Bruce Feiler,

Bruce Feiler,

A weeklong electronic journal.
June 18 1998 3:30 AM

Bruce Feiler,

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       I found the Billy Ray ballot stuffers.
       I finally made it out to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the early afternoon. For 15 of its 27 years, Fan Fair has been headquartered at the fairgrounds, a hilly yet barren facility not far from Vanderbilt University. For $90, fans get admission to five days of events, which include ongoing concerts (the stage is set up in the infield of the speedway) and autographing sessions in which stars set up homespun booths in cramped concrete block buildings and greet fans who have waited for hours. Though stars often complain privately about losing revenue by leaving the road, they still try to out-countrify one another. Alan Jackson's booth looks like a storybook farm, complete with white picket fence and hanging plants. Sammy Kershaw built his into a double-wide trailer. Fans, meanwhile, try to out-obsess one another. One woman I met today had slept on the pavement overnight so she could be first in line to meet Tim McGraw. Her elapsed time with the balding hunk: 10 seconds. "Oh, it was worth it," she said. "I love him." (Tim's wife, Faith Hill, a star in her own right, stood several booths away to sign, even though she's seven months pregnant.)
       As I was wandering through the halls looking for the Siamese twins who used to be regulars, I noticed that one line was markedly longer than the others, snaking through several buildings and out into the sawdust-covered labyrinth where the livestock are displayed during the State Fair in October. The line was for Billy Ray, who had a noticeable glow today after his upset victory in which he claimed FIVE awards. "He would have won Entertainer of the Year," one woman griped, "if TNN hadn't published the wrong 900 number."
       That 900 number was the talk of the day. Though the industry types were predicting a change in voting techniques, fans were buoyed by sheer gall. In line I met several families who had driven from Wisconsin to meet the shorn Mr. Cyrus. They explained that Billy Ray's fan club, with an organizational structure that would make Tom Peters or the Kaiser proud, had mailed out explicit instructions to ensure that their boy, however discredited on Music Row, would sweep the awards. The most adamant member of this club was a mustachioed biker-looking dude wearing a white sleeveless undershirt and an autographed cowboy hat. He had an eagle tattoo on his right bicep and a pack of Marlboros tucked away over his heart.
       "I called the number 45 times," he declared proudly.
       "Forty-five times!" I exclaimed. "At a dollar a call!"
       "It's all because of Billy Ray," he explained. "He's such a decent man. His music is so wonderful. Plus ..." He stopped himself and began to sob. "Billy Ray saved my marriage." The man went on to explain how a song of Billy Ray's, "Trail of Tears," had caused him to reconsider leaving his wife. "It makes me cry to talk about it," he said.
       After several moments the man calmed down, comforted by many of the women in line. He thanked me for my interest. Before I left, I asked for a quick yea or nay vote over the new haircut. "Thumbs up!" the group shouted in unison, though one woman added, "Truth is, I don't care much about the hair. For me," she hoisted her thumb in the air, "love that bod!"

Bruce Feiler has authored four books, including Learning to Bow and Under the Big Top. His most recent, Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville, was published last month.