Hulu Doc ‘CMA Fest: 50 Years of Fan Fair’ Recounts Festival’s Journey

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A lot of people who go back in country music, be it the fans or even some who work in the industry in Nashville, refuse to call the CMA Music Festival anything other than “Fan Fair,” the name the annual event had in the far more humble ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s the era when it took place out amid the pungent aromas of Nashville’s fairgrounds, not in and around a downtown stadium. Rather than resist that nostalgia for a quainter era, the CMA indulged it this year by selling vintage-looking T-shirts at merch booths — which, by the way, Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern says sold quite well. The festival is definitely embracing its past by including that former moniker in the title of a new documentary, “CMA Fest: 50 Years of Fan Fair,” premiering on Hulu today.

Trahern took over the reins of the CMA in 2014 but began attending what was still Fan Fair in the ’90s as a newly hired exec at the then-dominant cable network in the country space, the Nashville Network. She’s one of the executive producers of the Hulu doc, which includes a wealth of retrospective footage and photos as well as fresh interviews with figures ranging from veterans like Dolly Parton, Jeannie Seely and Bill Anderson to contemporary stars like Luke Combs, Lainey Wilson, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Kelsea Ballerini. Trahern got on the phone with Variety to discuss both the documentary and the traditional annual CMA Fest special, culled from the performances that took place at Nissan Stadium in June, that will air on ABC July 19.

Was it just the 50th anniversary of Fan Fair that made doing a documentary a natural imperative, or was there any other kind of synergy?

I think it’s twofold. The 50th anniversary is a milestone, and we celebrated our 50th anniversary at the CMA Awards by doing the “Forever Country” music video, if you recall that, and then we also did a big project with Time Life. This one just seemed ready-made to do in that development space. We had been talking to ABC and Hulu about a broader development slate, expanding our partnership with the Disney company, and our head of marketing and I have been out in L.A. meeting with a bunch of different production companies about different kinds of TV development. This made a lot of sense to pull together to honor the 50th, and I’m so glad that Hulu got on board with us to make it happen. Certainly we didn’t have to sell the Walt Disney Company in on what CMA Fest/Fan Fair was about because of the success we’ve had working with them closely on the CMA Fest television show every year. But a lot of them didn’t even know much of the history, so I was glad that they leaned in and trusted us on telling that story.

I think one of my favorite pieces of it is having artists like Reba (McEntire) and Vince (Gill) as part of our current TV show on July 19, who also are part of the documentary, talking about the days of the fairgrounds. They’re in the ABC show playing music and doing their hits with Cody Johnson and with Luke Combs, two of the brightest stars in our business today. I think the documentary is a project where you can see it through the eyes of the older people who — yeah — some of them go, “The fairgrounds were a lot more fun,” but then some of these younger artists today have their own memories. I think one of the special things about about Fan Fair-slash-now-CMA Fest is the homage to that pilgrimage that many of the artists make to Nashville as fans before they were artists. There’s a picture in the documentary of Kelsea (Ballerini) with Keith Urban, where Kelsea’s standing there across the barricade getting Keith’s autograph. So then who are the kids today who came to watch Jordan Davis or Carly Pierce at this year’s festival who may be the artist in 10 or 15 years?

Lainey Wilson gets a fair amount of time in the documentary. She is kind of the poster girl, or woman, for the format right now, among a younger generation. And you’ve got her co-hosting the ABC special as well.

Lainey was not necessarily in there because she’s the hottest thing in the business — though she certainly is. I mean, when we cut the show, we didn’t know she was hosting Music Fest. We finished the film back in the spring and we had not yet made the decision that she was hosting. So it actually ties really nicely together. Some of the reasons we made the choices in our host for the music festival, though, had to do with the fact that two of the three were in the documentary. Dierks (Bentley) has a long history himself with CMA Fast, having first come when he was working for the CMA driving the golf cart, and so he and Elle King hosted it last year and had a lot of energy in the telecast. Adding a third into the mix for the ABC show this year made a lot of sense because Lainey had such a great story. So it’s kind of the opposite — it wasn’t (being hired for) the Fest show that drove her exposure in the doc. It was the fact that she was so great in the doc that drove us to consider asking her to join us for the summer show.

