Sophistication of the CMA Music Festival Is a Good Thing

Current Incarnation Is Light Years Ahead of the Good Old Days

(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)

The CMA Music Festival kicks off next week in Nashville, and as much as I miss the simple, homespun vibe when the event took place at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, the move a few miles north to downtown Nashville has been a good thing for country music, its artists, the city and, most of all, the fans.

While not a huge geographic shift, the transition from its previous moniker of Fan Fair has changed the way locals view the event. It’s hard to believe the move downtown happened in 2001.

The vast majority of fans arriving in town for the four-day festival that begins next Thursday (June 11) don’t know what it was like to park in a field near the fairgrounds, meander through the unairconditioned exhibit halls and swelter in the concrete grandstand at the race track while each major record label in town strutted out the latest newcomers and superstars.

These days, multiple stages provide top-name acts all day long, and you don’t even have to buy a ticket to see most of it. For the true fans, the purchase of a festival ticket provides entry to see the genuine superstars play the nightly concert series at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans.

Depending on where you sit in the stadium, those tickets are selling for $175-$375 (plus service charges) for next year’s festival. Granted, $375 is a lot of coin, but it’s for four nights of concerts, and check out the prices the Rolling Stones are charging for tickets to their upcoming LP Field concert.

The festival attracts a younger, more sophisticated crowd than ever, which wasn’t necessarily the case at the fairgrounds. And as much as country stars love their fans, Fan Fair was often a running joke among some performers.

In the ‘80s, I was working at a daily newspaper in Louisiana and happened to do a phone interview with a then-prominent country artist while Fan Fair was taking place.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of polyester out there, for sure,” he told me.

Even in the ‘90s, I recall talking to a friend who had been signing autographs and posing for photos in his label’s Fan Fair booth. When I asked what it was like, he joked, “Calvin, it was a lot like kissing a can of Crisco and shaking hands with a barbecue sandwich.”

But those attitudes have seemingly changed drastically. Maybe I’m out of touch these days, but I don’t detect that sort of humor even if the artists meant no harm in their sarcastic observations. At its worst, Fan Fair was always a great place to be a country star. The adulation of the fans was sincere, intimate and immediate.

On the other hand, those working in the media and at labels, management companies and publicity firms on Music Row still dread the week of the CMA Music Festival. That’s simply because it’s a lot of work and demands on their time, energy and nerves.

Of course, anybody who seriously complains about working in the music industry probably doesn’t know what it’s like to have a real job.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.