Fan Fair: Are You Tough Enough to Take It?

Set the alarm clock and open your wallet. Fan Fair wants your time and money.

The 31st edition of Fan Fair gets underway in Nashville Wednesday morning (June 12) with visitor registration and concludes Sunday evening (June 16) with the last of four major record-label shows.

Whatever their other complaints may be, people attending this year’s festival will not go home lamenting that there wasn’t enough to do. Besides Fan Fair proper, which has added 11 more hours of concerts and seven more hours of booth-viewing time, there are dozens of additional music-related activities. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Grand Ole Opry have full slates of programs. Tanya Tucker and Barbara Mandrell are holding massive “garage sales” throughout the week. Fan club breakfasts and luncheons abound. There’s a celebrity archery contest and a star-stacked softball game. Clubs will rock around the clock. Best of all, Joe Stampley and Moe Bandy are reuniting for a show.

While the Country Music Association, which produces Fan Fair, predicts attendance at least equal to last year’s, an informal survey of hotels, taken Thursday (June 6), indicated that there were still plenty of rooms to be had everywhere except in the central downtown area. A spokesman for the campground at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds near downtown reports that there are fewer bookings there than there were at the same time last year.

Among the superstars who will perform and/or sign autographs in the fan booths are Brooks & Dunn , Alan Jackson , Trace Adkins , Tracy Lawrence , Lee Ann Womack , John Michael Montgomery , George Jones , Martina McBride , Kenny Chesney , Billy Ray Cyrus , Jo Dee Messina and Toby Keith . Not scheduled to appear are Garth Brooks , Faith Hill , Tim McGraw and Trisha Yearwood . Many performers will be hosting private meetings of their fan clubs.

If the extended forecasts are accurate, fans will enjoy moderate weather and endure relatively little rainfall. High temperatures, the forecasts say, will range from 93 on Wednesday down to 78 on Saturday. Most days will be partly cloudy, with isolated thundershowers predicted for Wednesday and Thursday.

The kickoff event for the week is the CMT Flameworthy Video Music Awards, which will be broadcast live Wednesday (June 12) on CMT: Country Music Television from Gaylord Entertainment Center. Based on votes cast by viewers, the two-hour special (9-11 p.m., ET) will showcase winning videos in 12 categories, including Flameworthy video of the year, the top one.

Last year, Fan Fair staged activities at the Bicentennial Mall, as well as at Riverfront Park and Adelphia Coliseum. This year, only the latter two venues will be used. There will be a “Family Zone” at Riverfront, which will feature product giveaways and activities for children.

“We have a completely different stage this year at Riverfront,” says Tony Conway, who heads the CMA’s Fan Fair committee. “It’s on the ground instead of floating on a barge, and it’s much bigger than the stage they use for Dancin’ in the District [a weekly music presentation on the riverfront]. It’s a stadium stage. We also completely redesigned the stages at Adelphia to improve the sightlines. We’ve angled it so you can see more of both stages if you’re sitting on the sides. And we’ve lowered the stage [to improve visibility] for the people on the floor level. Last year, the middle of that stage was full of monitors, mixing boards for both stages and a video screen. That’s completely gone. There’s nothing in the middle.”

After 19 years at the cozily compact Tennessee State Fairgrounds, Fan Fair returned to downtown Nashville in 2001, posing a transportation problem for visitors who suddenly faced widely separated venues. (Adelphia Coliseum, site of the major Fan Fair concerts, is across the river from the Riverfront Park stages and the Nashville Convention Center, where the fan booths are located.)

“The shuttle system [connecting these venues] has completely been revamped,” Conway reports. “We’ve added a lot of buses, and they run more often. There’s also a defined, direct route. Last year, we were just kind of driving down open streets. This year, we have a barricaded street to drive down. … For the first time, we’re closing First and Second Avenues during Fan Fair. They won’t be open to traffic, but they’ll be open to fans. The downtown merchants are going to put out picnic tables, benches and chairs, and their vendors are going to move outside [to create] more of a street fair atmosphere.”

Traffic will be streamlined at the Convention Center’s exhibit hall as well, Conway promises. “The exhibit hall is basically the same except that we’re going to have more than one entrance. The hall gets full pretty quick. The fire marshal last year wouldn’t let one [fan] in unless another one left, and we were doing that [transfer] through one entrance. This year it will be much easier and a much less backed-up traffic flow.” Emergency medical teams are stationed at each major venue.

“We’re not doing [carnival] rides this year,” Conway says, “because we couldn’t find a place to put them downtown. We could have put them at Adelphia, but the problem there was that the general public wouldn’t have room to park because of the pre-sale of parking tickets. But we’re working on that, and I plan next year to definitely have the carnival. It will be in the downtown campus area, not in the Bicentennial Mall.”

Ed Benson, the CMA’s executive director, says the biggest difference from last year that fans will notice is the increase in music. “There are a lot more hours of entertainment at Fan Fair this year,” he observes. “We’re up to 43½ hours. I think that’s 11 more hours of concert time than last year — between Riverfront Stages and the Adelphia shows at night. Each of the Adelphia shows is a half-hour longer. And we’ve added a whole day of programming at Riverfront — on Thursday — that we didn’t have last year. There are more artists performing, and there’s a greater diversity.” He points out that Fan Fair music at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds was basically limited to that performed by major country label acts, with relatively little time or space for independent and alternative country artists.

In 2001, the fan booth area was open for a total of 17 hours on three days; this year, it’s open for 24 hours over four days. Benson notes that the improved sightlines and redesigned stages at Adelphia have allowed the CMA to add “nearly 2,000 seats” on the field and in the lower tiers.

“Something we’ve never ever done at Fan Fair before,” Benson continues, “was to mail tickets in advance. People who ordered far enough in advance have already received their tickets, laminates and IDs. So they don’t have to stand in line to get their credentials. If they have a ticket to exchange for their goody bag — which will have their program book, coupon book and some other things we’re giving away — that’s an easy pickup. They don’t have to wait in the right alphabetical line and sign for their ticket. And they can pick up their [goody] bags at Adelphia or at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.” This year, Fan Fair tickets can be purchased for individual shows as well as for the entire festival.

Fans were polled last year for their suggestions on improving Fan Fair, and Conway and Benson both say the suggestions were studied carefully. “We will once again be doing an extensive amount of research with the fans,” Benson adds. Middle Tennessee State University will conduct the research.

A growing interest of organizers, Benson says, is to broaden Fan Fair’s appeal, not only in the kind of entertainment it offers but also in pitching itself to the local population, many of whom have long considered this annual gathering of true believers a personal annoyance and a civic embarrassment. Benson points out that the integration of soap opera stars into the program has been popular. “We’re looking to see what other kinds of personalities besides country stars can be put in this event [and still be] compatible to it,” he explains. “We ultimately want this to be an event that’s not just for tourists.”

Schedule for Fan Fair Events and Related Activities
Complete Fan Fair Coverage

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