Besides artists, you have some top execs in the business in the doc, like the now-retired Joe Galante and Mike Dungan… and also Shane Tarleton (EVP of artist development at Warner Nashville), who’s not quite on that level of all-time industry titan but has the stories.

Shane was one of the people that, for me working with him in the industry, he still wears his fan hat so much, so every year around this time he’s like, “Let me tell you about when I came as a fan.” His voice is certainly someone who is in the business today and understands the relevance and the importance to the artists and the industry of the event, but his heart still is speaking as a fan, which I think is really important. You know, I first came to Fest working in the business. Even though I’d been a fan of the format, I just had never been to CMA Fest before. So the first time I went to Fan Fair was working it, but I was still a fan, so I got to take in the autograph lines and the concerts with the bright eyes of a 30-year-old working in the business. It was important having (former CMA CEO) Ed Benson be a part of the film because he was part of the fairgrounds and also was so instrumental in the move downtown. You know, Kix (Brooks) is there as part of Brooks and Dunn, an artist that has hosted CMA Festival. But Kix is so instrumental in our story separately from being an artist because of his involvement as chairman of our board at one point, and how he really helped kickstart the foundation. The idea of giving (half the proceeds) specifically to music education was Kix’s.

I’ve spent 30 years of my career in television, and some of the hardest things are just some of the great interviews that end up on the cutting room floor. Speaking to those early days, I wish Bud Wendell had been able to be interviewed. He was not in physical shape at the time we were doing the interviews to be a part of it, but I got to be in a board meeting with him recently and told him that we talk about him a good bit in the documentary. I really wanted Alan Jackson as a part of it, and Alan wanted to do it. It’s just a matter of timing and days we were shooting and days he was in town and out of town. As a producer you always have those regrets, but I feel like we have a really great and strong representation of artists and industry personnel.

About the first half-hour of the doc traces the history, going from the instigation of Fan Fair as an indoor event at the Municipal Auditorium in the early ’70s to the fairgrounds to the big move downtown around the turn of the century. There doesn’t seem to be any resistance any more to people still calling it “Fan Fair,” as maybe there once was, now that it’s a quarter-century on. You have Fan Fair is in the subtitle of the documentary.

We do. And you have to… I mean, one of my favorite moments in the documentary is when Milly Olykan, our VP of international, talks about seeing a guy with a shirt that says, “I still call it Fan Fair.” We asked Milly to tell us when she saw him, and we were able to find the shot on security cameras! At the top of that shot is Milly and Emily from our team, working on something, and then you see in the bottom left-hand corner of the shot, the guy wearing the T-shirt. I love the fact that there are still folks in our audience that go back to the heart and soul of Fan Fair, and that means it’s successful for us.

I think if we’re pulling that heart that was part of the fairgrounds into facilities that have air conditioning today, that’s a positive. If we’re pulling the energy of the performances, meeting their fans for the first time, into what we do at Fan Fair X [the name now given to the daytime booths area at the convention center], or the performers playing for their first time at the Spotlight Stage, and those artists can remember those experiences when they get to headline at the stadium, that’s a positive. Right now, as we’re starting all of our wrap-up meetings from this year’s Fan Fair, we start to go, what does year 51 look like? I mean, our merch sold great this year, and it was a lot of retro merch. So how important is it to the fans to make sure that we still have a tip to what the event was before?

And how do we make sure that we are looking forward to what Fest is gonna be like tomorrow — what it’s gonna be like in four or five years in our brand new stadium in downtown Nashville [replacing Nissan Stadium]? That’s gonna be exciting for me because it’s gonna be covered. So that means you don’t have to call it for rain. There are a lot of exciting things to look forward to for the next 50 years.

For anyone who waxes nostalgic and still wishes it were out at the fairgrounds instead of downtown — and there are definitely some of those around — the documentary makes it clear that it was losing money and dying out there in the ’90s, as fondly as people remember those days.

