I first came to Fan Fair some 25 years ago, when it was in Municipal Auditorium. I still have my “For a friend of Tammy Wynette” all-purpose makeup mirror, and the indelible memory, which I’ve so often repeated to AristoMedia’s Jeff Walker, of how I survived for three days on popcorn pilfered from his then-record company Con Brio. At the time, I was little more than a devout Wisconsin fan of Hee Haw and The Porter Wagoner Show, suddenly face-to-face with my bigger-than-life country music TV heroes.
Granted, the music and the industry have changed greatly since then. Thanks to the likes of Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, what was once an insular music rooted in rural tradition now appeals to a gentrified mass audience, with a focus on youth and image. With this expansion came diminished interest in country’s traditional fan base, not to mention the music’s heritage artists. That country music’s quality and audience have inevitably declined as well over the last few years is now readily acknowledged throughout the industryno longer just by aging critics like myself.
This year’s Fan Fair certainly points to country music’s current identity crisis. There were even fewer artist booths than last year, and fewer people made it to the racetrack stands for the record-label showcases. Inexplicably, then, the Country Music Association plans to take the event out of the Fairgrounds and move it to a bigger venue next year, either the Adelphia Coliseum or, worse, the new speedway being built near Lebanon, Tenn. Either move would be a frightful, perhaps fatal mistake. It would be better, as Robert K. Oermann suggests, to hold Fan Fair downtown, using the Gaylord Entertainment Center, the new Country Music Hall of Fame, and the open space between the two. If that weren’t enough, the organizers could tie in the Convention Center across the street, as well as the Ryman Auditorium and all the clubs along Lower Broadway and Printers Alleyin effect bringing Fan Fair back to its downtown origins.
Then again, as the late, great Justin Tubb asked in a song written during country music’s last period of watered-down pop crossover mania, “What’s wrong with the way we’re doin’ it now?”
Yes, the Fairgrounds isn’t the most attractive, modern settingbut that sure hasn’t stopped the thousands of fans who love the Fairgrounds’ accessibility and down-home appeal. What Fan Fair needs is not a new venue, but a new commitment to the event and to country music itself, both from artists and record companies.
We all know how so many of the bigger stars in country music have forsaken Fan Fair, either for their own off-Fairgrounds fan club gatherings or for much more lucrative engagements elsewhere. We also know how weak so many of the labels’ showcases have becomecorresponding, of course, to their weakened rosters.
And yet this year’s Fan Fair was the most exciting one in yearseven pivotal, perhaps, in pointing to a possible return to the way we were doin’ it then. As slim as the label pickings are these days, the Fan Fair stage offered plenty of reason for hope, namely Johnny Staats. I was particularly primed to hear the ace mandolinist/UPS delivery man’s Monday-morning Atlantic Records/Giant Records showcase, and truly, he lived up to the hype. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more pure-sounding new country artist. In fact, he reminded me of seeing a teenage Alison Krauss for the first time, and how she went on to sustain virtually single-handedly the entire bluegrass genre until Skaggs and the McCourys and Steve Earle brought it such heightened exposure last year.
But Staats was hardly alone. Body-pierced Aussie singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers was also superb, as was Eric Heatherly. And then there were the returns of Ronnie Milsap and John Anderson, both to Fan Fair and major-label deals. Loretta Lynn, also with a new recording contract, was stellar as well, as were Asleep at the Wheel, Brad Paisley, and Alan Jackson. The Fan Fair grand finale, and farewell to the Fairgrounds, was the unforgettable bluegrass show that, besides the McCourys and Skaggs, featured Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, originators of “Murder on Music Row”in essence, a darker version of “What’s Wrong With the Way We’re Doin’ It Now?”
