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Nashville Gears Up For Annual Fan Invasion

Thousands of country fans will gather for Fan Fair extravaganza.

NASHVILLERonnie

Milsap — who is blind — will umpire a softball game

played by country artists. Fans of Garth

Brooks are wondering whether their hero will show up

unannounced — as he did in 1996 — to sign autographs for 23

straight hours. Others look forward to a week of fan-club parties and

very little sleep.

This is Nashville's giddy season, when country fans from all over the

world pour into Nashville to sit in the sun, drink beer, eat barbecue,

and watch nonstop concerts by some of their favorite artists. Those same

artists will sit in gaudily decorated booths, sign autographs and pose

for pictures for hours on end.

Monday, for example, kicks off Fan Fair week, when fans and artists are

on equal footing and where the former — for a $90 ticket fee —

get four days of virtually nonstop music in addition to the fan-club

events and other ancillary happenings.

Media access was curtailed this year, after more than 600 sets of

credentials were issued. And, for the first time, there will be a

separate pressroom for Internet reporters and photographers.

This year marks the 29th Fan Fair gathering; it is also the year fans

and artists will say goodbye to the funky Tennessee State Fairgrounds,

near Music Row. This is the event's last year at the deteriorating

agricultural facility, where the daily barbecue lunches are served up in

the cattle barn by Texas' famed Chuck Wagon Gang caterers and iced tea

is poured from 50-gallon drums.

"We've outgrown it, and we need better facilities anyway," said Country

Music Association (CMA) Executive Director Ed Benson. The CMA runs the

annual affair, which grew out of the former Disc Jockeys' Convention.

When fans got wind of the wealth of artist appearances at the

convention, they started showing up uninvited.

Seating has been limited to the 22,000-or-so seats in the fairground's

speedway facility. And ticket sales have been off the last two years,

after the Opryland Theme Park — admission to which had been

included with the ticket — was closed, though Benson said response

is up this year. Tickets also include free admission to the Country

Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium and other attractions.

Benson said venues being considered for next year include Nashville's

new Adelphia Coliseum, downtown; the Gaylord Entertainment Center, also

downtown; and a new Nashville Superspeedway, which is being built

outside of town.

Although Fan Fair doesn't officially get under way until Monday morning,

with opening ceremonies at 9:45 a.m., Milsap will kick off the fair when

he throws out the first ball at Sunday's City of Hope charity softball

game.

"I have watched sports my entire life, and to finally be able to

participate in a game is a real thrill for me. I can't imagine why no

one has asked me to do this before," Milsap said.

On Monday, country artists from Giant Records, Atlantic Nashville,

Warner Bros., Reprise, Asylum and Sony Music Nashville will perform.

Tuesday will see a lineup from Curb Records, Mercury Nashville and MCA

Nashville.

Wednesday's shows will have artists from Lyric Street Records,

DreamWorks Nashville, Arista/Nashville and the RCA Label Group.

Thursday's roster will feature artists from Virgin Nashville, Audium

Entertainment, Rounder Records and Step One Records. The day will also

feature performances by international country artists and a bluegrass

show.

Thursday evening will conclude with the fan-voted TNN Music Awards,

telecast from the Gaylord Entertainment Center and hosted by comedian

Jeff Foxworthy.