In the Right Direction 

Complaints and questions aside, Fan Fair 2001 showed that the event’s new downtown location has enormous potential

Complaints and questions aside, Fan Fair 2001 showed that the event’s new downtown location has enormous potential

Inevitably and awkwardly, after exchanging greetings and a few pleasantries, people at the decentralized Fan Fair 2001 would timidly broach the obvious question: “What do you think?” Inevitably and awkwardly, the answer was ambiguous at best.

A week later, it still is, but not without good cause for optimism. The negatives, though, remain evident: Fan Fair 2001, in relation to the Fan Fairs of years past, was decidedly fan-unfriendly.

Even at the first show in Riverfront Park, when Sherrié Austin dared to ask if fans were enjoying the new downtown Fan Fair set-up as much as they’d enjoyed previous years’ events at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, she was drowned out by a resounding chorus of “No!” Later reports by WSM-650 AM and The Tennessean ably documented additional complaints.

The reasons were clear: long lines to get into the exhibit hall at the Convention Center; a drought of big stars and free water; a long photo line winding and climbing through the bowels of Adelphia Coliseum; having to shuttle from one venue to the next. The schlep factor may actually have been most significant, as it hits at the main advantage of the Fairgrounds. Though dirty and sweaty, the Fairgrounds provided a veritable campus, as Robert K. Oermann put it.

Indeed, the Fairgrounds Fan Fair was a veritable institution: Year after year, it brought together the same people to the same place for the same experience of hearing and seeing as much country music as possible and meeting and greeting the stars whose artistry is our common bond. This campus/institution concept further involved those of us who are also part of the country music industry—who found Fan Fair 2001 to be industry-unfriendly as well.

In this regard, the big sticking point was the lack of a backstage area. True, the backstage tent at the Fairgrounds racetrack was probably a huge headache for the labels. But it was a necessary one in that it provided a perfect meeting place for their guests in the trade and for the families of the performing artists. The tent was the one spot where I knew I would eventually run into everyone I needed to—many times over. Compare this, then, with the downtown Fan Fair, which provided no central place to meet.

Just as problematic was the aforementioned lack of star power—without question, one of the things that has always made Fan Fair such a special event. As Caryn Wariner put it, the declining presence of the big stars at the booths made those who did participate—like her husband Steve—seem smaller in stature. The truth, of course, was the opposite: Wariner remains among the few major country stars who still takes Fan Fair and his fans seriously. His dedication has paid off well, as evidenced by the long lines during his numerous booth appearances.

Wariner’s frequent songwriting partner and longtime Opry star Bill Anderson also drew his typically large and loyal crowd to his booth. He couldn’t have been happier with Fan Fair 2001, and why not? As Anderson pointed out, the downtown event was truly artist-friendly, what with the air-conditioned exhibition hall and easy-in, easy-out venues. And sure enough, I just had to laugh watching Alan Jackson amble off the Adelphia stage and down the ramp before disappearing into the night with no worry of having to meet fans and press.

Getting around for the rest of us wasn’t so easy. The overlapping scheduling of events at Riverfront Park and the Bicentennial Mall made it impossible to experience everything, let alone to visit the booths and take in the activities at the new Country Music Hall of Fame. But I’m not complaining, because for all the frustrations and snafus, downtown is where hope for the future of Fan Fair lies.

What made this year’s event was the live music, especially on the Riverfront stage. “What we’re trying to do is broaden the musical base of Fan Fair,” Country Music Association executive director Ed Benson explained following a pre-concert press conference at Adelphia. “Heretofore, the label shows pretty much locked out indie artists. So we had the opportunity to change things and consciously made the decision that it would benefit the festival in the future—and our industry—to showcase indie and alternative country acts.”

The goal, he said, “is to get to a point where there’s so much music and so much going on that you can’t possibly do everything. That’s the way to grow the event, drawing more and more people from around the country and making it more interesting to the regional community here as well.”

Benson also noted that a substitute venue for the Bicentennial Mall was being sought. This would make it easier for tourists while continuing to involve locals. Wherever it is next year, this particular stage will stay free, Benson promised. Indeed, credit him and the Fan Fair planners for opening up the festival with a free stage, and for experimenting with a multiple pricing system to allow one-day attendance. And thank God they didn’t move the event out of town—as had been feared.

In fact, Fan Fair 2001 did a pretty good job of making downtown Nashville its biggest star. In some ways this was by default, since the Adelphia concerts were too big and unwieldy. (Suggestion: Halve the playing field so that the stage is set up horizontally; these shows won’t draw more than half capacity anyway, and this way it brings all the fans closer to the stage.)

Adelphia shortcomings aside, the downtown setting—in particular the Riverfront stage and the walk between it and the Convention Center—provided the transcendent Fan Fair moments that previous Fan Fairs were so full of. I won’t soon forget looking out at the small but steadfast Riverfront crowd withstanding the rain during Lila McCann’s set at the WEA/EMI show while the more enterprising fans hung out of the windows at 2nd & Goal.

Then there was the walk back to the booths, when I passed by someone named Suzanne Edwards Alford, peddling her The Arms of a Good Woman CD atop her red pickup truck parked in front of a vacant Second Avenue storefront. The traditional Fan Fair dream lived on with her.

About the only thing missing this year was optimal exploitation of the Lower Broad and Printers Alley clubs. One hopes and expects, then, that this first downtown Fan Fair was a transitional phase, from which the presenters will make positive adjustments. Likewise, one hopes that the absence of so many stars from the exhibition hall was mainly due to a wait-and-see attitude. And while understandably disgruntled with the changes, the fans themselves will, one hopes, adapt to a changing, more diversified country music genre that this new Fan Fair is now well poised to promote.

With the right thinking and planning, Fan Fair could conceivably rival the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—not necessarily in attendance, but in scope and focus on the music that has rightly made Nashville America’s Music City.

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