The Forgotten Days of Fan Fair

Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts signing autographs at CMA Fest 2011. Photo: Larry Darling

Before it was rebranded as CMA Music Festival, Fan Fair was a unique event that allowed unprecedented access to country stars.

Nashville’s annual CMA Music Festival is a hugely popular event that draws thousands of country music fans every year. The festival lasts four days and features a series of concerts at LP Field and the Riverfront Park downtown. Fans can also head to the nearby convention center for “Fan Fair,” which is where artists set up booths for autograph signings and meet and greets. The event is massive and takes over the entire downtown area for the weekend. However, CMA Fest hasn’t always been the enormous institution it is today.

Fan Fair’s humble beginnings

The first Fan Fair was held in April 1972 at the Municipal Auditorium and drew 5,000 attendees. The festival featured performances from legends like Dolly Parton, Marty Robbins and Roy Acuff. The event drew more and more fans each year, and in 1982, the location was moved to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds on the south side of Nashville. Concerts were held on a large stage built inside the race track, while the surrounding exhibit buildings were filled with booths where fans could line up and meet their favorite stars.

The accessibility to the artists was unprecedented. Booths lined the walls of each building that featured discounted merchandise and meet and greet lines. Artists took the time to chat with each fan individually, take photos and vocalize their appreciation to their fans’ dedication. In 1988, George Strait signed autographs and talked with fans for over seven hours, even though there was a power outage in the building. In 1996, Garth Brooks signed autographs for 23 hours straight to make sure that every fan that was in line got the opportunity to meet him.

Lorie Liebig
Jo Dee Messina and I at a Fan Fair autograph signing in the mid-90’s.

Even though I was only six years old at the time, I remember attending Fan Fair that year and hearing about Garth’s marathon autograph spree and it stuck with me. There was a loyalty and care that was shown to fans that made you proud to call yourself a country music fan.

For almost every year during my childhood, my family would travel hundreds of miles to attend Fan Fair. The combination of old buildings with poor air circulation, hot temperatures and hundreds of people cramped into a small space made for some miserable conditions at times. Still, the struggle was part of the appeal. The sometimes seemingly endless wait was made worth it by the few minutes you earned with your favorite singers.

A time for change

By the year 2000, the Fairgrounds were becoming too cramped for the 20,000 festival attendees. The decision was made to relocate the festival for the next year to downtown Nashville. In 2004, Fan Fair was officially renamed CMA Music Festival and a major re-branding of the event began to take shape.

Since 2004, a two-hour long special called The CMA Music Festival: Country Music’s Biggest Party is aired on CBS and features recorded performances from the LP Field concerts. This new marketing push helped to gain exposure for the festival and helped to increase attendance numbers by the thousands each year.

Crowds of fans on Broadway during CMA Fest in 2012.
Crowds of fans on Broadway during CMA Fest in 2012. Photo: Larry Darling

There’s no doubt that the revamping of Fan Fair has helped to make the event more accessible to fans and helped to increase revenue for CMA’s charities and the city of Nashville itself. Even though evolution is inescapable, CMA Fest would benefit from a slight refocus on what makes the country music fan base so unique. The dedication shown by fans is something to be rewarded and honored, and not to be only seen as a profitable entity.

The evolution of Fan Fair

The Fan Fair name hasn’t been entirely stripped from CMA Fest. The autograph booth area that is housed inside of the Convention Center is known as Fan Fair, and is still a main draw for those who buy passes for the festival.

Fans camped out on the street for hours to meet Taylor Swift at CMA Fest in 2009.
Fans camped out on the street for hours to meet Taylor Swift at CMA Fest in 2009. Photo: Larry Darling

In 2012, the autograph ticket distribution system was revamped. Fans could no longer wait outside in lines, and instead they were forced to enter an online lottery system. For a two-week period, fans could go online and choose which artists they would like to receive autograph passes for. However, there was no guarantee that you would receive any passes, no matter how many artists you chose – even if you had bought a full-access festival pass.

For years prior, fans were allowed to camp out in lines for hours before the sessions began. The change produced mixed feedback from fans, many of whom felt that the change took away a large part of the fun and appeal of the festival. Organizers have tweaked the system in recent years to now only making the lottery system mandatory for the most popular artists.

Why we shouldn’t forget

Another key element of Fan Fair was the ability to meet young up-and-comers before they hit it big. I have vivid memories of spotting artists like Kenny Chesney and Blake Shelton in around Fan Fair before anyone really even know who they were.

While the relationship between artists and their fans has changed immensely in the past twenty years, creating personal relationships with your fans, new or old, has never been more important. Sure, Google gives you the power to look up the music of anyone in seconds, but the ability to meet and chat with someone while giving them a copy of your CD gives you something that is incomparable. It creates a personal bond between the artist and the fan that can’t be duplicated with a tweet or Facebook post.

While the festival does a good job of making already known artists accessible, a refocus on artists on the verge of topping the charts would be a great move for fans and artists alike.

As a lifelong country music fan, I’m excited to see what the coming years will bring for CMA Fest. Overall, the event is a great opportunity to bring fans and artists together to celebrate what brings all country fans together – the music. The fans who wait hours to meet their favorite artists, whether it was with Garth Brooks in 1996 or Luke Bryan in 2014, will never forget that experience. If event organizers remember to focus on the fans and stay true to the festival’s roots, CMA Fest will keep a loyal fan base and will be around for many more years to come.

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The Forgotten Days of Fan Fair