Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern welcomed Lauren Alaina, Bill Anderson, Terri Clark and Brian Kelley to discuss the enduring importance of CMA Fest. The four-day festival runs June 8-11 in downtown Nashville and celebrates its 50th year of connecting artists and fans. 

CMA Fest began as Fan Fair in 1972, initially as a way to give country music fans another option to see their favorite artists, after fans began sneaking into the annual disc jockey convention. Anderson, who has attended all but one of the festivals since its inception, discussed the origin story of the festival.  

“The disc jockey convention was kind of the forerunner to what is now CMA week in the fall,” Anderson recalled during the panel. “It started in the mid-1950s and the word got out about what a great part it was. So fans would come and pretend to be disc jockeys — the only way in was to tell somebody they represented a certain radio station. It got to the point where artists could not visit with the legitimate disc jockeys because we couldn’t get through the other people who were claiming to be disc jockeys.” 

Anderson met with George Hamilton IV and Bud Wendell (then manager of the Grand Ole Opry) and agent Hubert Long. “Bud spoke up at one point and said, ‘We should have a convention for the fans. In two years, Fan Fair was born.’” 

Kelley spoke of his first time attending the festival. 

“I remember Alan Jackson closed out the night. I remember seeing him pull up in a black SUV right beside the stage and it was my first time seeing him. Josh Turner played earlier that night and when he sang ‘Long Black Train,’ every person in the stadium was singing. We were no doubt having church in a stadium — maybe drinking beer at the same time, but that’s country music.”  

Several of the artists shared stories from earlier CMA Fests, including Alaina recalled meeting a young fan who had resonated with one of her more personal songs. 

“I was doing an [autograph] signing and a girl walked and said ‘My favorite song of yours is “Same Day, Different Bottle,” which is a song I wrote about my dad’s alcoholism. It’s a very serious song and this girl was about 11 or 12 years old. I remember thinking, ‘Dang, I’ve gotta keep writing songs because she was a little girl and I was that little girl. She still comes to my shows to this day.” 

Clark, who first performed at the festival in 1995, noted the sustained fandom in country music that results in generations of families coming to see artists each year at the festival. “We’re all, we’re all growing old together, whether you like it or not. that’s something that strikes me more and more as the years go by –people just keep showing up, spreading love and passing it down and country music lives on.” 

Anderson also told a story of his interaction with a young music fan and musician — one who ultimately became a superstar. 

“I had a fan up in Pennsylvania and he was one of the most devoted fans I had. He would com see the show, but he would get there early sometimes and help unload the bus and help take equipment down — just a very, very devoted fan. Fast forward a few years, and it’s a few weeks before Fan Fair and he calls me and says he and his family have moved to Nashville. He says he has a young teenage daughter that wants to sing and do music, but they couldn’t find anywhere that she could go and perform because she’s young — about 14. Every year at Fan Fair, I have about 300 of my fans come and we have a fan club dinner. I told him he could bring his daughter and let her get up and sing a few songs. They came and she had a 12-string guitar, almost as big as she was. She got up and sang and her songs. My fans were the older, a little more traditional [country] minded, and her songs were a little more pop-oriented, but my fans were very nice to her. Fast forward a few years and if you’d like to know what happened to that young girl, she just played three shows at Nissan Stadium — her name is Taylor Swift.” 

“I was a fan a long time before I was ever in the music business,” Anderson said. “I remember Hank Snow came to my hometown one time and I stood in line to get an autograph. It gives you a different perspective when somebody is standing in line and they are asking for  your autograph, because I remember how it felt when I finally got Hank Snow’s autograph.” 

“Every fan matters,” Trahern said. 

“That’s why we do country music,” added Alaina, “because we are fans, too.”

Lyndsey Havens
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