On April 12th, 1972, at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium, a tradition began that has today morphed into one of Music City’s most popular annual events for country fans around the globe. Then known as Country Music Fan Fair and now christened CMA Fest, the event still includes Fan Fair X, which offers artist meet-and-greets throughout the Music City Center. Although recent CMA Fests dwarf the scope of those early Fan Fair gatherings, the enthusiasm fans have brought with them to the event for nearly 50 years remains an inspiration to many of the country artists who participate annually.
Garth Brooks is one of those artists.
On April 12th, 1989, 17 years to the day the first Fan Fair took place, Brooks’ self-titled debut album was released. Two months later, he was among the artists to perform on the Capitol Records show at Fan Fair, which was now ensconced at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. With fans enjoying unseasonably cooler temperatures, Brooks was the newcomer in a lineup that included then-labelmates Sawyer Brown, Suzy Bogguss, New Grass Revival, Dan Seals, and T. Graham Brown, but was already tipped for stardom based on the reaction to his energetic stage show.
For the next several years, Brooks would dominate country music, setting — and then breaking — record after record with music sales and concert grosses. As his stage shows became more elaborate, it was increasingly more challenging for the in-demand entertainer to interact with fans, although in 1992 he spent 12 hours signing autographs for those who had been standing in line. By 1994, the only way to get close to Brooks at Fan Fair was by securing one of the items he had donated to a charity auction, and the following year one Fan Fair attendee declared Garth “too big for his britches” for not showing up. Brooks was instead spending time in Oklahoma with his parents that year, as security and other logistics made the Fan Fair experience nearly impossible. In 1996, however, he returned to the event determined, it seems, to make up for those absences.
Brooks would begin 1996 on the verge of selling a then-unprecedented 60 million albums and launching a world tour, which one critic called “an arena spectacular with the vibe of a Fan Fair meet-and-greet.” Fan Fair, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary, was also being eyed for what would eventually become a reality, a move to Nashville’s new football stadium across the Cumberland River. With the milestone celebration looming, Brooks planned a surprise for fans that would last an entire calendar day.
Taking a break from his tour, Brooks set up shop in one of the fairgrounds’ large livestock buildings. With fans battling rainstorms and traffic gridlock outside, the superstar made his unannounced appearance on Tuesday morning, June 11th, and stayed put for the next 23 hours and 10 minutes, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans until every last one was satisfied. Once again, he had broken his own record… allegedly without a single bathroom break.
“That boy ain’t got bladder problems,” a Fan Fair security person told the Tennessean.
Brooks and his rise to global stardom are among the stories featured in the final installment of the Ken Burns documentary Country Music, which airs Wednesday night on PBS.