"Barbara Mandrell is now signing autographs at booth 564!" droned the loudspeaker, and a herd of hopefuls stampeded in that direction. Fifteen minutes later the loudspeaker blared, "The Oak Ridge Boys are signing autographs at Booth 164!"—and the tide surged again, stopping only to grab a Goo Goo candy bar (a sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry) or a hot dog at one of the fair's 350 booths.
Some fans stopped to buy homemade jam or relish from Miss Dixie, wife of country star Tom T. Hall, or to take turns getting their pictures snapped in one of Porter Wagoner's rhinestoned stage jackets. Merle Haggard didn't show up in person, but Hagophiles could get a picture of Merle and his mom, Flossie, or a Haggard pillow. It was, female fans joked, the next best thing to being there.
"These are the people who made me," said Loretta Lynn, 48, gesturing toward hundreds of noisy admirers lined up outside her booth, number 627. She has missed only one fair in 12 years, and that, she said, was because of pneumonia. This year her doctor wanted to hospitalize her for a sinus infection, Lynn said, "but I told him I couldn't do any such thing because it was Fan Fair week." Loretta's fan club is 20 years old and 4,000 strong, and last year they returned her dedication in the form of a diamond necklace given to her for her birthday.
Benefits to the fan are rather less tangible. Still, as co-president of Loretta's fan club, Loudilla Johnson, 44, knows precisely what it is she gets out of her volunteer work. "We work on the fan club for fun," she says. "A fan gets to see new artists and new shows every year at Fan Fair, plus we get to see other fans from Kansas, Washington State, New Jersey and New York who we'd never see otherwise. It's like old home week with all of our friends."
Country singer Lee Greenwood, owner of the current hit T.O.U. and resident of Booth 137, thinks country fans are different. "It's not like rock, where the game is to play God and keep the fans at an arm's length," says Greenwood, who, like many singers, held a party for his 500-member fan club. Most singers also perform at concerts sponsored by their labels. "Country music fans want a chance to touch and have a personal relationship with their favorite artist," insists Greenwood, who says he learned a valuable lesson at last year's fair, his first. "I looked around and saw country music artists who hadn't had good record sales for years, yet they had big audience attendance at their shows. I don't know of any other event that is more important to an artist's career."
The newest performers, of course, run the risk of being ignored in favor of the established luminaries at the fair. The Whites, for example, are a family act just getting started with their first album after debuting with singles entitled You Put the Blue in Me and Hangin' Around. At last count they had exactly three official members in their fan club. "Last year we hadn't even had a single out but, luckily, we played the Elektra Records show right before going to our booth. That's the only way people knew who we were," says Cheryl White Warren. "This year there were people waiting to see us and we sat there signing for an hour and a half." The Whites spent $500 of their own for this, their first booth. "It was really more than we could afford," admitted Cheryl's sister Sharon White. "But we figured it was worth it."
More established acts tend to take an equally business-minded view of the proceedings. "I don't enjoy doing things like this, but it's the greatest promotion I've ever had," says grand ole country gentleman Chet Atkins. "I guess if you're big enough—like Willie, Waylon and Dolly—you don't have to go." This year, they didn't.
Loretta Lynn thinks every star should show. "Let me put it this way," she says, leaning forward to make her point. "There's a lot more to being a singer than walking out and singing, getting paid and walking home. If that's all an artist does, it's kind of like thumbing his nose at the people who made him. I know some artists feel they're too big to be a part of Fan Fair, but as far as I'm concerned, I ain't seen one that big yet."
When it comes to star worship, nobody does it better than country music fans, and nowhere does it better than Nashville. That unique symbiotic relationship binding country music folk and their followers was confirmed again this month at Opry Town's 12th annual Fan Fair. Country luminaries from Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty to such lesser-knowns as Ronnie McDowell and Earl Thomas Conley took up residence in state fairground booths to press flesh and hand out buttons and banter to 17,000 of the faithful.