NASHVILLE Friday night at the Grand Ole Opry, Vince Gill asked the audience if they liked the changes at this year's Fan Fair, which ended its four-day run Sunday.
"They said, 'No! We hate it,'" Gill recalled Saturday afternoon at Adelphia Coliseum. "I go, 'Well, I think it's pretty neat. It's all air-conditioned now and I really like it.'"
An informal poll by Jessica Andrews during her Saturday-morning performance at Bicentennial Mall State Park drew a similar response.
Depending on whom you talk to, this year's edition of the annual gathering of country artists and their fans was either a rousing success or a bit of a letdown (see "Fan Fair Opens To Mixed Reviews In New Nashville Venue"). The event moved to the Nashville Convention Center, Adelphia Coliseum, Riverfront Park and the Bicentennial Mall State Park, abandoning the more compact Tennessee State Fairgrounds, where it was held from 1982 to 2000.
"Considering the magnitude of the change, in an overall sense I'm extremely pleased," Country Music Association executive director Ed Benson said Sunday. "Operationally with the production, with the arrangements overall it's been outstanding. It's gone much better than you'd ever expect for the first year."
The CMA claimed a total event attendance of 124,000, without breaking down that figure to account for four-day passes, single-day passes and single-ticket sales to such stand-alone events as Riverfront Stages shows. Four sold-out days at the fairgrounds totaled 96,000.
Benson witnessed Fan Fair's last major venue change, from Municipal Auditorium to the fairgrounds, in 1982. "Some of the things I'm hearing from a few people I've talked to are almost verbatim what I heard then," he recalled. "'I don't like it, you've ruined it, I hate it, I'll never come back.' We sort of knew any kind of change would be greeted with a mixed response."
Gill believes it will take time for Fan Fair regulars to grow accustomed to the new setting. And he joins a near-unanimous chorus of artists praising the revamped event.
On the convention floor Saturday, fans grumbled about congestion, long lines, fewer booths and the absence of major stars such as Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks and George Strait.
"The booth count was down about 15 from last year," Benson said, to 121. As of early Sunday, about 126 artists had been through the exhibit hall.
The nightly concerts at Adelphia Coliseum, featuring first-tier artists from major labels, followed the fairgrounds format. Artists alternated between adjacent stages, with only brief pauses between sets. A mammoth sound system occasionally drove the music to ear-splitting levels.
To join the photo line parading by the front of the stage, fans had to line up in the stadium's east concourse where they could not see the show while they waited.
Fan Fair will never go back to the fairgrounds, Benson said.
"A few people are going to resist the change," Terri Clark said Saturday at Adelphia, "because they've been coming for 2,000 years and it's been at the fairgrounds. 'I don't like this. Everything's all spread out.' I heard that a couple of times.
"All in all," she continued, "it's much cooler, climate-wise. I like this a little bit better. I've been going to Fan Fair for 14 years, the first seven as a fan and the last seven as an artist. There's a tradition to the fairgrounds. At the same time, things change, things evolve, and it'll be kinda cool to see how it works out."