There’s not a commercial genre on earth that could survive entirely without people willing to shell out money to stream, download or acquire it on CD, vinyl or tape (thank Nineties nostalgia for the reappearance of the latter) or to see it performed live in their presence or on their screens. Still, fans have played a singularly active and integral role in the country music ecosystem.
Go back a little more than half a century to an era before there were paid pros fulfilling every function in the industry, and you’d find it was often unpaid fan club presidents and members campaigning to get their favorite country singers into magazines and onto radio. Even now, it’s pretty darn rare that country artists will give interviews without at some point mentioning their desire to please their fans as a motivation behind what they do. One way performers keep the home fires burning year in and year out is by throwing fan club parties during CMA Music Festival.
Rolling Stone Country attended one such mid-morning shindig for rising singer, songwriter and guitarist Charlie Worsham. The theme was Donuts and Jam — or to put it another way, Krispy Kremes and the chance to see Worsham hold court in a highly informal setting. Here are five surprising things we learned about the uniquely country phenomenon that is the fan club party.
Age Is Just a Number
There’s something very cozy, verging on old-fashioned, about fans showing up to an event like this with the expectation that they’ll enjoy genuine, personal interaction with an artist they support. But it’s definitely not just older acts who host fan club parties, or older folks who attend them. Worsham’s all of 28 years old, and during the casual Q&A exchange he could be heard reassuring a fan who lamented the fact that she’s still three years away from being old enough to get into his nightclub shows.
Superstar Status Not Required
A country act need not be a household name to earn diehard followers. The pair of singles Warner Brothers Nashville has released on Worsham so far barely registered on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Not that you’d know it from the vocal enthusiasm of the crowd pressing up close to the stage at his fan club party.
Roll Like a VIP on the Cheap
As Rolling Stone reported, lots of multi-genre music festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza are charging a small fortune for VIP packages with special access, catering and other perks — elite privileges for the well-heeled few. A country fan gathering cultivates the opposite atmosphere, making the meet-and-greet experience accessible for a comparatively small outlay of cash. In Worsham’s case, the proceeds went to the Quest Center, a nonprofit haven for music instruction in the tiny town of Dickson, Tennessee.
It’s a Symbiotic Party
You’d think a fan club party would be considerably more rewarding to party-goers than to the performers striving to live up to expectations. But at Worsham’s event at least, there was a profoundly mutual exchange of affection. He nearly got choked up when people sang along with songs from his album Rubberband that they couldn’t possibly have learned from the radio. “When I doubt that things will work out,” he told them, “you make me feel like it’ll be okay.”
Fans Go Deep
When a performer is as musically skilled as Worsham — he studied at Berklee College of Music and has contributed songwriting and studio picking to albums by the likes of Dierks Bentley and Eric Church — the fans are likely to show an equal interest in his prowess and his personal life. That morning, they tossed Worsham questions about everything from his musical influences and the guitar he was playing (a 1963 once-smashed and now-resurrected Martin D-28) to his collection of Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers (he’d just received a custom-made pair, bright orange with lime green accents, in the mail to wear on Brad Paisley’s tour) and his relationship status. Worsham had a warm, conversational response for each one, including the girlfriend query: “My parents have a basset hound I’m pretty attached to. Plus, I don’t need a girlfriend when I have all of you.”