NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Country Music’s Report Card Time

Fan Fair Is a Good Week to Look at the Year Thus Far

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Oh, man, I love Nashville this week. Fan Fair week. The sun is shining down, the sky is clear blue and music is in the air everywhere downtown. Someone should write a musical about it.

Or not. Anyhow, it’s great to be out and about in downtown Music City during Fan Fair. The atmosphere is infectious. Not just festive, but intoxicating. And that’s without all the drop-in bars along Lower Broad that are packing the customers in. And there’s nothing more refreshing than the welcoming sight of a beer tent at the Riverfront Stages on a hot, cloudless morning, just as Phil Vassar kicks off CMA Music Fest 2008 with a big paddleboat kicking by on the river behind the stage.

Taylor Swift is taking advantage of the relative paucity of big-name stars who deign to appear in the Convention Center and sign autographs for the fans — which has long been one of the staples and main appeals of Fan Fair since its beginning. So, to borrow a page from Garth Brooks’ epic 23-hour autograph-signing marathon at Fan Fair in 1996, Swift is signing all day Saturday (June 7). And she will reap a publicity bonanza from doing so. Any other artist could have chosen to do this — but they didn’t. And she did. So, good for Taylor Swift. Once again, this shrewd teenager aces Nashville at its own game. (Then, Alan Jackson was announced as a last-minute addition to the autograph lineup. He and his wife, Denise, will be there Friday from noon to 2 p.m.)

One thing I especially like about Fan Fair these days is the proliferation of satellite shows. The number of headline acts at the big nighttime shows at LP Field is fairly impressive in itself. It’s good to see Faith Hill back. And Dwight Yoakam makes a very welcome return after a 20-year absence. Overall, the lineup has been stronger some years and weaker some years. I’ll list the major artists appearing and let you figure out who is not there. Scheduled on the big stage in 2008: Luke Bryan, Jennifer Hanson, Jewel, Montgomery Gentry, Kellie Pickler, Sugarland, Taylor Swift, Faith Hill, Jack Ingram, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Jake Owen, Ashton Shepherd, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood, Trace Adkins, Rodney Atkins, Jason Michael Carroll, Alan Jackson, Jamey Johnson, Little Big Town, Craig Morgan, Kenny Rogers, Darryl Worley, Bucky Covington, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sara Evans, James Otto, Phil Stacey, Randy Travis, Chuck Wicks and Dwight Yoakam. And Rascal Flatts was confirmed as the surprise guest for opening night on Thursday (June 5).

But the many and varied artists appearing on all the stages dotted around downtown makes for a very rewarding experience, too much for one person to take in. Some special treats: Country Music Hall of Famers Mel Tillis and Bill Anderson will still sing for anyone who wants to hear them. So will young Texas favorite Sunny Sweeney, legendary Texas rocker Augie Meyer, veteran chanteuse Lorrie Morgan, bluegrass great Dan Tyminski, teen bluegrasser Sierra Hull, unclassifiable wizards the Clark Brothers and talented singer-songwriters such as Eric Church, Jon Randall and Bobby Pinson. And there are dozens and dozens of others.

Fan Fair itself is almost like half-time for the year. Not quite six months gone by, but close enough that we can get a handle on how the year is going and how it will continue to be in music.

CD sales continue to be dismal, which is surprising no one. The Nielsen SoundScan numbers are not encouraging. Handleman, one of the big two music distribution firms, totally abandoned the CD distribution business a few days ago. If you’ve been in any of the big box stores lately, you have graphically seen for yourself how shelf space for racking CDs has greatly shrunk. Curb Records in Nashville had a downsizing just days ago, and there will undoubtedly be more of that at other record labels.

Digital downloading of music is growing for country, but it’s growing slowly. It’s interesting to see who in country is selling digital downloads in any meaningful amount. Taylor Swift, not surprisingly, is leading the pack. But others who are making digital inroads include Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Julianne Hough, Kenny Chesney, James Otto, Sugarland, Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum. Artists who can cross genres but still retain some country identity. Some.

The music itself thus far this year has been good to middling. The big guns continue to dependably roll out what they do well. Some newer releases I find especially encouraging include Ashton Shepherd’s debut CD, James Otto’s second album, Jamey Johnson’s new recordings, Gary Allan’s latest, Emily West’s debut efforts and Lady Antebellum’s first works.

On the road, Kenny Chesney is holding country music’s flag high with the biggest tour of the year in any genre of music. He’s the only artist these days who can still fill stadiums. And he’s offering a huge bargain by keeping ticket prices relatively modest — for a stellar multi-artist lineup. Package shows such as this will undoubtedly be a huge part of touring’s future, given the realities of the new gas-gouging era.

With fuel prices heading for the stratosphere, touring is taking direct hits. For the artist, the cost of diesel fuel for all those buses and tractor trailer trucks is getting to be prohibitive. And for the concert-going public, high gas prices mean fewer long-distance drives to see a favorite performer. I know people who used to think nothing of driving 500 miles to see a favorite artist perform. Now, they’re not so sure about that. I myself once hitchhiked 300 miles to see a certain artist. But I’ll never tell.