Tales of Bessman: Steve Popovich and the Dream of the Fan Fair Gherm

Today’s the last day of CMA Music Festival in Nashville, which used to be called Fan Fair for many years before the Country Music Association completely co-opted it. I used to go there every year, starting from when it was held at the downtown Municipal Auditorium in the 1970s to the many years it was at the dusty Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the ’80s and ’90s.

Unable to afford much of anything anymore, I haven’t gone in years. But I have recurring nightmares over missing it. Last night’s was a doozy.

Actually, they’re all pretty much the same: I’ve been in Nashville a few days and it’s either my last day or I’m heading back tomorrow. Yet somehow I haven’t seen anyone I need to see–particularly the people I always stay with, have lunch with, hang out with, etc. So I’m completely freaking out.

Making it all worse last night was that I remember parking my car, but don’t remember where I parked it. In fact, I don’t even remember what kind of car it is, color, model, identifying characteristics. I’m frantically searching all over for it when I wake up.

So two days ago I thought I’d take a rare “selfie”–God, I hate that word!–and put it up on Instagram and Twitter, as a tribute to Fan Fairs of old. I tried to look like the biggest Fan Fair gherm–something that still comes natural.

“Gherm,” if you don’t know, is a dismissive label used by Nashville music business folk for the fans who flood the city for Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival–or any other time of year, really–and meet and greet their heroes, which is pretty much what Fan Fair was originally set up to do. They’d wear their favorite artists’ t-shirts and badges and caps, much as I did in my selfie (there, I said it again).

But no one was ever a bigger gherm than me, and I say that with great pride. Yes, I had business being with the stars, but I never kidded myself: I was just a big kid from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, meeting and greeting my country music heroes, just like everyone else.

So even though I couldn’t make it again this year, I decided to put on my best gherm t-shirt and cap and take a Fan Fair tribute selfie (I still hate the word). I put on my Ronnie Milsap cap–in honor of Ronnie’s finally getting into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a lasting friendship that began back at the Dane Country Coliseum in Madison back in the late ’80s–and my orange Cleveland International Records t-shirt, with the caricature of the accordion player who looks kind of like Steve Popovich.

Steve was the founder of Cleveland International Records. He was the sort of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He gave me the Cleveland International shirt. One Fan Fair he made up these hysterical “Your brain on Country Music!” t-shirts and gave me one of those, too. I wish I could find it if I still have it. Either way, I wish I could remember it, like I wish I could remember where I parked my car.

It played on those stupid “This is your brain on drugs” TV commercials, where they cut to the eggs frying in a pan. Being on drugs they only made me hungry.

I think it had a cartoon of the eggs in the pan wearing cowboy boots and hats and having a big old time, or something like that. It was really great, I remember, for sure.

And I remember Steve, of course, who died three years ago tomorrow.

No one cared more about music than Steve, who had a huge hand in the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, and put out the Meat Loaf record on Cleveland International and then spent the rest of his life trying to get fairly paid for it.

No one cared more about the little guy, either, or the little guy’s music. He showed me what polka really is, for which I’m eternally grateful.

He had the biggest heart of anyone I knew, and after years of working hard and eating bad, his big heart finally gave out.

I forgot a lot of things, but I can never forget Steve Popovich. No one can.

BessmanMilsap

Tales of Bessman: Fan Fair, Country Music, and Loudilla Johnson

Less than a month away from the 2014 CMA Music Festival, and I’m prompted, by the passing of Loudilla Johnson, to think back to when it was called Fan Fair and held at the dirty, dusty, magical Tennessee State Fairgrounds, for those of us who love country music and cover it, the best days of our lives.

It was a lot smaller, then, but still big, and each of the main Fairgrounds buildings was packed with country stars of every rank, from A-List to F, in their custom-designed  booths signing autographs and selling trinkets. I still have, somewhere, a little makeup mirror with a plastic case emblazoned with “For a Fan of Tammy Wynette,” though as much as I love him, I think I got rid of my glow-in-the-dark Confederate Flag Hank Williams, Jr. gym shorts even before returning to New York.

