18 years ago yesterday, I set foot in Nashville for the first time as a fan attending Fan Fair. (I know this thanks to that memories thing Facebook started doing.) It will ALWAYS be Fan Fair to me, and I wear the fact that I attended it at the Fairgrounds as a badge of honor. A proof I’m a long-time country music fan.
In the years since I attended Fan Fair, much has changed. Mostly, I married a musician that afforded me a long hard look at the music industry… a look that has left me feeling very cynical. I also not only now live in Nashville, but I worked the last six CMA Fests (as they now call Fan Fair) in a bar downtown. These two things made me not necessarily hate CMA Fest but instead see it more as a headache and thorn in my side. I saw closed streets, tourists tying up the roadways, and long hours leaving me tired. I saw fans who expected me to immediately remember them from five years prior, and I saw nowhere to park my truck.
Looking towards this year, I was a bit discombobulated. With the bar gone, I wouldn’t be working this year. My husband wasn’t playing the fair anywhere. However, my best friend since we were little girls happened to fill our a survey and win tickets to CMA Fest 2015. What? That actually happens!?
So, she flew up to Nashville from Houston and took me to CMA Fest with her. Leading up to the days of her arrival, I felt that cynical side chirping in my ear. Where was I going to park? Oh, that’s just one huge sea of humanity that I try to avoid. I bet I only catch acts I don’t care about. Ugh. But, her excitement was contagious, by the time she arrived my grumpiness was gone and replaced with excitement.
Now, I’m going to spare all of you an in-depth recap of the three days we spent downtown doing the CMA Fest thing. What I want to talk about is how my perceptions changed a lot while I was down there.
If you live in Nashville — ESPECIALLY if you work downtown — you need to attend CMA Fest. Even if only for a day. GO. Because suddenly the layout makes sense.
I still believe Fan Fair at the fairgrounds was the best. There was just something crazy special about that. And maybe part of that is nostalgia and a love for the way it was once done. But attending as a music fan, so much suddenly made sense.
Let me explain:
Most of the events are FREE. There are so many stages going with music FOR FREE, it’s possible to get the experience even without LP Field concert tickets. Because, frankly, LP Field is just a tiny segment of the whole. And get this! You can buy passes that are really reasonable to get into the Music City Center to see even more stages and do the whole autograph booth thing. Which, frankly, makes the entire experience possible even on a budget.
It’s actually as local friendly as it can be (short of moving it out of downtown). Police are directing traffic much of the time, and they do (in my opinion) a great job making sure cars navigate all the closed streets as easily as possible. I truly wanted to hug each one I saw and give them a cold drink for being out in that hot sun for hours on end. (Now if only they’d work with musicians loading and unloading gear on Broadway that well… but that’s a whole ‘nother post for a whole ‘nother time.)
Being downtown actually (gulp) made sense.
You have more than your fair share of music options. They can have SO much music in a short amount of time downtown, and you can see who YOU want to see. We bopped from stage to stage to stage seeing the acts we wanted to see.
Thanks to so many stages it rarely got stupid crowded. Oh a few times it did, sure, but on a whole having something like five stages going on at once split up the almost 100,000 people downtown nicely.
If there’s no one playing you’re interested in… go to one of the bars and see local talent! You can cool off, hear some great music, and you’re helping the Nashville economy AND you’re helping a musician pay their rent. Win/win/win/win. (Seriously, musicians and bartenders… quitcherbitchin and enjoy the extra income for a few days. It only lasts a week. Take a long nap later.)
LP Field is RIGHT THERE, and while I don’t personally think you have to pop for tickets to the big concerts at night to feel like you got the CMA Fest experience, I also think those concerts at night are the closest thing to the former Fan Fair experience at the fairgrounds you’re going to find today. 20-30-minute sets of your favorite acts. A photo line to walk through and get closer pictures (though that handled differently and I do understand why.) It’s worth checking out for at least one night.
Frankly, the massive and air conditioned Music City Center is a way better location for all the signing booths than the old barns were at the fairgrounds.
So in the midst of it all, I walked a fine line at times. I delved head-first into the CMA Fest experience. Oh I drew the line at a fanny pack (LOL) but I rocked the patriotic wear, shorts with cowboy boots (I admit it, but there aren’t any pictures of it, so I’m going to plead the “Pics or it didn’t happen” thing), danced like no one was watching at my seat in LP Field, and I took over 700 photos (though only 300 made the cut of my photo album on Facebook).
But I also AM local and married to a musician. So it was pretty impossible not t run right into people I know on the street, and I had to make sure and hug friends after they got off stage. I couldn’t ever fully turn off the knowledge that it never hurts to network in this town, so I was ready to shake hands and kiss babies if necessary.
I also couldn’t stop analyzing things. I couldn’t stop sitting back and watching the crowd. And with that being said, I’m going to be very blunt on something:
As an artist, short of being the level of Blake Shelton, Reba, Tim McGraw, you really should suck it up and be part of CMA Fest on some level. Sign autographs. Perform on one of the stages. Agree to be a host of a stage. Have a fan club party. Do a show at a club downtown. SOMETHING. You have almost 100,000 country music fans you can reach in your own backyard. Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s a total pain in the butt to get downtown. But this festival could open doors for you. Even if it just is in the form of, “Oh! They’re still touring!? I’d love to see them!” And next thing you know they’re looking up your tour schedule. I understand wanting to avoid the headache, but now attending as a fan? I understand way more why this festival is so very important to country music.
So there it is, folks. CMA Fest 2015 is in the books, and I am so infinitely thankful I got to attend. It might be 18 years before I get to attend as a fan again, and that’s okay. I’m glad I got to attend this year. I’m glad I got this new perspective. I’m glad I got this shot in the arm of loving this town and this industry again.