Farewell Fan Fair

Fan Fair

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

 

Farewell Fan Fair.

When it wound down June 8 with a rare reunion of The Judds, the door closed on a 32-year tradition. Upon its return in 2004, the annual Nashville country music festival – which encourages fans to mingle with its stars – will be sporting a different name: the CMA (Country Music Association) Music Festival.

More troubling to hardcore country music fans, however, is the CMA’s new willingness decision to welcome non-country talent into the mix.

Although acts such as The Beach Boys and the soap opera casts of Days Of Our Lives and Passions have made Fan Fair appearances in the past, this official policy change – combined with few details regarding the transition – have put country fans on the defensive.

Worried that their premier country music festival is going to be distilled by an onslaught of non-country artists, distraught fans – and some industry professionals – have been flooding CMA offices with e-mails and phone calls expressing their concern.

Published comments by CMA executive director Ed Benson, describing the annual love-in as “an event any Nashvillian could come to and not feel like something was going to jump off on them and infect them” – inferring an unsophisticated stigma attached to the words “Fan Fair” – weren’t reassuring.

“They make us sound like a bunch of nose-picker, butt-scratcher country hicks,” complained Fan Fair attendee Annette Wood of Davenport, Iowa to The Tennessean.

But a yearly attendance drop, a decline in superstar attractions and continuing money losses have left the CMA grasping for solutions, clearly puzzled at its fizzling mandate to expand country music’s audience.

The first major step towards growth came in 2001, when the CMA relocated Fan Fair from the self-contained 24,000-seat Tennessee State Fairgrounds  — its home since 1982 and a place where fan booths and artists exhibits were mere steps away from the concert venue, a converted racetrack  — to downtown Nashville.

“When we made the move (downtown), it was a commitment by our board to say we’re going to build this event for the future,” Benson told The Tennessean.

Fan Fair was switched from a week to weekend festival, downsized from five to four days.  Record label showcases shifted to the 66,000-seat capacity Coliseum for the evenings, and the much smaller Riverfront Park stages for weekdays. And booths where fans wait for autographs were transferred several city blocks away to the air-conditioned Nashville Convention Center.

However, these transitions came with a price to Fan Fair visitors. Camping, which kept costs economical for many tourists and added a social element to the outing, was banned. Admission prices were also jacked up: A $95 ticket that allotted you four nights and five days of country music, a free meal and – until it was scuttled in 1997 by Gaylord Entertainment – admission to their Opryland U.S.A. theme park, gave way to $115 tickets with no additional incentives.

Today, the top ticket for gold circle admission into the Coliseum for four days and nights of country music is $250 – a 211% increase from 2000 prices.  If you’re 18 and under, you can pay as little as $86 to attend the festivities, although you’re denied gold circle access even if you have the money.

Other implemented changes have made artist accessibility more restrictive. Stages once within handshake reach of fans are now heightened and inaccessibly barricaded. Photo lines that formerly allow shutterbugs to watch shows while they waited to snap their cameras are now re-directed through Coliseum corridors.

And the lack of superstar talent hasn’t helped. Whether the switch to weekends, normally the most lucrative booking time for recording acts, has had an impact is questionable, but both the 2002 and 2003 lineups were woefully short on marquee headliners.

Although Garth Brooks is in semi-retirement and annual no-shows include superstars Shania Twain and George Strait, other regular visitors decided to skip this year’s event altogether. Among the missing: chart-toppers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Toby Keith and The Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes, although Rimes did cancel a main-stage cameo duet with Vince Gill due to illness.

However, mid-level and up-and-coming artists such as Rascal Flatts, Tracy Byrd, Lee Ann Womack and Carolyn Dawn Johnson were also absent.

Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride, Patty Loveless and Darryl Worley were among the headline acts played for free, accepting a reported $100,000 contribution to the charity of their choice in lieu of payment.

But even the majority of those acts skipped the opportunity to greet fans and sign autographs at the Nashville Convention Center. After Jo Dee Messina and Montgomery Gentry, familiar names were rare.

