THREE generations of women stood or sat in metal folding chairs outside a livestock exhibition hall of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, cameras poised.
They were waiting to catch a glimpse of "Garth" (Brooks), or "Vince" (Gill), "Billy Ray" (Cyrus), but were not disappointed when young singer Sean O'Brien strode by:
`I'n he handsome?"
`Not bad to look at, is he?"
"Isn't he gorgeous!"
These fans were among 24,000 people at Nashville's recent Country Music Fan Fair, arguably the biggest event in country music. They hoped to get an autograph from, be photographed with, or even talk to stars with whom they feel a close personal bond - and always refer to by their first names.
Julie Smith came down from Chatham, Ontario, because "Everybody is friendly. Their songs have a lot of meaning, they're heartfelt. And the stars are loyal [pronounced LO-ahl] to their fans, as Reba [McEntire] says. You wouldn't see rock fans doing this."
"You can relate to each song that is sung. You've either had the experience or you're about to," says Shawne Boyle, from Hopewell, Virginia.
"The whole idea of getting so close to these people" is what drew Phyllis Fisher, an office worker from St. Louis. "These songs are about real life, tell what's happening to the common person."
Her friend Lynn Haller is a data-processing manager. She says she cannot listen to heavy metal music and loves country because "you can understand the words, and you don't get a headache."
Both women described waiting about six hours for a word with Garth but said they know one woman who waited 11 hours.
The line to meet country music's hottest new property, Billy Ray Cyrus, began forming down the stairs and around the outside of an exhibition hall at 7 a.m. By 2:30, the early arrivals had weathered several downpours and some disappointment.
"He was supposed to be here at 10 a.m.," says a soggy fan from Michigan. She heard his hit single, "Achy Breaky Heart," on the radio and says she knows "he is fantastic person."
Dee Stinebring, a waitress from Illinois who has been coming to Fan Fair for nine years, pulled out a glossy publicity photo to illustrate why the wait is worth it. "He's good looking, and he can dance," she says.
The country-music industry has grown rapidly from its beginnings in 1925 at Nashville radio station WSM-AM's Saturday night broadcasts, which became known in 1927 as the Grand Ole Opry. The number of full-time country-music stations has increased from 81 in 1961 (when the Country Music Association began counting) to 2,203 today. Worldwide, the number of radio stations that program country music is 2,605, up from 2,573 last year. Almost 25 percent of people who live in the Southwest region of the United States can be found listening to a country radio station at any one time.
Country music gained 6 million new listeners in 1991. According to a May consumer profile of the Recording Industry Association of America, "While rock music continues to lead in percentage of sales, the most significant growth has been in country music, with a 3.7 percent increase over 1990."
Much of this growth is due to the success of crossover artists like Garth Brooks, Kathy Mattea, or Billy Ray Cyrus in attracting a younger audience by melding country, pop, and rock styles and a video format.
Not all the fans welcome these new directions. Charlie Garcia and his wife Rose have made three trips to Fan Fair. "I go back to Hank Williams," Charlie says. "I was raised on it in Louisiana. They're part of us. They're raised like us. They'll go out and fight and drink like us, but when it comes to family they play by the old rules."
The Garcias have six children and nine grandchildren and say they are worried that one of their grandchildren is about to marry and may make them great grandparents too soon. But they are more worried about changes in country music.
When Charlie makes it to the front of the line to talk to longtime country star Faron Young, he leans forward and gestures earnestly. "I told him `Why don't you get off of it and do the old traditional songs," he says.
The harshest comments on new directions came from the artists themselves. Opry newcomer Travis Tritt told a Nashville country-radio station during Fan Fair that "Achy Breaky Heart" "didn't make a statement," and that Billy Ray Cyrus's hip-swinging performances "degraded country music."
"The success of `Achy Breaky Heart' bummed out a lot of the people in the industry," says Darryl Saffer, leader of Upcountry, a formerly Maine-based trio that is just breaking into Nashville's music network. "Country music has blown wide open. Hank Williams, the twang and nasal sounds of country music's roots in the hills of Appalachia, Scotland, and Ireland, in spirituals and gospels, these are dead. Today rock is the main influence," he says. "One of the negative things in this sudden explosion is that marketing people find someone who looks good, market them, they swoop up the charts and disappear."
Cotton Carrier quit performing in 1956 and now manages songs for the Lowery Group in Atlanta.
"We used to call it hillbilly music," he says, "and now it's `contemporary country' and `light rock.' Forty years ago we played little schoolhouses, little theaters where adults paid 50 cents. Now it's big arenas for $10 to $25."
"I don't like to see it get so loud and rock-and-roll, but they had to change it to get younger people plugged in," he adds.
For the fans, however, doubts over the future of the industry pale before the joy they felt in the week's musical encounters.
Josh Pairan, who sells automotive parts in Angola, Ind., seemed to float away from his meeting with country icons Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright.
"The old-style country music is great," he says. "It covers you with feeling. I was raised on fiddle and steel-pedal guitar, crying lyrics and `Nudie' suits [flamboyant costumes designed by Nudie Cohn]. I live it, eat it, breathe it. These people are legends. They were successful 23 years before I was born, and here am I meeting them. This is absolute heaven!"