Keith, Womack Close Successful 31st Fan Fair

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Toby Keith and Lee Ann Womack , the Country Music Association’s reigning male and female vocalists of the year, fought spurts of rain and dwindling crowds to close the CMA’s 31st annual Fan Fair in Nashville on Sunday (June 16).

The four-day event was blessed with near-perfect weather save for a shower near the end of Sunday night’s final concert. Since many tourists hustled out of town early, hundreds of stadium seats sat empty at the Sunday show featuring artists from labels distributed by Universal Music. The fans weren’t the only no-shows. Shania Twain , George Strait , Reba McEntire , Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood were among the high-wattage stars bowing out of Universal’s annual stadium concert.

In its second year downtown after years at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, Fan Fair inspired less grumbling from attendees this year. Apparently, the adjustment to a new setting is almost complete.

“People have gotten used to the new location and the new routine, and everybody seems to be really, really happy,” said Ed Benson, CMA president, before Sunday’s closing concert. “And the great weather helps everybody’s spirits. I’ve heard wonderful things this year from the artists, industry people, managers, agents, publicists –- everybody who’s so involved with putting on this event.”

Benson also talked to fans throughout the four days, and when they spotted him, they weren’t shy about letting him know about the new Fan Fair. “I ran into a couple who remembered telling me last year that they’d never come back again,” he said. “In fact, I saw a lady on Thursday at the exhibit hall, before it opened, and she hailed me down. She said, ‘I remember last year, I told you that unless it’s at the fairgrounds, I’m never coming back again. But I want you to know, I got home and thought about it, and thought, “You know, it really is better than the fairgrounds.”’”

Benson said 2002 attendance, at 126,500, was slightly higher than last year, when the CMA reported an aggregate total of 124,000.

“My overall impression is that we’ve certainly done the right thing [by moving it downtown], and we’ve built the foundation to grow this event in the future, in a way that will be very, very exciting for all of us,” said Benson.

The only tourist complaint this year was a lack of free or affordable parking downtown, home to the Fan Fair exhibit hall, the riverfront stage, Country Music Hall of Fame, Wildhorse Saloon, Ryman Auditorium and Gaylord Entertainment Center.

The diehard fans who stayed around for Universal’s Sunday night show at Adelphia Coliseum were treated to a night of both traditional and contemporary country music.

Best known as a member of Alison Krauss & Union Station and as the singing voice for George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dan Tyminski joined banjo legend Earl Scruggs and his band for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Pat Green was first out on stage, warming up the audience with his Texas-tinged country hits “Carry On” and “Three Days.” Jamie O’Neal belted out a few favorites including “There Is No Arizona,” enhanced with a snippet of “Hotel California.” And Rascal Flatts connected with the crowd throughout their five-song set. Host T. Bubba Bechtol even delivered several belly laughs –- and what a belly -– during his comedy routine.

The rain started during SHeDAISY ’s set, causing fans to seek higher-and-drier seats. After their long acoustic performance, the sister act pulled out the winning ticket for a red 2003 Ford Expedition. The lucky winner totally freaked out, a moment captured courtesy of the gigantic big screens at the front of the stadium.

Looking eerily like Loretta Lynn , with her flowing locks and elegant white blouse, Womack watched her fans get soaked throughout her eight songs. She also unveiled a new tune, “You Should’ve Lied,” from her upcoming album, Something Worth Leaving Behind, before saying good-bye with “I Hope You Dance” and “Ashes by Now.”

Keith perked up briefly while talking about his late father’s patriotism. He added that he wrote “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” in about 20 minutes, inspired in his weight room while listening to his father’s radio. Introducing the song, he said, “I want to send this out to Peter Jennings, wherever you are tonight.” Earlier in the week, Keith told reporters that Jennings vetoed his appearance on ABC’s Fourth of July TV special, due to the aggressive lyrics of “Courtesy.” ABC cited scheduling conflicts for canceling Keith’s appearance.

Keith enjoyed seeing the fans’ homemade signs -– one even illustrated the confrontational “Boot in your ass” lyric from “Courtesy.” As he wound down his 11-song set, a brass section pumped up the volume of “I Wanna Talk About Me” and “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Bidding farewell to the Fan Fair crowd, he declared, “God bless you all, let’s go drink!”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.