Others chose just to keep it private, appear at their own fan club parties which are scheduled to run concurrent with the festival.

As a result, Fan Fair attendance dropped 1.7% — from an announced “aggregate” headcount of 126,500 in 2002 to 124,300 in 2003 – with CMA officially laying blame on a faltering economy and post-Iraq war fallout.

In a separate Tennessean article, however, Benson revealed that Fan Fair, produced at a cost of $3 million, has been losing financial ground for years, with out-of-town attendance topping out at 21,000 visitors. In the same article, CMA associate director Tammy Genovese acknowledged that tourists rather than locals accounted for the majority of ticket sales.

Whether the CMA can stage a reversal of Fan Fair fortune under its new CMA Music Festival guise remains to be seen, but Benson clarified that its country music core will not be supplanted by other genres.

“Any celebrities or musical guests we invite to Fan Fair will have a tangible connection to country music and this lifestyle,” Benson explained.

”Our primary mission is always to grow country music. We don’t want to limit it.”

By excising the word “fan” from the equation, however, the CMA may have bitten off more than it can chew, alienating the very loyalists that have kept Fan Fair alive for more than three decades.

Emm Gryner – musical multi-tasker

 

Between her new solo album, her bands Trent Severn and Trapper, and her family, singer stays busy but focused.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Oct 12 2015

 

Emm Gryner has become quite the proficient juggler.

A couple of weeks ago, the Juno-nominated, Sarnia-born singer and songwriter released her 16th studio album, 21st Century Ballads.

On Oct. 9, Trillium — the sophomore effort from Trent Severn, Gryner’s hoser folk collaboration with fellow songwriters Dayna Manning and Laura C. Bates — hit the streets.

Gryner’s hosting a songwriting workshop at Sheridan College in Oakville during the Oct. 17 weekend and concurrently hops over to the annual Folk Music Ontario Conference in Toronto.

Throw in the occasional appearance with astronaut Chris Hadfield (Gryner guested on his space station-recorded cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”); the writing and recording of an album with Trapper, the hard-rock quartet Gryner formed with guitarist Sean Kelly, her brother Frank, bass player Jordan Kern and drummer Tim Timleck; the running of her boutique label Dead Daisy Records and last, but certainly not least, family life (she’s the married mother of two). It makes you wonder: where does Gryner find the time?
“I just started a spreadsheet calendar,” she replied over the phone from Calgary, the day after a Trent Severn show.

“It’s been about the only way I can keep track of stuff. I have a really hard time organizing my time.”

Finding and maintaining a life/art balance has been foremost on Gryner’s mind lately, a theme that permeates “The Race,” the opening track of 21st Century Ballads, and refers to the late 1999-2000 period she spent on the road playing keyboards with Bowie.

But the tune is actually about Lawrence Gowan, the Toronto-based artist whose solo career spawned hits like “A Criminal Mind” and “Moonlight Desires” before he replaced Dennis DeYoung in Styx as lead singer and keyboardist.

“It was the first song I wrote for the album because I joined his (Gowan’s) band for a week last year,” recalls Gryner, a multi-instrumentalist. “It was the most life-changing event for me.

“But what really inspired me is that I’m at a place in my life where I’m just amazed at anyone who’s a successful musician and who has kept their family together. Gowan is a total family man. It was really interesting to see the choices he’s made in his career to keep music and family. That’s what that song is really about.”

At 40, Gryner has been doing quite a bit of reflection herself and the voice-and-piano driven 21st Century Ballads is partially the result.

“Trying to find a balance as a woman in this stage of my life has been a challenge for me,” she admits. “So there are a lot of songs that I wrote to heal myself.

“I really wanted to write lyrics that are not watered down and you water things down when you start censoring yourself. I just tried to make sure that I put on the record what was happening in my life at the time the songs were written. I feel really good about it.”

Not all of the songs are personal.

“‘The Wild Weight of Earth’ was inspired by some of the stories of female teenagers committing suicide, which I think is so heartbreaking,” she explains.

