CMA Fest got its start with fan club parties, but what does that look like for a new generation?

Listen to an audio feature that goes behind the scenes in the planning of a Tigirlily Gold fan party

The 51st edition of CMA Fest descends upon Nashville this week, and it’s easy to forget that for most of its existence, the country music festival was known as “Fan Fair.”

Early on, its biggest draw was fan club parties and autograph signing sessions where fans mingled with the singers they loved.

More than the name has changed since those days. The festival now hosts a highly professionalized, four-day marathon of concerts, culminating in stadium shows that are filmed for television.

Some veteran country performers have kept up the tradition of hosting folksy reunions with fans they’ve come to know personally over decades. I once witnessed the strong bonds and intimate familiarity between the late Charley Pride, his wife Rozene Pride and the attendees of their annual fan club breakfast.

Meanwhile, the entire music industry has fixated on superfandom as an important source of income, trying to figure out ways of cultivating and capitalizing on the interest of listeners whose connection with specific artists transcends the casual. Much of that involves developing new platforms where performers share content directly with their most engaged fans.

But within country music, there are some younger acts, like the duo Tigirlily Gold, who are blending the old fan club rituals with their understanding of the social media era.

These singing, songwriting sisters, Krista and Kendra Slaubaugh, will have their gathering this Thursday morning at a multi-story bar on Lower Broadway called Whiskey Row. It’s a place where they have quite a bit of history.

When I meet the people who are in charge of planning the event there on a recent weekday morning, another singer is playing for tips, both the cash and virtual kind, like the Slaubaugh sisters used to do when they held down a residency here.

Monument’s Casey Thomas and Roundhouse Entertainment’s Greg McCarn, in front of the venue that will host Tigirlily Gold’s fan party

Casey Thomas, the head of marketing at the duo’s label, Monument Records, leads the way upstairs. “They were putting themselves through Belmont, and singing here nights, days, weekends,” she says, “and they were playing four-hour sets four or five days a week, just grinding away.”

Tigirlily Gold signed with Monument a few years ago, and found other important business partners, like Greg McCarn, who’s part of their management team at Roundhouse Entertainment.

McCarn worked Fan Fair back in the day, before the festival moved downtown. His first was in 1989 when he was an intern with CBS Records.

“This is back at the old fairgrounds, where, if you were fortunate, you had an air-conditioned building, but there were a lot of artists that didn’t have an air-conditioned building, so people would stand in line for hours to meet their favorite artist,” he recalls.

When that scene played out, the Slaubaugh sisters weren’t even born yet. They began harmonizing together as kids in smalltown North Dakota, where they worked the regional circuit in high school, before moving to Nashville

They were pursuing the time-tested country career path of dues-paying, proving they had the drive and charisma to entertain crowds and winning over executives who had the power to say “yes.” But at the same time, they were Gen Z digital natives.

Thomas notes, “Even three or four or five years ago, when a lot of artists were not on TikTok, [Kendra and Krista] jumped right in.”

Rising country acts like Tigirlily Gold look to maximize the opportunities that CMA Fest offers, to get on the most and biggest stages possible, and basically go nonstop for a week.

Says, McCarn, “We consciously think, ‘Well, let’s make sure there’s a break in there to eat food or there’s time to stop and use the bathroom.’ It ends up being a very, very packed schedule.”

Thomas considers it anything but a given that young artists will look at fan parties as a priority, “knowing that that in-person interaction at CMA Fest is just as important as it was years ago.”

But the Slaubaugh sisters didn’t need to be convinced. “Anyone that’s coming to town, even if it’s one person that’s here for them, they want to do something for that fan,” Thomas attests.

They spread the word about this year’s event to the fans who’d signed up to receive their periodic text updates, ensuring that the invite reached some of their more devoted followers. Within a couple of hours, all of the 200-plus slots were taken.

The event is meant to feel like Tigirlily Gold’s return to a place that was a proving ground, this time with a few special touches. Like, cocktails named for their songs. “Shoot Tequila,” a rollicking single blaming the booze for a night getting out of hand, is an obvious choice.

The duo will definitely perform live. They’re releasing their debut album Blonde in July, Thomas notes. “So we’ll give these fans that show up a little bit of a sneak peek into the some of the songs that haven’t come out yet.”

But the sisters will be sure to keep the set short, so that they can set aside time to chat it up with attendees.

And there will be souvenirs that reflect their aesthetic.

“We’re bringing in a company that makes custom trucker hats because Krista always wears a trucker hat,” says Thomas. “It’s kind of become a thing on socials.”

That operation will be set up on a table next to the stage. In a different spot will be a backdrop for the ultimate photo op.

When it’s time for Tigirlily Gold to pose for photos with fans, the duo’s manager, McCarn, predicts that the line will snake all around the room. “More importantly than anything else, that selfie, that photo that they get with a girls, I think has now become today’s autograph,” he says. “You know, where they have the sort of the proof that they were there in that moment.”

Proof meant for social media, where they can put their up-close access on display.