In his autobiography, Johnny Cash wrote that his first sober concert performance was a benefit to raise money for the high school football stadium in his adopted hometown of Hendersonville, 20 miles northeast of Nashville.
A few decades later – to hear her tell it – Taylor Swift wrote the lyrics that formed the kernel of her first hit, “Tim McGraw,” in an algebra class at that high school.
My mother, coincidentally, was the teacher of that class.
In 1999, I graduated from that high school; Merle Haggard’s granddaughter was also in my class of 344.
Earlier, my mom graduated from that school too, walking its hallways with Cash’s stepdaughter Carlene Carter (OVG Media & Conferences president Ray Waddell is also an alum). Both of my parents ultimately taught there. My dad gave plenty of detentions and mediocre grades to children and later grandchildren of various country music legends.
My youth and young manhood is scattered throughout with anecdotal encounters with music royalty. I saw Johnny and June countless times at Kroger or Walmart. As a teenager, at my first job, I rang up snacks for them at the convenience store near their lakeside home and crooned “In The Ghetto” with their son John Carter as he shopped. I introduced Johnny at a Scouting fundraiser. It was one of many charitable endeavors he supported, often quietly. When he died, we learned that his support for Hendersonville High School went far beyond that momentous concert, donating thousands upon thousands year after year. Hendersonville High School wears all-black football uniforms. You can judge for yourself if that’s a coincidence.
Growing up, honky-tonk queen Jean Shepard could be found having coffee at my grandmother’s house, just a few doors down from where one of the Osborne Brothers lived. The Osbornes, they who first brought “Rocky Top” to the masses. “Rocky Top,” the bluegrass mainstay, written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who lived across the lake.
In the 1970s, both of my parents worked at the Grand Ole Opry House in the summer, so I grew up learning that “El Paso” was always the song that closed the Opry on Saturday nights, because Marty Robbins came on last, as he spent most of the evening racing cars at the fairgrounds speedway. One of his best friends at that track was “Bullet” Bob Reuther. I’d later marry his granddaughter.
I share these stories not because they are remarkable, but because they are not. Not to me, at least. Or to anyone who grew up in Middle Tennessee in the last half of the 20th century.
Giving people from all over the world the opportunity to rub elbows with country stars the way we Middle Tennesseans did was part of the impetus for the creation of what was then called Fan Fair 50 years ago. It showcased the best of the attitude and atmosphere of country music.
Country fans famously value authenticity. They can sniff out a fake like Columbo sniffs out a shaky alibi.
And there’s no better way to gauge bona fides than looking someone in the eye and there’s no better way to demonstrate your genuine devotion to your fans than via a grueling, marathon autograph session.
In 1996, at the peak of his popularity, Garth Brooks announced at the last minute he’d attend Fan Fair and go through the traditional rite of autograph signing and photo-snapping.
Garth committed to staying and signing and gripping and grinning as long as he was able.
Like many teachers, my mom worked at Fan Fair to earn a little extra money in the summer.
And so she was there at the Fairgrounds that day, marshaling the snaking, endless line of people waiting to see Garth.
Garth sat at that autograph table for 23 hours and 10 minutes. Workers, like my mom, would eat in shifts, rotating out when the line would shrink and head to the back of the line to keep it orderly as it grew again.
This was Fan Fair at an interesting time. Still gritty enough to take place at a fairgrounds racetrack, but with stars big enough to draw a day-long line. The event reflected where country music was in the late ’90s. Neo-traditional artists were becoming the most bankable stars in the genre’s history. Bizarrely, shaking off the poppy countrypolitan sound of the ’70s and ’80s and making a neo-traditional turn seemed to broaden country’s appeal.
What was true at Fan Fair and in country music was true for its hometown, too. In the late ’90s, Nashville became a major-league city, quite literally. The NFL’s Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997 and settled at what is now Nissan Stadium in 1999. The NHL expanded to Music City with the Predators making their home at what’s now Bridgestone Arena in 1998.
Fan Fair moved from the Fairgrounds in 2001 and began utilizing the fancy-schmancy stadium and arena. In 2004, it rebranded to the more direct CMA Music Festival (it’s now simply CMA Fest).
In 2010, a month before that year’s CMA Fest, Nashville flooded. And after the flood, there was the deluge. Postdiluvian Nashville is a different animal. Branded as the “It City” by the New York Times in 2013, Nashville grew by nearly 15 percent in the decade after the flood. Cranes popped up like dandelions. Downtown is resplendent in glass and steel. Mainstay businesses are shuttering. Corporate headquarters and fresh money rush in.
Broadway, for decades a sketchy canyon of barely-licit businesses, is now a six-block stretch of booze- and bachelorette-fueled commerce, dotted with bars branded with country stars.
There’s nothing new under the sun: when the Country Music Hall of Fame was on Music Row, it was surrounded by single-artist museums and tchotchke shops, much as its successor is surrounded by chart-toppers’ honky tonks.
Long-time Middle Tennesseans complain the soul of the city has been sucked out by all the change – indeed that’s a central issue in Nashville’s current mayoral campaign – and that what remains is a charmless husk, indistinct from any other mid-size city. Heavily sponsored and corporatized, CMA Fest may lack the down-home feelings it once had, too.
There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with those changes. Cities grow and change as a result of their successes. So, too, do festivals. Lamenting the difference is a fool’s errand.
Authenticity – or at least verisimilitude – is still the coin of the realm in country music. It’s a genre built on convincing fans you shared their formative experience and in every era, country music figures out what sharing sounds like. These days it might sound neo-trad or it might sound hip-hop-adjacent, just as decades ago it sounded like old-time music or pop or honky-tonkin’.
So when the folks descend on Middle Tennessee for CMA Fest this year, it’s not the Middle Tennessee or the Fan Fair I knew, but it’s their experience and their city. And it’s the same as it ever was.