“‘Duped’ is learning about someone you know being accused of criminal activity. The last one, ‘Visiting Hours’ is sort of a tribute to a fan of mine who passed away from cancer.

“They sound like a lot of depressing themes, but I think there’s a beautiful outcome from some of the sadness that we endure. I’m aware that this stuff goes on and I’m trying to focus on the light in the world.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the plaid-adorned Trent Severn, which — with harmony-honed, fiddle-laced folk tunes “Stealin’ Syrup,” “Haliburton High” and “King of the Background,” a tribute to late Band keyboardist Richard Manuel — sound more Canadian than back bacon, a toque and hockey put together.

“We want to highlight our shared experiences,” Gryner says on behalf of the band, booked for a Dec. 3 date at Hugh’s Room for a Trillium CD release party.
“It’s about the things that we all share: we all shovel our driveway . . . we all go to Tim Hortons once in awhile. Without going into novelty territory, which would be easy to do, we just try to think of the things that we love about Canada.”

Again, getting organized — especially after having kids — forced Gryner to sort out her priorities and to start compartmentalizing her sound to a degree.
“Having more projects keeps me focused on each one of them,” Gryner explains.

“With my solo stuff there was always a touch of country in them and a little bit of rock. I considered my previous albums to be stylistically schizophrenic.

“Once I got to put all the roots, country and folk style into Trent Severn, I was really able to focus on the classical element of my pop solo career. And then the Trapper thing, which is more of a fun thing, came along, but I’ve always loved rock music.

“It may seem that I’m really busy, and I guess that I am, but I take fewer gigs now and they seem to be more meaningful. I’m not getting on a plane to go play some little place that’s far, far away . . . I’m keeping it close to home.”

Emm Gryner, musical multi-tasker | Toronto Star

Julian Taylor revels in versatility

Toronto musician plays R&B at the Horseshoe one night, partakes in folk festival the next.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Feb 12 2015

Julian Taylor is used to shaking it up.

For example, those headed to the Horseshoe on Saturday night will experience the full electrifying and soulful R&B glory of the eight-piece Julian Taylor Band as they perform songs from their acclaimed album Tech Noir.

On Friday and Sunday, you’ll find Taylor doing the solo singer-songwriter thing at the Irish pub Dora Keogh, partaking in the annual Danforth-centric folk fest Winterfolk XIII (David Essig, Jack de Keyzer, Lynn Miles and Hotcha! are among the headliners) and showing off his acoustic guitar chops.

Source his former band Staggered Crossing on YouTube to hear his rock edge.

Taylor is quite the chameleon.

“I can do many things,” he says. “Tech Noir is a rock soul record with which I think I’ve found my niche, but I like writing campfire songs and playing acoustic guitar just as much of that.
“It’s great to be versatile. Over the past couple of weeks I was part of the Gordon Lightfoot tribute at Hugh’s Room and I was also part of the global (Bob) Marley (70th birthday) tribute last weekend. So I get to do a lot of things.”

Taylor said the public’s modern and varied music tastes have allowed him to branch out accordingly.

“The general public has been exposed to so much stuff culturally — music, art, literature — that nowadays they’re way more open.”

The 36-year-old even points to his 3-year-old daughter Ella as “a barometer” of taste, saying she breaks out into spontaneous dance whenever she hears something she likes and will barely react if she hears something she doesn’t.

“When I was recording Tech Noir, I had a lot of friends listen to it, but it was mostly my daughter who told me if it was good or not,” he says. “If we could dance in the living room, then it was working.”

His latest song off Tech Noir, “Be Good to Your Woman,” has evolved into a campaign Taylor said is designed to “spark the conversation about trying to stop violence against women.”

He’s inviting everyone to submit a video to begoodtoyourwoman.com to share positive stories about their relationships and the respect with which people should be accorded.

He’s also pledged $2 from the sale of every copy of Tech Noir to the Canadian Women’s Foundation in honour of the cause.

