Nashville has two major music events each year, the rock festival Bonnaroo (about an hour out of town) and the CMA Music Festival (now held in downtown Nashville, after years at the local Fairgrounds when it was called Fan Fair). Now, Bonnaroo is a great festival, and a wonderful experience (check out Gibson.com’s preview here, but the CMA Music Festival, which runs concurrently this year, is something different. It’s a throwback to a more innocent, pre-corporate and pre-radio consolidation era in the music world where, essentially, for four hot days in June fans get to meet, greet and mingle with the stars of the day. Country music artists and fans alike have long been tarred with the hokey brush, but the relationship between fan and artist that the CMA Music Festival engenders, creates a bond that no marketing or advertising guru could ever re-create.
It all started back in 1972 at the Nashville fairgrounds, a much more hillbilly affair than the slick sophisticated machine that is CMA Fest 2010, but the mold was set. Country music needs its fans, and the artists appreciate that better than in any other genre. Given that some 200,000 people attend from around the globe, it also makes pretty good marketing sense for country artists to spend a day or two chatting with the very people who paid for those tour buses, designer outfits, fast cars and sprawling ranches. Consequently over 400 artists, from superstars to young hopefuls, set up shop in downtown Nashville for a long weekend, to spend a few minutes with excited fans from Berlin, Delhi, London, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Tokyo and all corners of the global village.
Aside from four nights of high-powered country music concerts at the Tennessee Titans’ stadium, LP Fields, it’s the fan booths in the Convention Center that make this jamboree unique and worth hanging on to. At a time when pop and rock artists and fans have never been further removed, the down-home appeal of country still sees superstars like Alan Jackson meeting fans, signing a few autographs and posing for countless photos.
And when they’re not at their daytime booths, fan clubs and record companies put on numerous fan club shows, concerts and get-togethers in clubs all around Nashville. If you really want to meet Brad Paisley, or Rascal Flatts, or Carrie Underwood, then the CMA Music Fest gives you the means to actually do that. Back in 1996, before the festival moved downtown, Garth Brooks made an unannounced appearance at the festival and stood at a table for 23 hours signing autographs. As Garth told me shortly afterwards, “Country music is about the fans, period.”
Rock and pop fans are too often fleeced on merchandising and CDs and gouged with the now en vogue VIP packages and exorbitant ticket prices. Country music has a pretty good record in understanding and appreciating its audience, and when one of rock and roll’s most successful contemporary artists, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, predicts the imminent demise of the mainstream record industry, some Southern-fried relationship building and fan hospitality doesn’t sound quite so hokey after all.
Editor/Hokey Brush Man