HOT DISH: Fans Make the Country Music World Go Around

CMA Music Festival Has Changed Since Its Simpler Days as Fan Fair

(Editor’s note: Hazel Smith has been vacationing in Florida and will return next week tanned and rested — and with a new CMT Hot Dish column. With the CMA Music Festival taking place this week, we’re revisiting an excerpt of a column she wrote in 2008 about how the event has changed through the years.)

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 Music 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.

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.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Corn on the Cob.