From a funny idea to a multi-day festival: The evolution from Fan Fair to CMA Fest

Regardless of size, name or location, the Country Music Association says the heart of the event has remained the same.
Regardless of size, name or location, the Country Music Association says the heart of the event has remained the same.
Published: Jun. 7, 2023 at 11:04 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 7, 2023 at 8:16 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - The CMA Fest of 2023 includes multiple stages, dozens of performances, and thousands of fans. Fans are all hoping for a really good time, and you could say the very first Fan Fest sort of started the same way.

“The word had gotten out that this was a good time. So, all the fans came to Nashville,” country music legend Bill Anderson said.

Except, the party wasn’t for the fans; it was a convention for DJs to help get airtime for artists. Fans came hoping to see their favorite acts perform.

“And [country music executive] Bud Wendell, I’ll never forget, he looked up and said, ‘I think what we need is a convention for the fans,’ and we all laughed. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard of -- a convention for the fans,” Anderson said.

But it wasn’t funny to the fans. Five thousand showed up for the first Fan Fair in 1972 at the Municipal Auditorium.

WSMV4′s Lauren Lowrey sat down with Jeannie Seely, who, like Anderson, performed at the first Fan Fair. Lowrey asked Seely what it was like.

“Total mass confusion, and it hasn’t changed an awful lot,” Seely said.

For two years, fans came out to the Municipal Auditorium in April to listen to and meet their favorite artists.

“We were a very close-knit community. I mean, I could look out from my fan club booth and maybe see a line of you know, 30 to 40 people standing out there to get autographs. I could call 20 of them by name. I knew them. I’d been to their hometowns,” Anderson said.

It was a similar community off-stage as well.

“What were your favorite memories?” Lowrey asked.

“Everybody gathering for guitar pull in the room and playing what they had written. So, besides the onstage performances with the audience and the fans, all the backstage stuff was so fun,” Seely said.

But it was when the festival moved to June that attendance soared. It outgrew the Municipal Auditorium, moving the autograph area to the fairground in 1982 and hosting outdoor concerts.

However, it’s the 2000s that give country music fans the festival we recognize today. The event moved to downtown Nashville in 2001 and moved to a long weekend. In 2004, it changed its name to CMA Fest.

“Did you ever think it was going to be as big as it’s become?” Lowrey asked.

“No. But it doesn’t surprise me because our industry has grown so much, and I’m very happy because I’ve gone to several areas where country music was looked down on and considered not important,” Seely said.

“We didn’t envision Nissan Stadium. We didn’t envision the whole lower Broadway set, the whole thing. I mean, it was just way beyond anything that we could even fantasize about. So, to say we could sit back there and say yeah, someday it’s gonna be this great big thing. No, anybody that tells you that is lying to you,” Anderson added.

Regardless of size, name or location, the Country Music Association says the heart of the event has remained the same.

“To me, if I were to describe in one word that magic at best, it would be the word ‘connection,’” said Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association. “I think it’s certainly the fans connect it with the artists, the artists connecting with the fans. And it’s a personal relationship that goes beyond the music.”

Are you attending CMA Fest 2023? Be sure to click here and share pictures and videos of your country music-filled experiences!