In the meantime, Taylor, whose songs have been placed in such TV shows as Haven and Elementary, says he will be previewing new material for the Horseshoe Tavern crowd, and is grateful for the support radio outlets like the CBC have given his music.

“What Tech Noir means to me is ‘black future,’ he says. “I wanted to take the feeling of black music in the past and create something new and fresh, yet old, and I think we basically accomplished that.
“Folks that have heard it seem to like it, so I’m not complaining.”

Julian Taylor revels in versatility | Toronto Star

Canadian country music star Brett Kissel performs Thursday in Bowmanville

Singer with eight CCMA nominations kicks off Boots & Hearts Festival Thursday night

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Jul 30 2014

When Canadian country star Brett Kissel hits the road for a nationwide tour with headliner Brad Paisley in October, the eight-time Canadian Country Music Award nominee will be financing the trek by selling a few of his cows.

Seriously.

The 23-year-old Kissel, who was raised on a 100-year-old cattle ranch in Flat Lake, Alta., about two-and-a-half hours outside Edmonton, reveals he was once paid for a concert by cow instead of cash, a newer breed called Speckle Park.

“All my cows calved out, so the herd has increased from 30 to 60 since then,” Kissel explained yesterday from a Calgary recording studio, where he’s working on new material.

“There’s a plan for us to keep what’s called a ‘replacement heifer’ so you keep your heifers, which are female, to increase the herd, and you sell the steers and make some money on that.

“The good news is that a few of those steers I’m going to sell are going to help fund my participation on the Brad Paisley tour.”

Before he hits the road with Paisley, however, Kissel appears at the Thursday night opening blast-off of this long weekend’s Boots & Hearts Festival in nearby Bowmanville, warming up for fellow Canuck Dallas Smith.

And although the fest is headlined by such veteran acts as Toby Keith, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Kissel isn’t intimidated. He says he and the former singer for rock band Default plan to give the country greats a run for their money.

Kissel says the homegrown stars are quite capable of kicking butt onstage.

“Dallas Smith and I are performing the show together and, even though he’s the headliner and I’m opening, we both have the same collective goal: we are there to play the kickoff party and we are there to set the bar very high for the rest of the weekend. We want to make sure we put our foot on the gas pedal and don’t let it off.”

The “gas pedal” reference could apply to Kissel’s career. The public largely knows him through his debut album, Started With a Song, the energetic hits “Started With a Song,” “Raise Your Glass,” “3-2-1” and “Tough People Do,” and winning a Juno Award in March for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, but he first picked up the guitar at age seven, performing Johnny Cash covers at talent shows at the age of 10 and releasing his first album at 13.

Before he signed with Warner Music Canada, Kissel’s independent album sales were each in the five figures and he had headlined Canada’s largest country music festival, The Big Valley Jamboree, in Camrose, Alta.

He also had the distinction, at the age of 15, of being the youngest ever CCMA Award nominee, for Rising Star. So you can imagine his excitement at being nominated for eight CCMA Awards this year. He’ll be in Edmonton on Sept. 7 to hopefully hear his name called.

“There’s no better feeling really, because a lot of hard work has gone into my career in general over the last few years,” says Kissel, who is co-managed by Bob Doyle, Garth Brooks’ manager.

“It’s great to feel this recognition, but in some ways it doesn’t even feel real because it’s a pretty outstanding feeling to get eight of them. We expected maybe one or two. To quadruple my expectations is remarkable.”

Aside from the usual nods for Male Artist, Single and Songwriter (for “Started With a Song”), and Album, one award that Kissel is curiously up for is Interactive Artist of the Year.

He says that his social media activity is one of the more important aspects of his career.

“In this day and age, it’s one of the most important factors to determine success,” Kissel notes. “I now have a direct link to 25,000 people who follow me because they’re interested in what I’m doing, whether I’m hanging out on the farm with the cows or I’m out on the road with my Young Guns tour. These are the people that care about me and it’s important for me to show them that I care about them back.

