How a 50-Year-Old Festival Has Connected Artists and Fans

As CMA Fest gears up to welcome visitors from around the world to downtown Nashville June 8-11, the enduring festival will celebrate 50 years of bringing together country music fans with their favorite artists.

“From a fan’s perspective, there’s nothing else like it in the world,” says Luke Combs, who will perform at Nissan Stadium on the festival’s opening night. “You can go see every act in the genre, from the smallest act to the biggest act, and all you have to do is walk a few blocks. It’s so unique.”

When the inaugural festival was held on April 12, 1972, at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium, it was billed as Fan Fair, drawing nearly 5,000 attendees and featuring performers including Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb and Jeannie Seely.

“[Fellow country artist] Dottie West and I were very close,” Seely recalls. “Sometimes, just to mess with some of the DJs that were visiting, we would cut station promos as each other. I got pretty good at saying, ‘Hi, I’m Dottie West with RCA. Welcome to Fan Fair.’ ”

Since then, the festival — which was renamed CMA Music Festival in 2004 then CMA Fest in 2018 — has evolved into a four-day event that in 2022 featured more than 150 artists and drew an estimated 80,000 fans daily from every U.S. state and nearly 40 countries. Each night features some of the genre’s biggest artists performing at the 70,000-capacity Nissan Stadium. Artists play CMA Fest for free, with a portion of the proceeds going to the CMA Foundation to aid music education initiatives.

“I appreciate so much what the artists give up to be here,” says Sarah Trahern, Country Music Association CEO since 2014. Every year, Trahern writes thank-you notes to each act who plays the stadium and includes notes from children who have benefited from music education. “The artists that play the weekend shows could be playing different places for a lot of money, but they recognize the history, the fan connection and community aspect of the festival,” says Trahern.

Across five decades of uniting artists and fans, CMA Fest has spurred numerous unforgettable moments — several of them involving autograph lines. In 1988, a power outage forced artists including George Strait and Reba McEntire to sign autographs in the dark. In 1996, Garth Brooks appeared at Fan Fair unannounced and signed autographs for 23 hours straight, never taking a bathroom or food break. In 2010, a young Taylor Swift signed autographs for 13 hours. The festival’s recently created Fan Fair X area inside the Music City Center convention center draws on a long-standing tradition of artists and record labels creating often elaborate autograph-signing booths.

Trisha Yearwood, who made her Fan Fair debut in 1991, recalls how in 1996 her then-manager, Ken Kragen, had the idea of creating a recording booth for fans to sing Yearwood’s No. 1 hit, “XXXs and OOOs.” (She broke through five years earlier with “She’s in Love With the Boy.”) “They’d take home a cassette of them singing with Trisha. It worked so well, except for one thing: I couldn’t get anybody to actually sing unless I sang at the top of my lungs with them,” Yearwood remembers. “That was fun, but after about eight hours straight of that every day, I had no voice. I think it was one of the most creative booths at Fan Fair ever.”

Several artists, including Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, first attended CMA Fest as fans or even interns.

“I had my headset, my walkie talkie and was driving people around in golf carts to and from their buses to the corrals where artists would sign autographs,” recalls Bentley, who worked as an intern at Fan Fair in 1995. “The first artist I drove was Jo Dee Messina. I remember her being nervous, like, ‘No one’s going to know who I am.’ We pulled up outside the corrals and there’s all these fans shouting her name. I remember going, ‘I think you’re going to be OK.’ I drove Sammy Kershaw around. He was chain-smoking cigarettes the whole time. I still am the biggest Sammy fan of all time. I played my first CMA Fest 10 years later.”

CMA Fest has been held in multiple locations throughout Nashville over the decades. The event moved from Municipal Auditorium in downtown Nashville to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in 1982. In 2001, the festival returned to downtown Nashville with a larger presence, including programming at Music City Center and Adelphia Coliseum (now called Nissan Stadium), while also shifting from weekdays to a four-day weekend.

In 2004, the audience at the newly rechristened festival expanded exponentially when CBS aired the two-hour TV special CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night To Rock; since 2005, the event has aired on ABC.

“I think televising the festival was groundbreaking,” says executive producer Robert Deaton, who helms the TV specials for CMA Fest and the CMA Awards, as well as CMA Country Christmas. “Unless you went to see a concert, you never got to see these artists perform in their element — you would see them do a song or two on the CMA Awards or on late-night shows. Soon, fans started going, ‘This is the party we want to be at,’ and attendance kept increasing.”

Still, the jump from fairgrounds to stadium “felt like a risk,” Deaton says, and notes that it took time for CMA Fest to grow into its new home. At first, says Trahern, “we sold the floor and a lot of seats on the first balcony, but the second and third balcony were empty. [So] we wanted to grow this into something bigger. We needed better sound, better sight lines, and the only way to do that was to move from the fairgrounds to the stadium.”

The festival has a strong history of guest performers, including Paul McCartney in 1974, Bryan Adams in 1993, The Beach Boys in 1996 and a surprise performance by Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus and Keith Urban of “Old Town Road” in 2019. Deaton says that viewers of this year’s special can expect more collaborations than ever, pairing country artists from different eras, along with some surprise, non-country guests.

Even as this year’s CMA Fest, its corresponding telecast and a forthcoming documentary centered around the festival pay homage to the event’s past and present, Deaton is already looking to future TV specials, where one artist remains on his bucket list: Strait.

“I’d love to get the king, George Strait,” Deaton says. “He can play anything he wants, bring whomever he wants onstage with him. It would be so amazing to have him on the show.”

Expansion isn’t the only way CMA Fest has evolved. Over the past several years, the event has increasingly showcased the breadth of country music, spotlighting artists of color and in the LGBTQ+ community. Last year, the Black Opry was part of CMA Fest, while this year’s festival features Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country, with Willie Jones, Charly Lowry, Dzaki Sukarno and Julie Williams. Last year, 84 women performed across the festival’s four days; this year’s will feature 106 women artists. CMA Fest attendees can expect performances from both newcomers and fan favorites at the event’s 10 stages, including several outdoor stages that are free and open to the public.

“Supporting underrepresented communities is a key part of our mission,” Trahern says. “We supported the Country Proud show last year and we’ve moved that onto our own footprint at the Hard Rock stage this year. We are excited to continue to have diversity on all of our stages.”

Music journalist and country music historian Robert K. Oermann feels that CMA Fest fulfills a vital role in terms of exposing artists fans may not see — or hear — elsewhere. “Let’s face it, terrestrial radio is never going to change,” he says bluntly. “They are not interested in Black people or women or anything different. So the best thing is for everyone to go around them, and CMA Fest provides that opportunity. I often see artists there that I love who are not on the radio.”

“It really is about music discovery,” Trahern says. “It’s as important to us to have artists in the baby-act stage as it is when they are in the stadium. Megan Moroney is a great example. Last year she played the spotlight stage as an emerging artist, and now she’s playing the Chevy Riverfront stage and our Nissan Stadium platform stage.”

Even as CMA Fest has grown, the uniqueness of the festival’s unparalleled fan focus remains paramount.

“The fans — and it’s everyone from 6 years old to 96 years old — they want to see a show, get an autograph, have personal contact with their favorite artists,” Oermann says. “That connection is beautiful, and there is no ‘We’re cooler than you are’ attitude from the artists. I don’t think you could have a festival like this in other genres of music.”

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Stevie Flavio
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