They were forward-thinking enough to make the decision that maybe doing it just the way we’ve done it isn’t right, so let’s make a change. And it was a bold change. I mean, [after moving downtown] we didn’t really sell out capacity till 2014. So I give the folks that were in the organization and on the board at the time (credit) for making the choice for the move — it was kind of a bold move to make… I love being the person in this chair right now, as a lover of country music and a lover of history, to be able to see how we pull those threads forward, or that a Bill Anderson can have been a part of the very first Fan Fair and still be tied in with CMA Fest. He came to the premiere of the documentary at the Hall of Fame a few weeks ago.

One of the things I love about the two complementary pieces of content in July, the documentary on Hulu July 5 and the network show on July 19, is that in the TV show itself, while we have more first-time artists playing the stadium than we’ve ever had for the network show, we also have a lot of moments where we will go back and be retro with some retro footage with performers from the past. Jo Dee Messina and Tanya Tucker are both part of that network show, in collaborations, which is a great instance of artists that have been a part of Fest over the years being on the television show again.

What do you think about the turnover of headliners in country music, as it affects your show? People who are more accustomed to the fast churn in pop might think we see the same faces in country again and again. But then some country traditionalists might have the opposite view, that country is too quick to rotate out familiar faces. It comes up in an interesting way in the documentary, as Wynonna Judd talks about being on stage with Carly Pearce at Nissan Stadium last year and realizing in the moment that she is passing over the baton, and her bittersweet feelings about that… Does the turnover seem fast, slow or in-between to you?

Yeah. I would say we really have two internal operations. We have the group that books the stadium for television. And then we have the group that books the rest of the festival as a whole, another 300-plus artists that do the satellite stages and the openers… The thing for CMA Fest as a platform is not just what happens at the stadium, but what happens across the 10 stages in our whole footprint is. We want everybody to have a home. I want Fan Fest to be a music discovery tool separate from the TV show in the stadium. And so we are only successful if we are hitting all different points in the lifecycle of an artist. So you have a number of artists who are playing Fest for the first time. This year we had a lot of them at the stadium, but also we had them playing first time at the Spotlight Stage and Riverfront and other stages throughout our footprint. And then you have folks like Alabama that also were in the TV show, where we have the opportunities to be able to put artists in where that music is comfortable and familiar and the fans will wanna come back and see it.

Miranda, for example, wasn’t on last year’s Fest, because she wanted to take a break. We had Carrie Underwood last year, who decided this year she wanted to take a break. So we had space for some artists that haven’t been a part of Fest before. I think Robert (Deaton), when he books the TV show, always is looking for whose music is really big in any given year with streaming and radio play that fans around the country are gonna wanna hear, not just fans at the stadium. With Keith Urban, there’s some years that he hasn’t been a part of our TV show, but he always shows up just because he wants to and the festival’s important to him. I thought Dierks did a killer job this year, and he’s one who comes back often year after year, even between singles cycles, because he likes to play the event and has history.

And then certainly from a TV standpoint, we always look for those magical moments to do what we did last year, which is in the documentary with Wynonna and with Carly. It was special that night, believe me. I mean, one of my personal CMA Fest memories before I came to the CMA was when my parents were both still alive, bringing them to Fest in my prior job, and we were gonna leave on I think it was a Sunday night, and mom’s like, no, I wanna stay and see the Judds. So, to be there this year and see, you know, last year and see Wynona play like, oh yeah, I, this is part of my history. Yeah. Seeing the Judds there with my parents was part of my history. Now I get to see Wynonna here with Carly. I didn’t know that that was gonna be such a transformational moment for Wy until we taped the interview.

We refer to country being a big tent, which can refer to a lot of different things. It can refer to the space to have Americana artists there. Within the footprint it can be having legendary acts like Tanya Tucker, who’s getting ready to go into the Country Music Hall of Fame, still come and play a set. It can be having someone like Jordan Davis and Cody Johnson play the stadium for the first time this year.

It will definitely be different at a stadium with a roof, I can attest, as someone who has sat through some of the thunderstorm time-outs there.

Those of us on the staff often joke that we’ll have beautiful weather the week before and we’ll be like, “Oh, we’re gonna be so lucky.” And then it turns 110 degrees right as the fans all show up. Thankfully this year we had really good weather, so I’m not gonna complain. The gods were with us for the 50th.

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