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VOL. 38 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 30, 2014

Big changes for CMA Fest, city since Fan Fair days

By Tim Ghianni

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Media representing “big cities” have made much, uh, hay, about Nashville no longer being a rube-topolis, where hicks made what hardly would qualify as “music.”

“Nashville’s no longer just a town of hay bales and cornfields,” or words to that effect, have sprung from the laptops of the Fourth Estate from Gotham and elsewhere in “civilization” who have visited and found out “Hee Haw” – while beloved – really wasn’t an accurate reflection of Music City.

For example, “what’s for supper, Grandpa?” could nowadays be answered “sushi” or some other sort of metrosexual fare. With cornbread and white beans on the side.

Truth is, the hay bales and cornfields for the most part were abandoned a few decades ago, about the time the last rube decided to turn his down-and-out East Nashville shotgun shack into a $300,000 urban palace.

That shift also has had a big effect on the CMA Music Festival. Perhaps there were a few hay bales, at least in the State Fair Ag buildings, when the festival then called Fan Fair was held at the Fairgrounds.

But even then, in its last few years, Fan Fair had become something different, as Garth Brooks – the 1980s superstar who loves to address himself in third person – applied Pink Floyd staging sensibilities to take country to places it had never been before. The fact he could sit in his booth for 24 hours and sign autographs was evidence that the fans liked the new direction for country music.

One guy who has participated in it all and enjoyed watching the metamorphosis is Jeff Walker, AristoMedia president and CEO.

“It sort of went downtown and went uptown,” says CMA board member Walker, talking about the move in spirit and newfound purpose that came with the move to the heart of the city in 2001.

Walker’s in charge of CMA World GlobaLive!, a showcase featuring international country performers, on the Monday before all the fireworks at LP Field.

The boss of a multi-faceted music marketing company says artists from around the world find it a “bucket list” item scratched off when they perform in “what they all think of as the Mecca of country music.”

“The last 10 years, it was at The Stage on Broadway,” he says. This year “we’re blowing it out with a big screen outside (at First and Broadway), giving these foreign artists a chance to be a part of the activities.”

The way he sees it, these foreign artists not only are important as performers, they spread the word about Music City in their home lands, resulting with folks punching the first week in June and Nashville into Travelocity or Expedia search boxes.

“One of the mandates of the CMA is to make the festival a worldwide experience.”

While he refers to it as “one of the top five best festivals in the U.S.,” he also calls it the top value for tourist dollar spent. “We all know the city is exploding,” he says.

That explosion, which helped fuel a television soap opera that allows for pretty pictures of the city in between steamy bedroom scenes and back-stabbing, clearly has been nurtured by civic, commercial and musical leaders.

The annual climax of all the nurturing is CMA Music Festival and the city’s merchants, hotels, restaurants – everyone, really – benefits.

“Look at the merchants on Lower Broadway,” Walker says, of the clubs and tourist joints that benefit by the foot traffic between ticketed CMA events and fan club parties.

“It’s probably their biggest week of the year,” he says.

Stephen Bowen, manager of Ernest Tubb Record Shops (Lower Broadway, Music Valley and Pigeon Forge) says there’s no “probably” involved when it comes to his iconic downtown store, whose business reflects what happens for Lower Broad merchants in general. “June is our peak month, our Christmas, and easily 50 percent of that is during that week,” he says.

“It’s definitely a destination,” he says of his store on Lower Broadway. “When our peak hits on Saturday and Sunday, we’ll have a line halfway if not all the way to the back of the store of people checking out.”

Walker says he expects the festival to continue fueling growth and commerce.

“As the number of hotels grows and the city grows more down there, I’m sure they’ll find a way to use other facilities down there.”

In addition to the actual CMA events, there are other musts for fans, including a newly doubled-in-size Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Johnny Cash Museum and more. That’s not mentioning the buskers on the street, the music blowing from the clubs and the interaction with generally friendly Nashville citizenry.

“People in this country are hungry for family-lifestyle events,” Walker says. Even though the honky-tonks get loud and there is some late-night rowdiness, it’s generally tame and rated at the worst PG.

And while the hay bales and cornfields are gone, there’s one old staple of Fan Fair, the autograph sessions, allowing fans and stars “to get one-on-one and get all touchy-feely,” as Walker puts it.

He predicts the festival to continue growing to the point where, in the not so distant future, it will be a full week instead of the official four days on which the LP Fields concerts are staged.

“We’re already seeing the creeping,” he says, noting the Global stage’s increasing prominence on Mondays actually has stretched the fest, unofficially at least, to six days.

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