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VOL. 39 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 5, 2015

Downtown business owners love CMA Fest

By Tim Ghianni | Correspondent

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Brenda Sanderson, whose family owns Lower Broadway businesses, says the move downtown has attracted a more diverse fanbase for the CMA Fest

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

It’s the business she’s chosen, and being a multi-bar owner gives Brenda Sanderson a unique perspective on what used to be called Fan Fair, a blue-collar celebration that has gradually been transformed into Nashville’s main culture festival and all-inclusive calling card.

“My husband (Ruble) and I have been owners of Broadway Entertainment for more than 20 years,” she says. “We’ve been running clubs down here since the mid-90s.”

Not just “clubs,” but some of the neon-swathed saloons and performance venues that have helped transform Lower Broadway from a land for lovable losers and no-account boozers into a Country & Western Disney World.

It’s a family business. She and her husband own Second Fiddle and Legends Corner, while they partner with son, Brad, at The Stage. The son is sole owner of Crossroads, which completes the family’s business holdings.

“Being around for over 20 years, we’ve seen all the changes that have happened with the CMA Music Fest. I think it’s for the good,” she says of the move from the fairgrounds to downtown that has resulted in commercial success for barkeeps and at the same time has provided inspiration to the quixotic pickers who play for tips while dreaming of becoming Luke Bryan.

“Had CMA Music Fest not changed from what it was 20 years ago, it wouldn’t be as popular as it is,” she says.

The slight change in latitude created a change in attitude as well, with a sometimes younger, more-diverse group strolling into one of the family pubs for a cold beer or soda pop.

Chris Shrader can be found on stage at Legends Corner many weekend nights.

-- Facebook

“For five or six years now, we have seen a very big demographic change,” she notes. “There’s a very young crowd coming into town now, probably because of the new young artists, like Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift.

“The crowds are very different from the ones 20 years ago. It was old, more-established people. They weren’t looking for the same kind of atmosphere the young ones are now. They were very serious about their music. The artists of that time really endeared themselves to fans,” Sanderson explains.

“Back then you had people like Garth who stayed there for hours and hours signing autographs for those who stood in line. I’m not sure the artists could do that now. It’s not practical. And I don’t know if the fans expect it now.

“Artists are different now. They reach out to people in so many more ways now,” Sanderson says. “Social media is so big now that that’s how they touch their fans, where in the older days they had to physically get one-on-one and talk to their fans, shake hands, say ‘thank you for buying my record.’ ‘’

The new way isn’t bad, she says. It’s just different. “They don’t have a physical relationship with their fans.”

While physical contact may be minimal, the Fest “offers so much more for people. There is so much corporate involvement,” she says. “You have big companies coming in and setting up displays. They can get their product in front of the people. They help drive the economic side of things.”

And, she says, that corporate involvement spells good news for the continued growth of the festival.

“There’s something for everyone at CMA,” she adds, noting that it is not just the four days of the actual concert that bulges tourism. While the festival is Thursday through Sunday, there’s plenty of music to be heard all weeklong, with fan club gatherings and lesser showcases. Wednesday’s CMT Awards at the arena “has a huge impact on downtown.”

In fact, she can think of few times that the honky-tonk district receives such notoriety, other than perhaps when the men’s SEC basketball tournament or a concert like Sir Paul’s marathon of music brings a lot of folks downtown.

And “the CMA Awards (in the autumn) brings a lot of people down here,” she says, also noting there is nothing like CMA Music Fest to keep her taps flowing.

“We’re right in the middle of it. I don’t get to see as much it as I’d like to, just because we’re working. But I do walk around and try to get the feeling, the vibe.

“It certainly has a positive effect, no doubt about that. Our business can double that week. It’s a very good week.

“We’re in the business of selling alcohol, and they’re buying beer and cocktails and T-shirts.

“People, when they come into a honky-tonk, they want to have a good time.”

A key ingredient of CMA Fest week is the star power of the music that flows from all 11 official stages. But the real dreamers are picking inside those honky-tonks.

“One of the best things about CMA Fest is we have these musicians that play for us, young musicians who come into Nashville from all over the world. They play all year for us,” Sanderson says.

“We try to make sure the musicians who play for us on an ongoing basis keep their gigs for that week. They get the opportunity to sell their CDs and sell their music.”

The musicians dream big, as do their band members. Many eventually graduate from the honky-tonks.

Some, like Dierks Bentley, become stars. Others, the sidemen, perhaps end up as accompanists with touring outfits. “There’ve been a lot that have come out of Lower Broadway that have been successful,” she explains.

During CMA Fest, the most reliable, the best of the bunch are on display from late morning until early the next, with some music beginning at 10 and all the honky-tonks firing mixtures of Buffett-textured, Eagles-favored and Waylon-inspired country into the still Broadway air by 11.

“It’s important we don’t forget these musicians,” says Sanderson. “They are the best in their towns, wherever they come from.

“They get to Nashville and the pool of talent is so daunting. Either they become part of it and learn just like everyone else or they tuck their tails and go home.”

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