“Wear those at the gym when you get home!” bellowed Merle Kilgore, Hank’’s manager (not to mention writer of such classic country songs as “Wolverton Mountain,” and with June Carter, “Ring of Fire”), who thrust a pair into my hands—and those of my pal Bob Merlis. We both loved Merle dearly, but neither of us had the chutzpah to bring them home.

Fan Fair left the Fairgrounds for Downtown Nashville in 2001 and gave up the name in 2004. Dear Merle’s long gone—even if I can still hear him laughing loudly at us–and now so is Loudilla Johnson, 75, who with her late sister Loretta and surviving sister Kay, co-founded the International Fan Club Organization, or IFCO.

If one thing symbolized Fan Fair, and maybe by extension country music iself, it would likely be IFCO. It was the Johnson’s offshoot of the Loretta Lynn Fan Club, which they started in 1963 after Loretta Johnson, living at the family ranch in Wild Horse, Colo., began corresponding with Loretta Lynn.

Much of this last sentence, by the way, was lifted near verbatim from Peter Cooper’s obituary in The Tennessean. He’s such a good writer I couldn’t improve on it and didn’t bother trying.

“Them girls was my first official fans, the ones who started my fan club and stuck with me for years,” Lynn wrote in her memoir—and Cooper quoted. “Shoot, we started the whole week’s long event called Fan Fair together, even though none of us got the credit for it.”

Also quoted in Cooper’s piece, author/historian (and host of Fan Fair’s star-studded IFCO shows) Robert K. Oermann said, “The other stars saw how successful they were with Loretta’s club. Buck Owens’ sister, Dorothy, came to the girls and said, ‘You ought to form a fan club organization, because the other clubs could learn from you.’”

This was in 1965, when the Johnson Sisters formed IFCO. It consisted of 75 fan clubs working together in uniting country stars and their fans.

Four years before the first Fan Fair in 1972, IFCO staged its first multi-artist concert, during Nashville’s annual DJ Convention (long since known as Country Radio Seminar).

“The Johnsons were supporting the fans long before there was a Fan Fair,” Oermann told Cooper. “And from the beginning of what became the CMA Music Festival, they were intimately involved. Loretta, the sister who died in 2009, was sort of the spark plug that started the whole thing, but it was Loudilla who was the most business-minded of the three sisters. All three of them were zany and fun. They were devoted to country music. They were nothing but love.”

Nothing but love.

IFCO eventually worked with over 375 fan club groups, and showcased everyone from legends like Johnny Cash and Charley Pride to such stars of today as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival. I don’t know if that fabled bond between country music star and fan still exists, and if it does, to the degree it did that year, 1996, when Garth Brooks came unannounced to Fan Fair and stayed 23 hours and 10 minutes straight, signing autographs without taking a break. Or when fans from all over the world lined up at the booth of Australia’s LeGarde Twins—also know as Australia’s Yodeling Stockmen–as happy  to pose for pictures with them as with Trisha Yearwood in her fantastic recording studio booth, where her fans could actually sing along with her and come out with a tape recording of it.

But if the love affair between country stars and fans continues, give thanks to the Johnsons, who formalized it. Not for nothing were they presented with the Ernest Tubb Humanitarian Award at the 2002 R.O.P.E. (Reunion of Professional Entertainers) banquet, in that their IFCO Show concert proceeds always went to charities: The original E.T. would flip his guitar over at the end of his performances to show the word “thanks” in big block capitals on the back.

Unlike so many classic country songs, for Loudilla, Loretta and Kay Johnson, who were so devoted to country music, their love was indeed requited.

A performance by Lynn Anderson at a special 2009 CMA Music Festival show in memory of IFCO co-founder Loretta Johnson: