As Nashville filled up this week with music fans from around the country for the annual CMA Fest, the inaugural Country FanJam was planned for the Tennessee State Fairgrounds just south of downtown. Featuring two stages, food and craft vendors, and four days of entertainment beginning on Thursday, over 40 separate acts were booked on the two stages, including names such as Wade Hays, Ray Scott, Tonya Watts, Ty Herndon, Doug Stone, Darryl Worley, Buddy Jewell, and The Bellamy Brothers.
However by Friday night, the security detail had walked off the site due to a bounced payment check, bands were cancelling left and right, all of the vendors had left, and eventually the fairgrounds locked the gates and the event was cancelled. Artists were left with empty spots on their touring schedules and were out their guarantees, vendors who paid pricey fees had made no money, and a few out-of-town fans who were hoping to attend the four-day festival and paid for tickets had nowhere to go, including some who were planning to camp on the fairgrounds over the weekend.
“When we got there on Wednesday night, we paid at the gate to get in, we paid our booth rent, pulled in, and there was nobody there,” says Sarah Smith who owns a salvage sign business and signed up to be a craft vendor at the event. “Literally, there was nobody there. And we had just driven four hours from our warehouse in east Tennessee. And they said, ‘Oh, everybody’s going to be here tomorrow.’ On Thursday when the first bands started playing, there was nobody in any of the stands. There would be maybe one or two people in the stands, but it would either be another vendor like us, or somebody who was with the band.”
Though FanJam had a full roster of entertainment, the event was very poorly promoted, and the fairgrounds were too large of a venue for the amount of vendors booked for the event. A Facebook video from one attendee named Steve Nash shows how poorly attended the festival was.
“There were probably 100 vendors, but the way the promoter ran it, he spread us so far apart,” explains Sarah Smith. “There fairgrounds are huge. It houses something like 2500 vendors during the flea market. We were next to four vendors, but then there wasn’t another vendor for three football fields. By Friday morning, all of the vendors were gone. We had not one customer come to our booth, because nobody knew about it. We came back Friday night just to enjoy the music because we are fans. Doug Stone and David Ball were supposed to play, and by Friday afternoon at 5:00 p.m., all of the artists had canceled.”
That is when the event began unraveling.
“The caterer was shafted $7,000, the security guards of the Nashville Fairgrounds were rented out through the promotion, and they left because their check bounced,” says Sarah Smith. “There was no security there, and it was sort of a free-for-all by 6:00 p.m. A couple next to us said they paid $200 and drove ten hours from Virginia to be there. There was a vendor couple set up across from us that pulled in on the last $400 they had to do this event, they gave $300 to the venue, they sold nothing, spent $100 in food for a family of three, and they didn’t know if they could make it home. I felt like we were in The Twilight Zone for 72 hours.”
The main promoter of Country FanJam was Dale Guthery. Guthery previously managed the Dark Horse Studio in Franklin, TN, and Fireside Recording on Music Row. He co-founded The Sound Office with two other individuals in 2008. Where some vendors, artists, and ticket holders feel they were scammed by the promoter, some are saying it was an instance of a promoter trying to do a good thing, and overstepping his financial reach.
Tonya Watts was one of the artists who played at Country FanJam Thursday night.
“I got paid,” Tonya insists. “I was told the minute I got to town as an artist that I may not get paid and not to go. I know the politics of this town. He [Dale Guthrey] put his heart into this. If acts are being warned not to go and they don’t show up, how can he have a show? I respect his effort. I feel bad for everyone. Plus the mafioso Music Row was never going to let it happen. They tried blocking him from the get go. People need to know that.”
Tonya Watts and other attendees of the event Thursday said there were roughly 30 to 40 people in the stands by Thursday night to see her and Wade Hayes play. However by Friday morning, the fairgrounds were virtually empty of paying customers once again.
Another problem facing FanJam appeared to be a lack of sponsors. One sponsor whose logo can be seen on promotions for Country FanJam’s “Battle of the Bands” was independent radio network Outlaw Nation.
“We pulled out of being associated with it over a month ago, when it became clear that the organizer did not have the financial strength to see it to fruition,” says Josh Brown of Outlaw Nation. “To make an event like this work, you have to be able to take heavy losses for the first 2-3 years. It’s unfortunate. We wish Dale the very best.”
Fans, ticket holders, vendors, and performers were leaving angry comments on Country FanJam’s Facebook page Friday and Saturday, demanding answers and refunds, but the comments kept getting deleted. On Sunday morning, the Facebook page was completely removed. The website remains up, with text saying the event has been canceled.
Saving Country Music reached out to Dale Guthery and FanJam for a statement on Saturday, and again on Sunday morning, but have yet to receive an answer.
UPDATE (6-14 2:45 PM CDT): Dale Guthery released a statement on his personal Facebook page.
First, My heart breaks for all the Fans & Artists that did not get to see and/or perform the final two days of Country FanJam 2015. Those that know me best, know I did all this for the FANS of Country Music and never would want to disappoint them or anyone.
I had a vision to bring Roots Country Music to the Fairgrounds Nashville and fully intended to complete that task, but with very low attendance numbers and financial constrains I felt it was better to cancel the last two days. I deeply regret that the Country FanJam 2015 only lasted two days, but I’m glad for those who got to play & watch for the two days we had. I will make things right and those who believe in Country FanJam thank you for your support and prayers.