(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There's a true passion about the country fans that descend on Nashville every June in the midst of the first heat spell, and they should be treated first-class and accommodated well.
A first recommendation would be to begin the CMA Music Festival/Fan Fair on Wednesday and run it through Saturday night, rather than the present Thursday to Sunday night plan. That way, out-of-town fans would have all day Sunday to return home, rather than trying to leave late Sunday or early Monday.
I think that the model for Bonnaroo, which starts Thursday (June 12) and runs four days, has lessons for the CMA Music Fest. A "campus" for the event renders all subsequent sub-events both more manageable and more accessible. (Of course, it should be remembered that both running water and electricity have not yet come to Bonnaroo but are in the planning stages). Bonnaroo's owners have plans underway to turn the large site near Manchester, Tenn., into a year-round event venue. One of the first things I noticed at this year's Fan Fair was that at least one or two more blocks of Lower Broadway should be closed to automobile traffic. I saw several near collisions between cars and pedestrians. There's too many of both for an area suddenly congested with upwards of 30,000-plus people.
There should be a misting center right in the middle of Lower Broad between the arena and the convention center, where everyone can see it and enjoy it. It's always at least 90 degrees here during Fan Fair -- act accordingly.
It's always easier, of course, if you can buy 530 acres of rural land and build your own permanent festival site, as the Bonnaroo people are doing. But if it works so well for them, shouldn't that alternative be considered? Not necessarily by moving to the country. But using more of downtown and making that one large automobile-free center and locating the events there.
Provide a comfortable, shady place for fans to sit out of the sun. An unticketed area where they can rest comfortably for a while without having to order a latte or a beer or a soda. Without having to sit on the ground. And provide some free, clean drinking water, for God's sake, that people don't have to pay exorbitant prices for. Water is cheap. Lasting good will is not. Seating facilities in the current convention center, other than the floor, are pathetically almost nonexistent. And it's the same throughout downtown. And I know that the people who run things say in shorthand -- always indirectly -- that there is little or no public seating because it attracts undesirables. That may be. But Nashville does attract desirables at least once a year, and those desirables should be able to sit down in public. It is possible to magically make comfortable seating appear once a year.
And, you know, I don't really mind all that much paying $7 for a beer at a short, special, one-time event. But to ask people to keep paying that much for four days? How about some kind of beer pass plan? A lot of country fans do love their cold beer, and it does get pretty warm downtown.
Although the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum had several special events, downtown itself is still open to further use. The Frist Center's grounds? The Schermerhorn Center's facilities? I'd like to see visitors encouraged to see the Musicians Hall of Fame. What about Music Row? The record labels? Tours of historic Studio B? Music Row, when I cruised it on Saturday, was quiet as a tomb, while fans stormed the convention center hoping for a Taylor Swift autograph and picture.
Meanwhile, the city had fleets of smaller yellow buses sitting unused in lots about three blocks away on Demonbreun in the middle of the day. Those buses could have been shuttling fans to Studio B, if nowhere else.
One of the most popular features of the old Fan Fair at the fairgrounds was the food prepared by the Chuck Wagon Gang, the cost of which was included in Fan Fair tickets. Something like that could work again, by bringing in participating downtown restaurants and forming a central dining center. It would work better, probably, to sell the food a la carte, but I think most fans would find that preferable to overloading the few restaurants along Lower Broad. I think they would like a temporary food court that goes beyond the Fest's usual fried glop and offers something a little more substantive.
Once a location for the new Nashville Convention Center is decided upon -- and from what I hear, the favored location is right where it needs to be, by the way -- it should be planned with the music festival in mind as its flagship attraction.
If these fans are that devoted, Nashville and the country music industry should be fully committed to them. No reason that the number of visitors can't be increased and comfortably entertained. If enough people carry good stories back home and spread word-of-mouth tales about how well Nashville and the artists treated them, then the music festival will continue to be Nashville's biggest attraction.
This is Nashville's and the country music industry's crucial link to country fandom and it should be fulfilled as much as possible. TV shows are one thing, but people in person is another thing altogether.
It's an old cliché in country music but it's still true: Question: How do you get a gold album? Answer: Shake 500,000 hands. It works.
Nashville is traditionally a town of small ideas, just as Tennessee has been a state of small ideas. It would be good to think about big concepts. Or at least bigger ones. I don't have the answers, but there are people who do.