In the exhibition halls, meanwhile, there was also cause for cautious optimism, despite the diminished crowds and booths. Big stars like Clint Black and Wynonna, at least, still felt enough responsibility to their fans to show up and sign autographs. Then there were old regulars like Vern Gosdin and Billy Joe Royal, still there keeping in touch with their steadfast fan bases. Even Billy “Crash” Craddock made a Fan Fair return, much to the delight of his ever-faithful following.
The traditional Fan Fair demographic was also well-served at the always active Ernest Tubb Record Shop and Grand Ole Opry booths, as well as the first-time Ford Country booth. But boding best for the future of Fan Fairif in fact there is a futurewas The Derailers’ first-time booth. At a time when the commercial country music industry has all but ignored young artists who are proud to hew to the core of the format’s roots, here was one of the main purveyors of Americana or alt-country or what-have-you, unabashedly reveling in being part of the rank-and-file.
But it wasn’t just the young, hip Derailers who were being embraced by the trads. It cut the other way, too, when Porter Wagoner brought his band to Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival show at the Exit/In. He did a half-hour set of new songs from his aptly titled new album The Best I’ve Ever Been and was clearly moved by the overwhelming response.
But if the Country Music Association is looking for new ideas about how to sustain this venerable Nashville tradition, it may be the Opry that holds the key to Fan Fair’s continuation. After the unpleasant cutbacks of numerous old-time musicians and artists, the Opry is more lively now than ever, based on the two spectacular nights prior to Fan Fair. Besides Opry legends like Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Skeeter Davis, and Jimmy C. Newman, the pre-Fan Fair weekend shows featured Alan Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, BR5-49, and Brad Paisley and Chely Wright, the last two teaming together on a new song and just maybe creating a new duet team in the footsteps of Porter & Dolly, Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy.
In other words, the Opry appears to be succeeding in its attempts at self-preservation, bringing together old and new in front of the stage’s new, high-tech white barn facade, which was unveiled with much fanfare on Saturday night. Revealed then, too, were the Opry’s plans for Tuesday matinee shows, special weekend festivals at the Opry Plaza, and Friday-night Plaza parties featuring The Derailers, BR5-49, Asleep at the Wheel, and Junior Brown.
Now the Grand Ole Opry cosponsors Fan Fair with the CMA, and the CMA would do well to pay heed to the creative changes at the Opry and apply them to Fan Fair. Rather than move the event, then, the CMA should similarly modify it in ways that bring in new talent while keeping respect for tradition.
First, there should be varied admission and price structures. Instead of one big fee for the full Fan Fair week, offer single-day passes and concert-only tickets as well. Next, increase the number of shows by incorporating satellite stages for showcasing smaller acts. This corresponds with a more important change: Eliminate the label showcases altogether and replace them with theme concerts. It was sorrowful but understandable to see all the empty seats in the stands at even the best label shows this year. After all, there were relatively few superstar performers, and no special Fan Fair “event” concerts like The Beach Boys in 1996, or the George Jones-Tammy Wynette reunion of the previous year. Label rosters just ain’t what they used to be in terms of radio, retail, and especially concert drawing power.
What might be done, then, is to bring in a savvy, open-minded promoter or a booking committee of knowledgeable and committed industry figures who can put together concert groupings according to genre or style (pop-country, Opry, bluegrass, Cajun, etc.). If they have to, the promoters should guilt the big stars into re-embracing the original Fan Fair concept: giving back to the fans who make it all possible. If we could appeal to everyone’s sense of responsibility to the fans and the music, we could make Fan Fair into a huge international festival celebrating a thriving traditional music art formand not a faded relic of a storied past.
But above all else, we must not take the music of Fan Fair out of Music City, where it began and where it belongs. When the Opry made the move from the Ryman to Opryland, it brought along a circle of wood from the old Ryman stagearound which the cast gathered two Saturday nights ago to usher in the new Opry dot-com era. Fittingly, they all joined in to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Clearly, the circle remains unbroken at the Grand Ole Opry. It can and must remain unbroken, too, at Fan Fair.
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