These Booths Are Made for Watching

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They began clumping up against the outside doors of the Nashville Convention Center well before sunrise Thursday (June 13), some arriving as early as 3:45 a.m. If that’s what it took to get these country music enthusiasts that once in a lifetime snapshot or — miracle of miracles — a hug from a star, then rising early and waiting in line for six hours seemed hardly an effort at all. Their common goal was to be at the head of the pack when the artists’ booths opened at 10 a.m. and brought them face to face with their idols.

At 8 a.m., the outside doors swung open, and the fans scrambled downstairs to sit in front of the closed doors of the exhibit hall for another two hours. Loretta Henderson, from “near Cincinnati,” plopped down and settled in for the wait at the feet of a security guard. She had come to meet Trace Adkins — and that aim alone was sufficient to keep her in good spirits. Two other Traceniks sat beside her, sisters Jill and Dawn Laub from Kutztown, Pa.

As the lobby outside the inner sanctum filled up, the Center’s crowd-control crew directed late arrivals to one of the exhibit area’s three entrances. Standing here, one could appraise the American character by reading its T-shirts. One portly fellow, who looked to be in his mid-60s, wore a shirt that said, “Will Work For Viagra.” Two waifish middle-age women in identical costumes sported tops that read, “Got My Horse/Need A Cowboy.” Two couples walked by, all four people clad in white shirts imprinted with a road map identified as “Oklahoma USA.” An elderly man’s shirt bore the headline, “Top 10 Things Grampas Say.” Unfortunately, the man’s necklace of Fan Fair passes obscured the points listed below the headline, thereby nullifying this rare opportunity to educate the masses.

Girls with red “Civitan Softball” T-shirts and Coca-Cola trays around their necks moved up and down the lines selling bottled water. They were followed by girls in yellow “Ford Fun Team” togs, who shouted out country music trivia questions and awarded those who answered them correctly with CD samplers and posters. The waiting crowd was overwhelmingly female, probably by a ratio of 5 or more to 1.

At 9:45, as if responding to an unheard command, those sitting in lines jumped to their feet, and the columns advanced a few feet before coming to a halt again. The odd thing about all this corralling and herding was that no one appeared annoyed by it. Precisely at 10, just as scheduled all along, the barriers went down, the security guards melted away and the crowd rushed in.

Adkins, whose booth stood near the central entrance, drew the biggest crowd of the morning. Wearing his characteristic black hat and a blue, long-sleeved shirt, he was a model of attentiveness and patience. If a fan wanted a picture with him, he got it. Cheryl Masakiewicz of Pittsburgh got more. A hug and a peck on the cheek. Eyes wide, she moved away from the star as if sleepwalking.

Taking advantage of the attention beamed toward Adkins, Andy Griggs slipped unnoticed through the crowd toward his own booth. Once he got there, however, a roar went up and another long, serpentine line quickly formed around him

Trini Triggs, who’s still in search of that elusive first hit, had no trouble in accumulating a flock of admirers. They came without letup throughout the morning, and the handsome Curb Records artist posed amiably with every one of them. Newcomer Tommy Shane Steiner (“What If She’s an Angel”) found himself surrounded by a throng of enthusiasts an established artist might envy. Bryan White, who’s been missing from chart action lately, pulled a crowd that matched those of his heydays. Eric Heatherly , now on DreamWorks Records, also had a sore signing arm by the time noon rolled around.

The artists booths constitute one of Fan Fair’s unquestionable success stories. Enormous and nicely air-conditioned, the exhibit hall never seemed unduly crowded -— except for those clusters around the biggest stars. This setup is the best answer yet to the frequently heard charge that Fan Fair has become impersonal.

Among the other acts who showed up for this first morning of face-to-facing were John Berry , Sawyer Brown (with a crush of fans that rivaled Adkins’), Cledus T. Judd , David Ball , Blake Shelton , Rascal Flatts , Billy Block, Lane Brody, Leigh Robbins and Vern Gosdin. (Gosdin did not arrive punctually at 10 a. m. A hastily lettered sign on his booth advised, “His Voiceness Arrives at 10:30 a. m.”)

Few stopped or lingered at the booth of the Reunionairs, “The Pioneers of Country Music.” A fixture at every Fan Fair, this is an organization of mostly retired performers, some of whom gained national fame, some only regional or local. Instead of being festooned with the usual razzle-dazzle slogans, the wall behind the booth is topped with a sign labeled “Beyond the Blue,” which lists dozens of stars and important music industry figures who have embarked for “Hillbilly Heaven.” Waylon Jennings’ name is there now.

For a buck, surely the biggest bargain in the hall, fans can buy a poster filled with black and white photos of these old-timers. If one does linger, he may be cajoled into buying an album (“only $10 or two for $18”) from harmonica wizard John E. Bellar. Clearly a pitchman of the old school, Bellar has something in every price range, including a $3.50 typed manual on gardening. “You got any grandchildren?” he presses the one customer he’s netted so far this morning. “This book can tell them how to raise vegetables.” Now that’s country.

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