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Nashville Sound: Country Fan Fair

Updated:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — This is the last year Nashville singing stars and their fans will suffer the indignity of autograph sessions in a building marked ``Livestock.''

The International Country Music Fan Fair is poised for dramatic change as country music's biggest annual party kicks off next week.

Fan Fair, now in its 29th year, will run June 12-15 at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, where it has been held for the past 17 years.

But fans can say goodbye to the fairgrounds. Next year, the event will move to a new location.

Although attendance has been hurt by the closing of the popular Opryland theme park, a downswing in country music sales and depressed overall tourism in Nashville, some 20,000 fans are expected to attend.

More than 200 artists will perform and sign autographs. This year's bill includes LeAnn Rimes, Montgomery Gentry, Alan Jackson, Ronnie Milsap, Loretta Lynn and Sara Evans.

Satellite events around the festival abound. There is a celebrity charity softball game, private fan club parties and the fan-voted TNN Music Awards show on June 15.

Fan Fair was born in 1972, after fans started turning up uninvited at a music industry convention. Country music officials figured a festival for fans would prove popular. They were right. Five thousand turned up for the first year; the number doubled the following year. In 1982, the event moved to the fairgrounds, which has a capacity of 24,000.

``Everyone used to make fun of me because I wouldn't let people say, `The lunch feed is going on in the cattle barns,''' said Ed Benson, director of the Country Music Association, the trade group that organizes Fan Fair. ``I would yell, `No, it's not the cattle barn, it's the Luncheon Pavilion!'''

Many involved have grown unhappy with the fairgrounds over the years.

``Quite honestly, the city has allowed that facility to fall into dilapidation,'' Benson said.

The city is pushing for Adelphia Coliseum, home of the Tennessee Titans NFL team, as the performance venue, with the downtown Municipal Auditorium (home of the first 10 Fan Fairs) as the site for autograph booths.

A downtown alternative would be the smaller, indoor Gaylord Entertainment Center for performances and the Nashville Convention Center across the street for autograph booths.

CMA officials are also considering the Nashville Superspeedway, now under construction, which is about 45 minutes outside of Nashville.

Entertainment executive E.W. Bud Wendell, a CMA board member, said Fan Fair has a bright future, despite a downturn in attendance the past two years.

``I think by 2010, it could be 50,000 to 60,000 people. There are opportunities to attract more worldwide attention. ... We're looking at moving the site to allow it to breathe, allow it to grow more.

``Obviously, it's one of the most unique events in the entertainment business,'' he said.

The CMA is planning a stronger marketing effort, and possibly the sale of single-day passes. The traditional $90 weekly ticket includes more than 30 hours of live stage shows; admission to the exhibit halls where artists sign autographs; admission to the Country Music Hall of Fame; the historic Ryman Auditorium and discounts to other tourist attractions.

``It's been going on 29 years pretty much the same formula,'' Benson said. ``The overriding philosophy is to maintain the unique characteristics and traditions, and yet enhance the experience for all the people involved.''

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On the Net:

The Web site for International Country Music Fan Fair is: http://www.fanfair.com/
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