“Whether they’re confiding in me about a tough time that they’re going through or they’re expressing their excitement about coming out to Boots & Hearts, for example, it’s just important for me to engage. I know the feeling I get when Brad Paisley or George Strait will tweet me back, and say, ‘Thanks, Brett, for the comment.’ I still get giddy myself.”

But whether he wins or loses, Kissel is hoping for one thing at the telecast: good seats.

“The first year I attended the CCMAs was over in Edmonton 10 years ago and I swear I had second-to-last-row seating with my mom,” he says. “Fast forward 10 years and I hope I’m somewhere close to the front row. At least if I have some good seats, I’ll be happy.”

Canadian country music star Brett Kissel performs Thursday in Bowmanville | Toronto Star

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career
He’s helped launch the careers of Loreena McKennitt and k.d. lang. At 80, he’s finally agreed to slow down his famously tireless pace.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Jun 27 2014

Now that he’s turned 80, Richard Flohil swears he’s going to slow the pace a bit.

What that actually means is anybody’s guess, because those who know the publicist and promoter extraordinaire — a master raconteur who corners the market on British charm and has helped the likes of Loreena McKennitt, k.d. lang and many others achieve global stardom — are flabbergasted by his tireless work ethic that includes a five-night-a-week commitment to hearing live music.

In a personal note distributed via email to colleagues last week, Flohil said he was “beginning to pull back a little,” but would stay involved “especially with special projects that inspire and/or amuse me.”

At this point, those projects include finishing a crowdfunded book he’s tentatively titled Louis Armstrong’s Laxative and 100 Other Mostly True Stories About a Life In Music and actively promoting up to 15 shows a year (Hugh’s Room is a favourite venue) with fellow promoter Tom Dertinger. Flohil also travels across Canada to attend folk festivals and mentors his own publicity clients in ways that exceed his job description.

So if he is contemplating some relaxation, there’s a strong possibility the public at large won’t notice it: music is clearly Flohil’s elixir of youth.

“I wish I knew who I’d stolen this from,” he says, his eyes twinkling as he quaffs a pint of ale at a Roncesvalles watering hole one recent sunny afternoon.

“But the age you go into music is the age you stay forever.

“I’m 34,” he grins.

His unbridled enthusiasm for the art form is no less diminished from the days of his early fascination with American jazz and blues. If anything, it’s grown exponentially, fueled in part by an eye-opening visit to the Mariposa folk festival in 1965, where he met Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Ste. Marie, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and The Staple Singers, acts he said “widened my head and almost made me evangelical.”

That passion has played an integral role in the formative years of many Canadian and U.S. acts, some who have gone on to become global superstars: McKennitt, lang, the Downchild Blues Band, Serena Ryder, Ani DiFranco, Laura Smith . . . the list is impressive.

“I think he has a particular talent for nurturing young artists, particularly when they’re starting out,” says Juno Award winner Loreena McKennitt, who has sold more than 14 million copies of her unique brand of world music.

“I think he’s got a good ear, and he’s very enthusiastic, which may sound kind of trite but being enthusiastic is a large part of developing enough confidence to move forward. And he’s very familiar with setting up the right circumstance for someone starting out. I think that takes a very particular nurturing hand and mind.”

And those nurtured artists have loved him back.

One need only to glance at the lineup that’s rocking the Horseshoe Tavern stage this Friday night to fete “Flo” into his ninth decade to realize how warmly and affectionately he’s regarded: Tom Wilson, Alejandra Ribera, Roxanne Potvin, Scarlett Jane, Ariana Gillis, Paul Reddick, Shakura S’Aida and others are volunteering their time to pay tribute to their champion, who in turn is transforming his birthday bash into a fundraiser for the Unison Benevolent Fund, which provides counseling, emergency relief and benefit programs for the Canadian music community.

“I like being part of the music community — they’re all really good people,” repeats the founder of publicity and promotion firm Richard Flohil and Associates, a few times over the course of the next 90 minutes.

