While record labels, fan clubs and artists strive each year to make their Fan Fair booths at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville more colorful and creative, the fans care more for access to the artist than special effects and glitter. Nobody knows this better than Country Music Television. While their booth is state-of-the-art, high tech and features multiple screens airing videos of the artists visiting the booth, CMT’s mission is to help the fans meet their favorite artists.
The cable network features heavy rotation of country music videos and specialty music shows and has one of the most heavily trafficked booths at Fan Fair. With a tightly run schedule full of top country stars who sign autographs for up to an hour, CMT is able to move through as many as 150 fans an hour without a hitch. The fans leave a bit giddy, with an autographed photograph and, if they brought their camera, a CMT staff member snaps the pictures while the fan gets a brief visit with the artist.
Rachel Chamblin, CMT’s Special Projects Manager, says they have fine tuned a system to afford the opportunity for as many fans, as is safely possible, to meet their favorite star and get an autograph. “The CMT booth works so well,” Chamblin explained, “because it’s truly for the fans. The fans are our first priority. We have a very organized booth. We have a great system. That’s why we have fans who return every year. We’re so excited to see them come back every year, and they can’t believe it when we know their name.”
Each day of Fan Fair, the CMT artist schedule is posted on televison monitors recessed into the booth. “We also have video screens outside that are handicapped accessible. They are lower and bigger, so they are easier to read,” Chamblin said.
One hour before an artist is scheduled to sign, the fans gather under CMT’s adjacent, outdoor tents to be the lucky first 50 in line to be guaranteed a quick visit with their favorite artist. Chamblin assures, “We make the wait under the tents pleasant by having fans running all the time to cool everbody off and having plenty of water on hand.” In increments of 25, standby tickets are also handed out, but the fans know it is not certain they will get through the line. The CMT staff has the system down to a science and makes it look effortless.
Other booths have a variation of the CMT system, so fans will not wait for long hours thinking they’re going to get their favorite star’s autograph, only to be heartbroken and angry when they learn their artist had to leave. Year after year, the fans come with the hopes of somehow, some way meeting a country star. Brandy and Nicole, two teenagers from Texas, confessed they are crazy for the boys in South Sixty-Five. Brandy giggled, “We got to meet them at the Country Weekly booth!” Nicole adds, “They were so cute and nice.”
The number of fans coming to Fan Fair has gone down for the second year in a row and so has the number of booths. Some artists, like Terri Clark, have stopped having a booth but continue the tradition of holding their annual fan club party during Fan Fair. Some of the artists not having a booth this year, who have previously hosted a booth annually, include Garth Brooks, George Strait, Toby Keith, Trisha Yearwood, the Oak Ridge Boys and more.
Mark, a carpenter from Nashville, is a Fan Fair veteran of 27 years. He, like most fans, enjoys the booths primarily for the chance of getting up close to an artist. He said he is sorry to see Fan Fair move from the Fairgrounds, but is optimistic that the move to a larger venue might attract more artists and fans. “It does get crowded and hot here sometimes. Maybe with a bigger place and Fan Fair now happening over a weekend, more people can get off work and come. That might make more stars show up. I sure like getting autographs. I’ve got a bunch.”
The themes of the booths this year varied from Atlantic’s and the Wilkinson’s nautical and beach theme, to Lee Ann Womack’s and Billy Ray Cyrus’ focus on their latest video. Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” booth featured a replica of the gate used in the video of the single. Silver framed photos of Womack’s two girls, who played themselves in the video, were placed around the booth along with roses and candles.
Cyrus’ booth was titled after his upcoming new video and single “You Won’t Be Lonely.” The back of the booth has large black and white photos of Cyrus, blown up to be life sized. Cyrus’ fan club assistant director, Wanda Garrison, explained, “Tish (Cyrus’ wife) designed everything. The booth was decorated with vines and spanish moss to look like Jekyll Island, Ga., where the video was shot. Fan Club members helped with it.” Cyrus was pleased with the outcome and said, “I’m so proud of my fan club. They’re the greatest fans in the whole wide world. All I did was make the video. Tish took all these photographs herself. She’s quite the photographer.”
Cyrus’ fan club consists of 8,000 members. While not all of them make the trek to Fan Fair, the area around the booth gets a little crazy when Cyrus is signing autographs. On Monday afternoon, well over 100 screaming fans surrounded the booth. Garrison didn’t seem worried. “Most of Billy’s fans know him well enough to know that if they wait, they’ll get their autograph, they’ll get their hug, their picture,” she said.
With recent label shuffling in Nashville and new product for some artists months away, creativity can be stretched to come up with a theme. Pam Tillis’ fan club put a cool spin on her move from Arista to RCA. A huge cardboard box, marked “special delivery,” was wrapped up signed “with love from Pam Tillis.” Fan club president Johanna Michel said, “It’s having to do with her album that’s coming out at the first of next year. It’s kind of a surprise package thing. We didn’t have a whole lot to go with, other than we’ve got a new album coming out.” After signing autographs for almost three hours, Tillis nodded approval to Michel and beamed, “I was a little worried about it at first, but it worked out.”
Many of the booths at Fan Fair are paid for by the fan club, with some artists sharing the cost. Other booths are completely paid for by the artist. Neal McCoy and other stars have tour sponsors helping foot the bill. McCoy’s booth featured a Fleetwood Homes theme with a front porch and a picket fence.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Fan Fair is the rows and rows of the smaller booths of unknown, or once-known artists. While passing one of these, an attractive woman with long dark hair was greeting fans. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be Teresa, a former Sony artist.
Teresa was signed by Sony’s former A&R head, Doug Johnson, in 1995. When her single came out in May 1997, Johnson exited the label to run Giant Records. Teresa said, “It leaves you in ’no man’s land,’ but everybody was still so nice to me.” With Johnson gone, Teresa amicably left the label. She has been making a decent living touring the college circuit and has received great support from some talented and supportive friends in the industry. Teresa has a new album co-produced by Linda Ronstadt and a video produced by director Jim Shea.
Teresa says a friend in the music business insisted, “’You’ve got to do Fan Fair.’ When I looked into it, it’s 75 bucks for a 10 by 10 foot booth!” Her booth is decorated with a blow up of her new album, with feminine touches like a lamp she made covered in peach-colored roses.
Teresa reports having a booth at Fan Fair has been a wonderful experience. “It lets people know you’re still out there and the fans are great. There’s this woman that’s been to Fan Fair since 1979. Her name is ’Crazy Judy.’ Everyboy knows ’Crazy Judy.’ She told me, ’It’s not the same now. The artists don’t come as much. They have their own Fan Club parties. They might have booths, but they don’t sign.”
With Fan Fair’s move in 2001 to a new location, fans have much anticipation over what lies ahead. As far as the booths go, the fans are unanimous on how to decorate it: with a star!