HOT DISH: Country Music Stars Owe Their Careers to the Fans

Close Encounters With Major Artists Are Becoming More Difficult to Accomplish

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also hosts CMT’s Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith and shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

I do believe money is a lousy way of keeping score. But then, I’ve never had a lot, so what do I know? Read on.

About the maddest I’ve ever been in my life was when a star said, “Nashville’s crawling with gherms.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

“Fan Fair. Downtown’s mobbed with gherms.”

“What’s a gherm?” I asked. “How do you spell it?”

The person I was talking to was a former sideman who drove to Nashville in a used vehicle and with an alimony payment but somehow lucked up on a record deal and some hits. The fans thought he was one of them — and he called them gherms.

He spelled it for me. “G-H-E-R-M-S. Like germs, they’re all over the place. The ‘H’ is for hell,” he snickered.

“I am one of them,” I proudly told him. “I am a country music fan. Country music fans are the best people in the world.”

I walked away knowing I had won that round. He responded with a lot of throat clearing and utterances of “er” and “uh.”

But that was years ago when Fan Fair was held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds — when nearly all of the superstars were proud to sign autographs for hours, no matter how hot it was. It’s where Garth Brooks stood outside and signed autographs for 23 hours straight without a potty break. It’s where pop star Bryan Adams stood beside the stage with songwriter-producer Robert “Mutt” Lange in the blinding hot June sun. Mutt was no doubt already head-over-heels in love with the lovely Shania Twain. He’d seen her video — and came to Fan Fair to check her out. He must have liked what he saw. They married, and he made a superstar out of her.

You know, when Fan Fair moved from the fairgrounds to its downtown location, I thought it was a good thing. Stars would enjoy signing autographs in air conditioning at the Nashville Convention Center. But I was wrong. Fans came by the thousands, but very few of the big stars came with pen in hand. Instead, the powers that be kept bringing in stuff that has zilch to do with country music — like TV soap stars.

Most people who come to what’s been turned into the CMA Festival are blue-collar working people. They work in mills and factories and offices and farms and ranches during the daylight hours. They don’t watch soaps. They’re too busy working to make a living. They save money to vacation in Nashville every June to see the stars and hear the music.

The fans can no longer easily get autographs from many of the big stars. They can’t get photos made with the stars, either. During the CMA Music Festival, they are allowed to line up and march around in front of the stage to take photos of the acts performing. And they do so over and over with no complaints whatsoever.

Someone suggested to me that the fans can get autographs on the road after a concert. Hey, try it, and you will see it almost takes an act of Congress to get into a major star’s meet and greet on the road. Once the fan gets in, many artists sit and have the fans ask questions. No pictures. No autographs. Not even a handshake. One artist I know autographs her photos before the fans arrive and uses hired help to hand them out to her admirers. This particular artist once refused to autograph my 6-year-old niece’s hat.

When Bill Anderson suggested the idea of Fan Fair in the beginning, he and those who agreed with him wanted to create an event to honor the fans of country music. It was their intention to show the fans they appreciated their support. Figuring that turn about is fair play, they wanted to say thanks to those who attended shows, bought records and merchandise, requested songs on the radio and joined the fan clubs. Times were simpler, money was scarcer, but the music was just as good. Joy was spread all around. And nobody dreamed that anybody would ever ask for a round red cent for performing at this wonderful event they called Fan Fair.

But, on the other hand, who’d ever thought back then that a hillbilly could fill an NFL stadium, take home a million bucks in one night and own a Lear jet, a fleet of buses and a parking lot filled with semis to haul band equipment? Keep in mind, the fans made it possible for singers to have all these perks. And they are proud of it.

Now it’s come to this. My friend, Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn, a member of the CMA board of directors, recently spoke at Lipscomb University’s business breakfast, saying that some top country artists are not playing the CMA Festival for free while it generates money for others. Kix, one of the most charitable and free-hearted people in our biz, said the CMA Music Festival and the city should find a way to pay the artists or face the prospect of ultimately losing them. Kix mentioned the upcoming Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo as the model of a successful show that pays its artists well. But the stock show was never designed as a gift to the fans. To me, that’s the big difference.

Fans are not happy with the implications and don’t want to hear that their small piece of country music may be taken away. Accusations of greed and selfishness and love of money are on the lips of faithful fans. It’s not good. These hurtful words do not describe the country stars I know and love — the big-hearted stars that give to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Junior Golf, the T.J. Martell Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and on and on.

Right now, I wish Fan Fair was still at the fairgrounds. Those in travel trailers and motor homes could park nearby like they used to, and fans could park their cars for free without a hassle. Sweet people from Ohio and other places could still build booths for fan clubs — like the girls who ran Eddie Rabbitt’s fan club. Those girls still take flowers to Eddie’s grave. That shows you the devotion of country music’s most faithful fans.

Yes, yes, yes. I know we cannot be successful by looking only to the past or present. We must look to the future. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future.

Like I said in the beginning, though, I do believe money is a lousy way of keeping score.

Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley Cyrus Hosting CMT Music Awards
I am so proud Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus are hosting the 2008 CMT Music Awards live from The Curb Event Center at Belmont University on April 14. The sold-out event will feature Billy Ray and Miley along with Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Sugarland, Taylor Swift and Toby Keith. Billy Ray is also set to host the new season of Nashville Star for NBC. Taping will originate from the Acuff Theater in Nashville.

Nicole Kidman Was Glowing at Oscars
No two ways about it, Nicole Kidman was the most beautiful female at the Academy Awards. Photos of her with hubby Keith Urban were breathtakingly beautiful. Nic already has that “I’m preggy” glow.

Nicole’s PR person, Catherine Olim, went around the globe with her anger when a New York Post columnist reported the pregnant Nicole had wine after the awards. “Not true!” she screamed.

Are you proud of Miley Cyrus? Me, too. Her red dress at the Oscars was perfect for a 15-year-old. I reckon you heard Miley tell Barbara Walters that her faith is what makes her different from the troubled former Disney stars in Hollywood. Folks, I’m here to tell you, faith will do it every time.

I thought of sweet Kenny Chesney when Renee Zellweger walked the red carpet — alone. Kenny needs him a country girl to make him biscuits and gravy.

Alan Jackson Gets Praise From New York Times
The New York Times had nothing but nice things to say about Alan Jackson and his new CD, Good Time, that arrives in stores Tuesday (March 4). Alan wrote all the songs, so it has to be great. His single and video, “Small Town Southern Man,” must be a tribute to the late Mr. Eugene Jackson, Alan’s dad.

Sammy Kershaw Calls
Had a call from busy Sammy Kershaw who has more irons in the fire than Bayer’s has pills. One of the all-time great traditional singers, these days Sam’s living in Lafayette, La., deep in south Louisiana where I-10 crosses I-49.

“This is home,” he told me. “My mama and my two brothers live down the road.”

He’s been hunting quail, duck, pheasant, deer and rabbit and fishing for redfish, bass and crappie. He’s been filming it, too.

“This is a sportsman’s paradise down here,” he allowed. “There’s a guy down here, a buddy of mine, that’ll take you alligator hunting. And I want to share all this on TV via an outdoor channel.”

With 100 tour dates on the books, Sammy hits the road often. Just for fun, he’s recorded some blues stuff with guys he made music with 25 years ago. And he plans to come up to Nashville and record a few songs with the award-winning Buddy Cannon, his longtime record producer. Keeping those irons hot in the meantime, Sam has Cajun seasonings he plans to market in the near future. And there’s no telling what else he’s working on.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Chili Cheese Dip.