The changes come after a decline in attendance at the International Country Music Fan Fair over the past few years, along with a drop in sales for country music and tourism in Nashville.

Tickets are on sale for the four-day fest, running $65-$125. Single-day tickets are available for the first time, with an eye toward attracting more local and regional participants, and the event will be held over a long weekend, June 14-17, instead of Monday through Thursday.

“Our goal for this year is a rather modest 30,000 people daily for the four days,” said Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association. “I think we’ll exceed that, and in the long run we could have up to 75,000 people wandering around. That would put us in the league of events like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Spoleto in South Carolina.”

This year, instead of relying mostly on word of mouth, the CMA is offering discounts to tour operators, sponsoring promotions with radio stations and placing print, radio and TV ads in 23 cities in the Southeast.

Of course, the main draw for Fan Fair is the country music artists, who not only perform during the event, but will avail themselves to the fans, posing for photos and signing autographs hour after hour in the Nashville Convention Center.

This year, the roster of stars scheduled to appear includes Alan Jackson, Billy Gilman, Brad Paisley, Collin Raye, Jo Dee Messina, Joe Diffie, Kenny Chesney, Lonestar, Martina McBride, Montgomery Gentry, Patty Loveless, Sarah Evans, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood, and Vince Gill.

Evening concerts will take place in the 68,500-seat Adelphia Coliseum for the first time, expanding seating capacity from 17,000 at Fan Fair’s old digs at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds racetrack.

Afternoon shows at Riverfront Park on the banks of the Cumberland River will feature artists from independent record labels mixed in with country music stars.

Fan Fair was organized in 1972 after fans started turning up uninvited at a music industry convention. Officials figured a festival would be popular, and they were right. Five thousand people turned up the first year; the number doubled the following year. In 1982, the event was moved from downtown Nashville to the fairgrounds.

In the early 1990s, the only question was how quickly all the tickets would be sold.

Then the Opryland USA theme park closed after the 1997 season, depressing Nashville tourism. Flat sales for country music CDs didn’t help. And there were complaints that the fairgrounds were cramped and run-down.

Last year, Fan Fair had a daily attendance of about 20,000, short of the 24,000 needed for a sellout.

“We knew we had to make some substantial changes to try to grow the event, or we really needed to look at shutting it down,” Benson said. “Because doing it like we’d always done it, we thought it would continue to decline.”

Canceling Fan Fair would have been a major blow to the country music industry. Only in Nashville do stars man autograph booths for hours at a time, or sacrifice a few days of the lucrative summer concert season.

Fans repay the favor with remarkable loyalty.

“To me, Fan Fair is second only to playing the Grand Ole Opry,” said singer Craig Morgan. “You’re as close to the fans as you can get right there.”

Instead of canceling the event, or moving it out of Nashville, a CMA committee of industry leaders decided to bring Fan Fair back downtown, expand it, and promote it with a marketing campaign that proclaims: “The world’s biggest country music festival just got a lot bigger.”

A star-studded charity softball game, the TNN Awards for country music and autograph booths will remain, and the Grand Ole Opry will put on a special Saturday matinee at the downtown Ryman Auditorium.

“I’m really bullish,” Benson said. “I think we have a legitimate opportunity to make this thing grow into a world-class music event that puts us on the map in terms of major world music festivals.”