It’s that time of year again. The kids are out of school, the heat is on and thousands of people worldwide flock to Middle Tennessee for their fix of great music from their favorite recording artists. In all the time I’ve lived and worked here alongside tons of people who work in the music industry, before this year I had never attended any of the huge music festivals held in and around Nashville. When summer rolled around this year I decided to correct that. This year, I was determined to attend as many music festivals as my time would allow. Without a doubt in my mind there was only one place I could start with: Nashville’s very own CMA Music Festival (formerly Fan Fair).

Let me just say I have a new respect for the legions of country music fans flocking to Nashville every year to take part in the festivities. The hot sun and huge packs of roving fans alone was enough to discourage me a bit, but the real clincher for me was the seemingly never-ending lines to get five seconds of time in front of your favorite country music star. I spoke with several fans standing in line for upwards of four hours at a stretch just to get an autograph. One brave mother with three small kids and a befuddled-looking boyfriend in tow told me it was all worth it just to get an once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet her favorite performers.

Billed this year as “The Ultimate Country Music Experience”, there were plenty of stars to choose from. Taylor Swift, Jewel, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Jessica Simpson (yes, that Jessica Simpson) all endured long lines of adoring fans. The unflappable Taylor Swift really earned the gold medal for autograph signing this year by staying at her booth for a mammoth four hour long signing stint. How can you not love that girl?

There was so much going on downtown during the festival that here was scarcely enough time to see everything. Other highlights included Carrie Underwood performing at the Grand Ole’ Opry for the first time since her induction and then showing up fresh for the City of Hope Softball Challenge the next day.

Jewel was presented a commemorative plaque by the RIAA for selling 18 million records throughout her career. Similarly, Miranda Lambert was honored with a plaque announcing her album “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” being certified Gold. Jessica Simpson, while not getting any accolades from the industry, was seen all over Nashville that week with sightings throughout trendy Hillsboro Village

Surprise appearances are a hallmark of this event and 2008 didn't disappoint. The first night at LP Field included an unannounced appearance by reigning CMA Vocal Group of the Year Rascal Flatts. On Friday, Keith Urban delighted the crowd - and one fan in particular - when he leapt from the stage, sprinted into the stands and autographed his guitar for a stunned fan. Jessica Simpson made several unannounced appearances including the Wednesday Block Party, the Fan Fair Hall and at LP Field. Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn also made an unexpected appearance to sign autographs for fans.

Fans were treated to performances Friday by Faith Hill, Jack Ingram, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban. Julianne Hough performed with Turner's band. Jake Owen and Ashton Shepherd performed acoustic sets.

Though the evening marked Hill's first performance at the Festival in 10 years, she insisted that her appearance felt like a family event. "Well, it's a short drive," she joked. "And my kids are at home, so I kind of feel like I'm off tonight."

Saturday's lineup rocked the house with Trace Adkins, Rodney Atkins, Alan Jackson, Little Big Town, Craig Morgan and Kenny Rogers. Jason Michael Carroll, Jamey Johnson and Darryl Worley delivered acoustic performances.

Sunday's lineup featured Bucky Covington, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sara Evans, James Otto, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam. Phil Stacey, John Stephan and Chuck Wicks performed acoustically.

Yoakam last appeared at the Festival 20 years ago when he performed with personal friend and mentor Buck Owens. "It's great to be here at CMA Music Festival," he said. "It's been a long, long time." Then, referring to the many giants of Country Music who had played at CMA Music Festival, he added, "It hasn't been a very succinct journey to this point for me, but the shoulder I'm standing on is theirs."

Without a doubt, my most memorable moment of the Festival was a bellicose Chris Cagle showing up sans handlers at the City of Hope game insisting immediately upon arrival that he didn’t want to talk about his recent arrest for domestic assault. Later that night as I was entering LP Field, I spied a sign on the gate labeled “No Umbrellas” in  big red letters. I asked about it and the guard grinned at me and joked “That’s in case Chris Cagle decides to show up!” Priceless!

Despite lowered expectations about attendance due to rising gas prices and failing economy the CMA Music Festival hit an all-time high attendance record  this year with a 9.4 percent increase over 2007 during the four-day Festival, Thursday through Sunday, in Downtown Nashville.

"Even with gasoline prices around $4 a gallon and weak economic conditions around the country, we saw an increase in our attendance on every level from local and regional participation to those fans that traveled from around the world," said CMA Chief Executive Officer Tammy Genovese. "I believe that speaks to the strength of the event, the popularity of our artists, the dedication of our fans, and the entertainment value of the Festival."

The average daily attendance in 2008 was 52,000. By comparison, in 2007 the average daily attendance was nearly 48,000.
And it all benefits children and music education in Nashville. The artists and celebrities participating in CMA Music Festival donate their time. They are not compensated for the hours they spend signing autographs and performing. In appreciation of their exhaustive efforts, CMA donates half the net proceeds from the event to music education on their behalf through a partnership with the Nashville Alliance for Public Education called "Keep the Music Playing."

To date, CMA has donated more than $1 million on behalf of the artists who participate in the Festival - including $368,500 from the 2006 CMA Music Festival and $655,600 from 2007 CMA Music Festival. Several students groups participated in the Festival including drum corps from Antioch and Overton High Schools, who marched in "The Fourth Annual CMA Music Festival Kick-Off Parade." In addition, 800 students were given tickets to attend Saturday night through the generosity of HCA/TriStar.

For more information or to purchase tickets to the 2009 CMA Music Festival visit    

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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