By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - The capital of country music lives up to its nickname beginning on Thursday where some 70,000 fans get the chance to mingle with their musical heroes at the CMA Music Fest.
The June 9-12 music festival, which is celebrating its 40th year, aims to get fans as close as possible to obtain autographs, photo opportunities, and a snatch of conversation with performers.
"Music Fest is a time for all of us to thank the fans and be here for them," said Miranda Lambert, who attended the event as a fan before performing in it as a star.
The music plays practically nonstop in Nashville from 10 a.m. to midnight on stages set up from Fifth Avenue to the Cumberland River and across the river at a stadium.
The projected 2011 lineup of more than 150 performers includes Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, Kelly Clarkson, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, Billy Ray Cyrus, Gary Allan, Bo Bice, Katie Armiger, Crystal Bowersox, and newlyweds Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton. Veteran performers include Jeannie Seely, Gene Watson and Earl Thomas Conley.
Some fans come year after year, lining up for autograph and photo opportunities with favorite performers at the Nashville Convention Center.
Last year 65,000 attended the festival and fans queued around the convention center to get coveted signatures from Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. This year will find similar scenes as Dolly Parton, Lady Antebellum, Trace Adkins, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, Martina McBride, Randy Travis, Darius Rucker, Kellie Pickler and Easton Corbin sign autographs.
Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys has been to every festival from its beginnings downtown in 1972 to its move to the Tennessee Fairgrounds and now back downtown.
"It's just gotten bigger and bigger. Right now, I think being part of Music Fest means more to us than it ever has," Bonsall said.
"Most of our fans save their money all year long to come to Fan Fest. For me to be one of the people they come to see is why I do what I do," said Darius Rucker, front man for Hootie & the Blowfish and also an award-winning country singer.
On the sidelines will be benefit shows and fan club parties, kicked off on Wednesday by Marty Stuart's Late Night Jam featuring Dolly Parton, Mel Tillis and other friends.
"I expect her 'Dolliness' (Parton) to wreck the room and steal the show and I'm not going to let her leave the stage until she does it," Stuart said.
Some artists host extravagant private events, such as Gary Allen's riverboat ride and Randy Travis' concert for just 75 ticket-holders who will pay $225 apiece to hear him perform his new album and talk about his 25 years in the music business.
Reba McEntire told reporters about her first Music Fest in 1977, once known as "Fan Fair" and held at the 10,000-seat Municipal Auditorium in Nashville.
"I think back then I rode to Fan Fair in my car with every piece of clothing I could bum off my college roommate. I didn't have any fancy clothes, but she did because she was in rodeo," McEntire said.
(Editing by Andrew Stern)