PUBLISHED IN THE TORONTO STAR JUNE 25, 1996
By Nick Krewen
The big silver-haired man, his skin crimson with perspiration, is standing silently in a tent with 90 other people a good 60 yards from a converted stockhouse.
The letters on the tent -- CMT -- stand for Country Music Television -- and the man, JOHN LUBBOCK, a 47-year-old welder from Ohio, is a country music fan.
The line-up is for a SAWYER BROWN autograph signing that's still two hours away.
But Lubbock doesn't mind, even though he's been waiting a couple of hours already in the sweltering Nashville heat.
"If you want to see them, you don't mind the wait," he grunts, and then goes back to his silent vigil.
Welcome to Fan Fair, the annual country music woodstock hosted by Nashville every third week in June. Lubbock and 23,999 other fans like him travel hundreds and thousands of miles for the event, sponsored by the Country Music Association. For some, it's their only opportunity to press the flesh with country music celebrities.
Held for one week every year at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, a converted stockyard and home to the Nashville Raceway, Fan Fair is a big business calling card for both country music lovers and Nashville tourism, which enjoys a $127 million injection largely through the five days of concerts, personal appearances and autograph signings.
At first glance, tickets priced at $90 U.S. seem a bargain. Since its Monday opening, fans have had tastes of every type of country imaginable: swing, traditional, bluegrass and new country. They've also enjoy performances by such country superstars as TIM McGRAW, TERRI CLARK, RANDY TRAVIS and teenage sensation LeANN RIMES perform their hits in 12-hour marathon label-sponsored showcases set on an outdoor double-tiered stage.
ALAN JACKSON, FAITH HILL and PATTY LOVELESS are yet to come, and on Friday a separate $10 U.S. ticket allows you into the grand finale, "The Fun In The Sun," which will star such weathered legends as LYNN ANDERSON, CHARLEY PRIDE and THE OAK RIDGE BOYS, who are still soldiering on after the suicide last week of ex-lead singer STEVE SANDERS.
Inside the exhibitor halls are the Fan Fair booths, elaborately designed kiosks built by either the artists or their labels to host wrist-numbing autograph sessions that frequently draw 600 people and last four hours.
Admission also includes tickets for the Country Music Hall Of Fame and the Ryman Auditorium, and two on-site meals from the Odessa Chuck Wagon Gang.
Although they're not part of the entrance fees, fan club parties, charity softball games, auctions and awards shows are also booked around Fan Fair.
ARLIE and LINDA ROBBINS think it's a good deal. The Shreveport, Louisiana couple have just shaken hands and had their picture taken with MARK CHESNUTT.
"We were just thanking him for taking the time and coming out here and taking care of his fans," says Arlie, who admits he and his wife invests several thousand dollars every summer to Fan Fair.
And he loves it -- this is his seventh year in a row.
"You get to see more people here than you can anywhere else in the world," says Robbins.
Originally founded in 1972 by Nashville's Country Music Association , the first Fan Fair was held at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium and drew 5000 people.
Although it's been sold out for seven years in a row and puts the emphasis on merchandising, some country artists like to think of it as a payback to their faithful and devoted flock.
"This is our one chance to give something back, as a thank-you," says country superstar Faith Hill. "We owe it all to the fans."
FAN FAIR FACTS
5000 people attended the first Fan Fair in 1972, held April 12-15 at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium. Performers included Roy Acuff, Loretta Lynn, Tom T. Hall, Pee Wee King.
The next year, attendance doubled to 10,000, with surprise visitor Paul McCartney making an appearance. Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner performed as a duo for the last time.
In 1982 Fan Fair moved to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, and today registers an annual minimum economic impact of $10 million.
THANKS: Leslie Taylor
©1996, 1999 Nick Krewen, Octopus Media Ink
About Octopus Media Ink