

Because of happenings like that, Fan Fair has been a tremendously enjoyable affair: fans and artists turning out in force every year for what’s been aptly termed a love-in.

Back when Fan Fair was a lot more democratic, and booth eligibility was not so strictly restricted to label artists, anyone with a legitimate country music product could rent a booth. Or anyone who wasn’t too crazy, that is. I actually had a booth one year. I had written a biography of Hank Williams and my publisher rented me a booth. I was right next to The Singing Surgeon. He was (and may still be) a respected surgeon who desperately wanted to be a country star. He recorded his own albums and brought them to Fan Fair every year. He wore his ER scrubs and stethoscope and got up and sang for his fans. The Surgeon and I were across from Alabama ’s booth, so we got a lot of spillover from Alabama’s fans, and we did pretty well, in terms of pushing product and signing autographs and meeting people.

That was a pretty intense experience. I’ve gotten to know country music fans pretty well over the years, but never so intimately as during my booth-sitting days at Fan Fair. I still correspond with some of the friends I made during those days.

Things change. Artist participation tapered off. Fans got older, and younger ones didn’t necessarily come along. Attendance dwindled. When Fan Fair’s funky site, the ramshackle old Tennessee Fairgrounds was deemed unfit anymore, the city of Nashville and the Country Music Association actually considered moving Fan Fair out of town to Atlanta or somewhere, putting it at a new motor speedway outside Nashville or taking it on the road. Finally, the city of Nashville was instrumental in moving it downtown last year.

The superstars quit coming every year some time ago. This year, there’ll be no Dixie Chicks , no Shania Twain , no Faith Hill , no Tim McGraw showing up in their decorated booths to press the flesh and listen to their fans’ stories of devotion and pose for pictures with them.

When a Trisha Yearwood decides to bow out of the booth event, as she has this year, that does not bode well for Fan Fair’s future. No Martina McBride, no Alan Jackson, no Kenny Chesney in the booths. When fan access begins to be limited to joining an artist’s fan club and seeing the artist only at that exclusive fan club meeting, as is happening more and more, Fan Fair is less fair and more fan club. Why should fans travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, pay for a hotel room for a week and stand in line to meet only mid- and lower-level and beginning artists?

There are people in the country industry saying that country music is now too sophisticated for a Fan Fair, saying that the big stars are now on a par with their peers in pop and rock and that they shouldn’t lower – or “cheapen” is a word being used — themselves to rub elbows with sweaty, blue-collar men and women. Just remember, those are the loyal fans who made those stars’ careers. Remember, too, Harlan Howard’s prescient words in his song “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”: “You may be their pride and joy/But they’ll find another toy/And they’ll take away your crown/Pick me up on your way down.”

Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.