Q’s With Sarah Trahern: Country Music Association CEO Talks CMA Fest’s Big 5-0

CMA CEO Sarah Trahern on Thursday, June 6 during the 2019 CMA Music Festival in downtown Nashville.

When Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern, then a Senior Producer at C-SPAN, was moving for a job with TNN: The Nashville Network to oversee all their specials, she found herself in Nashville during Fan Fair. With a new city, company and job, she didn’t make it to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, but she was struck by Neal McCoy, a mid-level country star who’d scored some big hits.

“It was 1995, and I stayed at the Embassy Suites on West End,” she recalls of her first Fan Fair. “Neal McCoy and his band were staying there, too. He’d be down in the lobby in the morning talking to the fans and signing autographs when I’d be leaving for work, and he’d be in the lobby signing autographs – after what had I’m sure been a really long day for him – and talking to the fans when I came back after dinner.

“It was different than anything I’d been a part of. It’s when I realized country music really is a family, especially where the fans are concerned.”

Educated at Georgetown and having spent eight years at C-SPAN, Trahern wasn’t a typical country music executive. Though she’d attended bluegrass festivals growing up, her focus had been politics, economics and government. Eight years into her TNN tenure, Trahern moved to Scripps-Howard Broadcasting for 18 years; becoming the SVP of Programming, she had a hand in many HGTV activations during Fan Fair’s later incarnation, CMA Music Fest.

During her time at Scripps, her affinity for country music led to the role of General Manager for Great American Country. The lifestyle network loosely filled TNN’s void and competed with CMT: Country Music Television. Her ability to recognize broader connections, identify opportunities and overlap for country music ultimately made her the logical choice to become CEO of the Country Music Association. In 2014, the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management MBA began running the CMA.

With her television, marketing and business background, Trahern has been a leader for this time of both unprecedented growth and challenges. Beyond “The CMA Awards” and “The CMA Country Christmas,” Trahern and Executive Producer Robert Deaton create “CMA Music Fest,” a three-hour extravaganza designed to show television viewers all the energy, fun and music that this four-day event embodies.

For 2023, its 50th year, the CMA is creating some pretty big action. Massive stages, teeny stages, Fan Fair X in the Convention Center with booths for autographs sessions, superstars, baby artists, legacy acts, food trucks, merch stations, activations and takeovers by Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, Anheuser-Busch, Chevrolet, Maui Jim, Circle TV, Dr Pepper and a documentary. From June 8-11, Music City will be a full-immersion country music experience.

Pollstar: We’re closing in on CMA Fest!
Sarah Trahern: Every time June comes around, we have beautiful weather until four days before. Then the temperatures shoot up over 100 degrees with 100% humidity. You can almost feel it coming.

It’s amazing what happens, no matter the weather.
It really is! We have 50 stadium acts, playing to 50,000 people a night. Eighty thousand people a day in the footprint, because there are the free stages and things going on anyone can come to. The experience of Music Fest is something we want everyone to get to experience. You realize attendees come from all 50 states and 39 countries.

People come with those artists they really want to see. But even when they come for specific artists, there is music discovery. Everyone seems to find a few new artists they fall in love with.

Even the staff, who pretty much know all these artists, you’ll ask – and they’ll just tell you some artists they heard or found who they love. It’s one of the greatest things about this event.

And there’s the TV special.
Yes. Robert Deaton has so many ideas, and he works so hard to bring people who didn’t come to Nashville into the experience of what CMA Fest is. He creates moments that are once in a lifetime, only at the stadium; he wants to have surprises that make the people here super-excited, but also for the people at home.

People don’t realize: these artists don’t get paid to appear at Music Fest.
The artists come out of their love and commitment to the fans. This is their way to give back to the people who love their music, to give them a reason to come to Nashville for four days of some very wonderful music and special experiences.

This is the 50th Anniversary.
Last year, it felt like we were getting back on track and in front of the fans after two years without. We were announcing our last announcements when we decided – like so many people as the pandemic happened — to close everything down and cancel in 2020.

