Three! Two! One! As the security guard’s countdown ends, crazed fans stampede like cattle through the doors to the Greased Lightning Exhibit Hall at the Nashville Convention Center. Searching frantically for their favorite country stars, they run wildly around the booths hoping to grab tickets for autograph sessions with some of the 433 artists and celebrities in attendance.
“It’s crazy!” Kristin Meyers of Raleigh, N.C. said. She was one of more than 53,000 music fans who traveled to Nashville, Tenn. for the 38th annual Country Music Association Music Fest on June 11-14.
Meyers most wanted an autograph with the legendary Reba McEntire who signed up for her first meet and greet at the festival in 13 years. Reba is a veteran country music hit-maker with songs like “Whoever’s in New England,” “Fancy,” “How Was I To Know,” “Rumor Has It”, and her current top 40 smash, “Strange.” Her enormous achievements include Grammy awards, CMA wins for Female Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year and more than 50 million albums sold worldwide. She’s won critical acclaim as the lead in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway, in feature films and television movies like Tremors, The Man From Left Field, The Gambler Returns, and The Little Rascals, and for several seasons with her popular Warner Brothers sitcom, Reba.
“Yesterday when we got in line for Reba, there were people in line that had been there since 9:30 the night before,” Meyers said. Unfortunately, she wasn’t early enough to get a ticket to Reba’s two-hour event the traditional way. Still, she persuaded another fan to sell her a ticket for her first time meeting with the country music giant.
“She’s just so down-to-earth, and when I think of country music, that’s just what she is,” Meyers said. “I grew up listening to her. I grew up dancing to her.”
Prior to Reba’s grand entrance at the signing, hundreds of people surrounded her booth waiting for a glimpse of the star. People held cameras, cell phones and video cameras at arms’ length above their heads hoping to get a picture of her.
While some artists offered up pre-signed autographed CDs and memorabilia for sale, a smorgasbord of singers like Carrie Underwood, Wynonna, Montgomery Gentry, LeAnn Rimes, Gretchen Wilson, Julianne Hough, Lady Antebellum, to name a few, chose to be there in person. Teen sensation Taylor Swift stayed for five hours on the last day of the four-day festival signing about 500 autographs, taking pictures and giving out hugs. Some admirers planted kisses and hugged the necks of artists like Blake Shelton and Aaron Tippin while they were signing.
People bought a four-day ticket package in advance to see about 30 acts perform nightly. A ticket also entitled you to line up at the nearby convention center and get all the autographs possible. Top name artists are in high demand, so autograph aficionados should lace up their running shoes and bring a sleeping bag. Some people camp out the evening before. Maps of the booths are provided, but it’s not necessarily known or published in advance what hours and days the performers will sign. Check out the CMA’s Web site for more specifics on scheduling and ticket prices for next year’s festival. (www.CMAfest.com)
“You never know who’s going to show up,” Andrew Gardea of Pennsylvania said, while waiting outside the door on day two. “Get in line, then run as fast as you can, but make sure not to trample anyone.”
In 1996, when the festival was outside in the sweltering heat and humidity, Garth Brooks made a surprise appearance. Swarmed by fans, Garth began signing everything shoved in front of him without taking a break for a record-setting 23 hour marathon autograph session.
Not everyone can meet a Garth or Reba at the event. If you don’t have a ticket voucher for the signing, then you can wait on stand-by in the hopes that there will be openings for additional artist signings. This event also gives autograph collectors a prime opportunity to rub elbows with other performers whose fame has waned or who may be the next big sensation.
“It’s nice to be in the room with the bigger stars,” said Brad Brinkley of the new brother-sister duo, Mustang Creek. “The fans, they make no bones. [If they see a bigger star] they’ll just leave your line to go.”
“Then, there are a lot of fans that come and they want to meet new artists,” adds Shelly Brinkley. “Maybe they’ve been here several times in a row and of course, they’re here to see the artist that they’ve followed for years, but they also take an interest in meeting new artists.”
The Exhibit Hall isn’t the only place for fans to get up close and personal with their favorites. The partying continues at many of the performers’ private fan club shindigs, which are held each year at various locales throughout Music City during the festival for those who have club memberships (available on artists’ individual Web sites). I crashed three of the parties, dividing my time between contemporary stars Trace Adkins, Joe Nichols and legendary veteran Charlie Daniels.
