Brooks recently appeared on Midland’s Amazon Music podcast Set It Straight: Myths and Legends to clear up any misconceptions about the day in 1996 when Brooks made a surprise appearance at Fan Fair (now CMA Fest) and spent 23 hours signing autographs for fans, supposedly without even stopping for a restroom break.
In 1972, the Country Music Association partnered with WSM radio to launch the International Country Music Fan Fair, which was originally held at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium. Since then, the annual gathering of fans and their favorite country music artists has grown to become one of the most anticipated events for country music lovers and drawing thousands of fans from around the world. CMA Fest’s footprint has also grown to encompass a large swath of downtown Nashville, including Nissan Stadium, Music City Center and more (though the festival has been on hiatus since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
“It’s the place where people who get to sing and play country music — me and you — get to actually be among the people who allow us to do it,” Brooks told Midland members Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson of CMA Fest.
In 1996, Fan Fair was celebrating its 25th anniversary, with an artist lineup that included Martina McBride, Trace Adkins, Shania Twain and Billy Ray Cyrus, among others. Brooks dropped by the event unannounced, found a vacant area near a livestock building and began talking to fans. A crowd swelled around Brooks, who stayed and signed autographs for 23 hours and 10 minutes without a break. The following year, Brooks would play his now-legendary concert at New York City’s Central Park to an audience of over one million people.
Though the relationship Brooks has with his fans is well known, the 59-year-old superstar told Midland that he had another motive for the marathon signing session.
“I’d love to tell you that it was just done out of love and stuff but the real story behind it was we had a new regime at the label come in. There were rumors that older acts were going to go out, newer acts were going to come in and replace them. Which is normal always at labels but one of the older acts was me,” Brooks said. “Kept getting the sign through the support of the music and the tour and everything that we were on our way out.”
Brooks had released his seventh album, Fresh Horses, the year prior. By May 1996, the album had been certified four-times pllatinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
So Brooks hatched a plan. He told Midland that he reached out to a childhood friend and said, “Let’s go down to Fan Fair, park the truck, and see what happens. Our bosses are not the record labels. Our bosses are not country radio or the CMAs. As much as I love those people, our bosses are those people on the other side of radio. Those people that show up in those seats. I said, ‘Let’s go see what the bosses think.’ We got a chance to be with the people and they were going to tell me where I was at in my career. And it began,” he recalled. “You talk about fun, you talk about memorable, you talk about those last things you see when your last breaths are taken on this earth, that day will be one of them for me.”
Brooks estimated he began greeting fans around 9 a.m. that morning, and was still there long after midnight. He recalled a thunderstorm began to threaten the festivities in the middle of the evening. “I’m thinking, ‘This is how it’s going to end? People running to their cars, unhappy?’ … It was like a military operation. They popped out tents, coolers, rain gear. Everybody stayed there. It’s about four in the morning and you’re starting to see the end of the line way down there. But the crazy thing is with everybody you sign [autographs for] and everybody you hug, you realize they’ve been there as long as you have.”
He also noted that much of the time was spent listening to stories of how his music impacts fans.
“I’m not sure I could sign autographs that long, but when you get to take pictures … and then hear those stories of what that music has done to them, and you’ve got somebody in a suit and tie going, ‘I don’t think you’re still among the people,’ I’m gonna take those stories over any awards or anything they can give me.”
When asked if there were bathroom breaks during those 23-plus hours, Brooks responded, “For everybody else.”
“It’s like anything else: If you stop for a second, you’re not going to start back up, so just keep going,” he said. “I promise you I’m not making this up, but every story kept getting better and better.”
Asked why that connection and approachability with fans is so important in country music, Brooks explained, “For one, it’s not something you put on or take off … country music, they want you to be the guy next door. The cool thing about country music is they want you to be as normal and regular as you can be, but at the same time they are going to give you numbers that can compete with any pop act that’s ever walked the stage.”