Flohil says he loves hearing and working with musicians so much that he would jump on stage if he could. But he figures the public would fare better with him remaining behind the scenes.

“The reason I’m on the business side is because I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument and I dance like a pregnant elephant. Not a pretty sight and not to be done in public.”

The Richard Flohil story begins back in Selby, Yorkshire where he was born to Dutch and English parents. He attended private school and eventually apprenticed as a reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Press, moving on to work at three other papers.

When he hit 20, he tried his hand at publicity: his first client, future James Bond theme composer John Barry.

But he wanted out of Britain.

“I wanted to rediscover American jazz and blues musicians, because in the ’50s they weren’t allowed to come to Britain very often,” Flohil admits.

“Occasionally Louis Armstrong came and Lonnie Johnson came, and I met Big Bill Broonzy, but by and large the British Musicians Union wasn’t going to let American musicians come to Britain unless British musicians were allowed to come to America.”

In 1957, he arrived in Toronto with $300 in his pocket, and was instantly smitten by the thriving music scene.

“The first afternoon I walked down Yonge Street and I saw a sign saying, ‘All this week: Earl Hines and his All-Stars,’” Flohil recalls. “I walked in the bar and I said, ‘Earl Hines is playing here? The same Earl Hines who played with Louis Armstrong in the ’20s? How much is it to get in?’

“The bartender said, ‘It’s free, but you must buy two drinks.’ And I thought, ‘this must be the Promised Land.’

“The next night I found a New Orleans jazz club, and the night after that I wandered down to King Street East, and the Town Tavern. It was April ’57, and on stage underneath this silent black and white television airing a hockey playoff game is this rotund black pianist from Montreal called Oscar Peterson, who I never heard of. Blew my lights out.

“Then I went to Maple Leaf Gardens, the Irving Feld Parade of Stars, for $2.50, featuring the 16-year-old boy wonder from Ottawa, Canada:  Paul Anka, and Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, LaVerne Baker and Clyde McPhatter.”

After a series of jobs editing trade magazines, Flohil eventually branched out into publicity and also landed a gig as the editor of CAPAC’s (a forerunner of SOCAN) membership music magazine, keeping that gig for 20 years.

When he decided to move into concert promotion, Flohil capitalized on the Chicago blues sojourns he had made while living in England.

“If I have a claim to fame, I’m the guy who was involved in bringing Buddy Guy here for the first time, lesser known artists like Robert Nighthawk and Sleepy John Estes, and later on B.B. King and Bobby Bland. So that got me into small level promotions.

“I was also involved with bigger shows — Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, the Chieftains — with mixed results, but that seed has become the preserve of giant companies who have endless resources. And I couldn’t compete with that. “

In 1980, he co-founded respected music industry trade magazine The Record, handling reviews but still entrenched in publicity, and in 2002 became editor of Applaud, a magazine aimed at promoting Canadian music outside Canada, that lasted five years.

As much as he loves music and the people that make it, Flohil does have criteria when it comes to taking on clients (“good songs, a distinctive voice, ambition”), as well hearing music that emotionally touches him.

“To me, music has to hit two parts of the following four parts of your body: head, heart, groin, feet,” says Flohil, whose numerous accolades include the Estelle Klein Lifetime Achievement Award and SOCAN’s Special Achievement Award.

“Any two of those — if it’s just one, it won’t work for me.”
As for secrets to his success, Richard Flohil says his personal catalyst is anticipation.

“I think the key, apart from listening to lots and lots of music (he boasts a music collection of 12,000 discs) is to have something to look forward to,” says Flohil, who is tentatively planning a trip to India in 2015.

“I still want to do intriguing special projects. For example, Stony Plain Records, who I’ve worked with forever, has a 40th anniversary coming next year. I want to be involved in that, and if there’s a CD, I want to help choose the music and write the liner notes.”

While Flohil laments that he’s never “made very much money at” his career, his days have been filled with entertaining memories.

“I’ve had this amazing life with all these people, these stories and adventures and misadventures. So I just keep going.”

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career | Toronto Star