Daniels, who will be inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame this fall, is known for classic hits like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “In America,” and “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” to name a few. He celebrated his 20th fan club party or, more accurately, the “Family Reunion,” with a couple hundred of his diehard followers.
Family is probably the best way to describe his relationship with his fans. Kicking off the fun with a personal performance, he called for requests from the crowd. Someone would throw up a hand, and he’d call on them by name. Often, he bantered back and forth with the crowd. It was obvious that Charlie has taken the time to get well acquainted with his fans over the years.
“They’re just great people,” Daniels told Autograph. “They’re just great fans. They’ve been with us for a long, long time, and we appreciate them so much.”
After delighting the audience with his music, Charlie set up in a room in the community center at the Mt. Juliet Park named after him, for picture taking and autographs. He willingly signed anything and everything that fans placed before him on the table.
The following morning I went to the Belcourt Theater, a renovated movie house where Trace Adkins set up shop for some quality time with his fans. Over the course of 10 career CDs since 1996, this six-foot-six-inch towering baritone has churned out an impressive collection of hits like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” “You’re Gonna Miss This,” and “I’m Tryin’.” Outside country circles, Trace is perhaps best known for his reality show appearances on The Celebrity Apprentice with Donald Trump.
Trace began the morning by introducing his family on stage and giving fans a chance to take pictures of them. Then, with a bottle for his chaw juice handy at his side, Trace took a seat for a somewhat lengthy Q&A. From the size of his bus to how he met his wife, he read and answered fans’ questions.
“What’s your favorite cartoon character?” “Foghorn Leghorn,” he replied. The room was filled with laughter as he talked about his personal life and the business side. “I’m not worried a lot about industry recognition because I don’t know if anybody in the industry has ever bought one of my records or paid for a ticket to one of my shows,” Trace told the crowd. “So, I worry much more about what you guys think.”
Around noon the same day, I dropped by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville. Stars of yesterday and today dropped by the prestigious venue to sign autographs and deliver free musical performances near the lobby. It was in the museum’s Ford Theater that Joe Nichols hosted his annual fan club bash.
Nichols, a traditionalist with a beautiful baritone voice and four Grammy nominations just announced that he is in preparation for a role on Broadway in a remake of Pure Country. Hits like “Brokenheartsville,” “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” and “If Nobody Believed in You” have endeared him to listeners, including the late Anna Nicole Smith who met the young heartthrob one night at the Grand Ole Opry. After her death, Joe was asked to perform a couple of songs at the funeral service.
At his fan club party, Joe sat casually on a stool in front of his band. He would sing a song or two, then ask anyone if they had any questions or requests. One fan asked for a song that stumped the band. “Let me explain how this works,” Joe told the crowd with a smile on his face. Normally, he knows what to expect and is ready to belt out the song full force. But when the fan threw him the musical curve ball, he had to beg off. Still, he didn’t disappoint, singing tunes from his earlier days as well as introducing the audience to music from his upcoming CD.
“I think the overall relationship with the fan club is actually more personal than a lot of my family relationships,” Nichols said in a backstage interview. “They show their appreciation for what I do and in turn, I show my appreciation for them giving me something to sing about. I think they’re great people. They come to shows in all conditions, and they’re excited about coming to see me play and that excites me.”
In fact, fan Connie Schmaltz, of Traveler’s Rest, S.C., has been to 100 of Joe’s concerts since 2002, and for that commitment, Joe gave her one of his favorite t-shirts. An admitted packrat, Joe reluctantly presented the prize after his wife encouraged him to lighten his wardrobe.
Schmaltz first saw Joe during a show one night at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. “He just stood and sang with that beautiful voice, and it was mesmerizing,” Schmaltz recalled. “He just captured my heart. He’s a lot like one of my sons, same personality, very humble. From then on, I just got captured. It’s been a life changing experience, which sounds corny I know, but it’s really made a difference in my life.”
Make your travel plans now! Scheduled for June 10-13, tickets are already on sale for the 2010 CMA Music Festival.