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: