Nashville's 'Fan Fair' a Country Music Lover's Paradise

This appeared in The Palm Beach Post - June 18, 2004

Last weekend, the place to be for country music fans was Nashville's Fan Fair, a 33-year-old tradition that honors country music and its fans.

Officially, Fan Fair has been renamed the CMA Music Festival, but I heard it called that only once by a California girl who had just hit town. When she mentions "The CMA Music Festival," a woman standing nearby says, "Oh, no, honey, it's called Fan Fair -- you don't want people thinking you're a tourist."

Marty Stuart and Jerry Lee Lewis: Great balls of fire!

The night before Fan Fair opens, the third annual Marty Stuart late-night concert at the Ryman Auditorium (the smallest and oldest venue ever chosen America's Theater of the Year) gets under way at 11 p.m. The instruments are snuggled mid-stage with a big Yamaha grand piano in the back and six lava lamps contributing a little edge.

After a brief bluegrass start'em-up, Stuart ambles out and tells the crowd he wants to introduce Naturally 7. They're from New York, he says and adds, slowly, clearly, and three times: "They're wonderful."

Seven black men emerge, one by one. When they have assembled, they sing, dance and play piano, drums, guitars, mandolin and bass -- without instruments. The sounds of the instruments are created by the singers themselves and, within moments, the audience is spellbound by the group's gut-wrenching power and hair-raising energy. The tallest and skinniest man can sing a pure soprano, finishing one song on such a long, drawn-out note that the audience seems poised on it, cradled in this platform of sound.

Stuart and Naturally 7 close with a version of "Amazing Grace" that's almost existential in its simplicity but complex enough to sound as if it might have been written on another planet. They leave with a standing ovation.

Terri Clark, the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry and its first Canadian member, gets wildly enthusiastic applause for both her solos and duets with Stuart.

Then Stuart and his band take the stage, he now in a shocking pink jacket with sequined cactuses on the front and a stagecoach embroidered across the back. When a fan hollers, "Where'd you get that jacket, Marty?" Stuart retorts, "I stole it from Porter Wagoner."

Then he launches into "Too Much Month (at the End of the Money)" and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," His new song, "Dark Bird," a loving homage to his late father-in-law Johnny Cash, brings tears to some, but smiles reappear with "Luther Plays the Boogie Woogie in the Strangest Kind of Way," "Slow Train," and "Hillbilly Rock."

Then Jerry Lee Lewis strides onstage and plops down at the piano, which has been quietly moved to the front of the stage. The Killer, looking strong and full of vigor, opens with "You Win Again."

A minute later, it sinks in that Stuart's the sixth man in Jerry Lee's five-man backup band. He's ditched the shocking pink jacket for a black shirt with white polka dots, and he looks so happy it's criminal.

After that, it's a blur of magical sound. Jerry Lee, back straight as a well-disciplined schoolboy's and in great voice, gets into his classics: "Why, Why, Why," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and "Great Balls of Fire."

Vibrant, attentive, missing not one lick, he knocks out a half-dozen of his greatest hits, stands up, smiles, waves and walks offstage. The audience knows it won't get any better than this; everyone leaves smiling.

By Catharine Rambeau

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