Imagine a weeklong outdoor fair where Alanis Morissette, Metallica, Duncan Sheik, Counting Crows, and Whitney Houston perform on stage, sit in booths for up to eight hours at a time, sign autographs, and pose for snapshots for hundreds of fans in 94-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. Oh, did we mention this was for no pay?
Unthinkable? Well, their country counterparts do it every summer. As the 26th annual Fan Fair gets under way, 24,000 country-music mavens will pack Nashville’s Tennessee State Fairgrounds June 16-21 for a down-home love-fest with such A-list acts as Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Tanya Tucker, and more than a hundred other stars who carve time out of their lucrative touring schedules to give a little something back to the folks who’ve made them what they are. Or as rising star Wade Hayes puts it, ”To thank people for buying our records and letting us have a job.”
While pop performers might balk at sitting in stifling, un-air-conditioned exhibit halls marked Livestock and Poultry, country singers take it all in stride. ”People come up and want to take you home and try to give you their car and stuff,” marvels singer Hal Ketchum. ”They’ll come through the line with a thousand pictures to sign, saying ‘You remember me. We met back in ’91…’ You have to give people their time. They just want the personal connection.”
And often, they get it. ”I really look forward to it,” says Grammy winner Donna Fargo, ”because people plan their summers around it each year. After a while, you get to know ’em and care about ’em and wonder how they are. It’s really cool that they’re so willing to stand in those lines.”
Fortified with pork-chop sandwiches and all manner of junk food on a stick, fans will apparently do anything to get close enough for a memory to last a lifetime. And that gives Fan Fair — cosponsored by the Country Music Association and the Grand Ole Opry — both a heroic backwoods patina and a somewhat gothic shadow. (Back in the ’70s, one woman with an extremely full bladder squatted in line rather than miss her moment with Conway Twitty.) But at least one performer has gone the distance to return the favor: In 1996, Garth Brooks showed up unannounced and signed autographs, standing up, for 23 straight hours — without a meal.
This year, an extra day of live shows has been added to the schedule to make room for performers from all of Nashville’s rapidly growing record labels. With Lorrie Morgan, the Kentucky Headhunters, Mindy McCready, Marty Stuart, and Kathy Mattea slated to entertain, the Tennessee heat index may rise higher than ever. But if you don’t already have your $90 ticket, which includes the shows, two meals, and admission to Opryland, the Ryman Auditorium, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, your only recourse is to try some of Nashville’s tourist agencies — tickets routinely sell out shortly after going on sale in January.
Since at least three events — autographings, record-label shows, and fan-club parties — take place simultaneously, Fan Fair’s biggest challenge is time management. Some smart fans never set foot on the fairgrounds but attend the fan-club parties held at various locales around town — Alan Jackson’s is at the Ryman on the second night — to spend quality time with their favorites. (Here’s a hint: Join the fan clubs.)