Now we’re back in full. We’ve got more collaborations at the stadium, more surprises. We’ve really owned the music discovery throughout the footprint, especially with diversity which has been a real focus for us. We’ve even returned to the Hard Rock Stage and this year Country Proud will program a block on Friday.

You’ve continued the Fan Fair tradition of artist booths, for selling merch and signing autographs, as well as creating opportunities for fans to hear from some of the bigger acts.
We have the CMA Close-Up Stage in the Fan Fair X area inside the Convention Center. Trisha Yearwood is interviewing Wynonna Judd; Dierks Bentley is being interviewed by Charlie Worsham; Brothers Osborne are doing an Amazon podcast, so are Jelly Roll and Tanya Tucker. One day, Rissi Palmer is taping her Apple Music “Color Me Country” show with Willie Jones, Charly Lowry and a few more.

I know! Charley Pride’s family had his Fan Club Party last year.

But also creating space for new acts.
Our Spotlight Stage in Fan Fair X is giving so many artists a place to play. So many start there – and come back bigger. Megan Moroney was there last year, and on the Platform stage at Nissan Stadium this year.

I don’t think people realize the way Fan Fair for many artists begins when they’re kids.
It’s true. Lainey [Wilson] came when she was 14 and remembers exactly where she and her family sat. Reba came with her family, too, long before they were thinking about anything other than rodeos. And there’s a picture of Kelsea [Ballerini] shaking Keith Urban’s hand over the barrier, which is everything this is about.

Vince Gill tells the story of Patty Loveless coming through his autograph line at the Fairgrounds, saying how much she liked the way he sings and that she wanted to sing with him one day. He thought, “Yeah, sure.”

As artists, they inspire so many…
I think about Taylor (Swift) at Riverfront before she was who she is today. Those young fans she had in the beginning were so excited about her music, and she was bringing them here. Now she’s doing three nights at Nissan Stadium.

The 49th CMA Fest Nightly Concerts at Nissan Stadium Day 1
Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, and Dierks Bentley attend day 1 of the 49th CMA Fest at Nissan Stadium on June 9, 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for CMA)

What are some of your special moments?
In 2005 or 2006, my Mom really wanted to see The Judds, who were closing out Sunday night. There was a rain delay, and I remember watching Robert Deaton and (then CMA CEO) Tammy Genovese in the tunnel behind the stage, making these decisions about what they were going to do. Juggling sound curfews, the weather and being so grateful I didn’t have to make that call.

Life’s funny.
And Garth, who’d never played (the stadium since we’d moved downtown, decided one year he wanted to do an acoustic set. No one knew, not even my staff. We kept it such a secret, people were coming up to me at the office the next day. He played those first few notes of “The Thunder Rolls,” though, and that excitement when people realized what was happening? It was awesome.

And the collaborations! Lady A had BRELAND come out and sing “I Need You Now” with them. Later his publicist told me about how hearing Lady A’s music made him feel like there could be a place for him in country music.

It’s a big leap from the fairgrounds and racetrack to the 50th anniversary…
The time at the fairgrounds was indicative of where country music was during those years. The hairdos the people were wearing; they’re a little older – and a lot of the imagery was more stereotypical. There was square dancing and bluegrass. The labels each had their show at the race track. Now that wouldn’t work.

When Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Shania and their production started really kicking in, they helped us outgrow the fairgrounds. The spectacle of their shows, the number of fans they were drawing, the fairgrounds couldn’t contain it.

And those first few years, CMA didn’t sell out the stadium. But we saw the numbers kept growing. People would tell their friends. Country music got bigger. Nashville, too, became a part of the festival, instead of Fan Fair being at the Fairgrounds and it was its own thing.
In 2013, it got close to selling out. In 2014, my first year, it did. Other than the years we couldn’t do Music Fest because of the pandemic, it keeps growing.

Since we take the money raised and give it to the CMA Foundation to help fund music education, that’s a good thing. We raised over $2.5 million dollars last year alone, and over $29 million all told. That makes a difference – for the fans, for the artists and especially the kids in Davidson County public schools! s