“Did you guys ride all the way up here from Nashville in that bus?” a fan at Stepping Stone Ranch in Escoheag, Rhode Island asked when the bus pulled up to the stage to unload. Or how about this one: “Gee, Stonewall, you’re one of my biggest fans!” Or: “The next time you see Johnny Cash, would you give him this song I wrote?”

Country Music fans. They supply the money that keeps the entertainment chain, which starts when a songwriter writes a hit for a star to record and ends when a picker spends his last five bucks on a 6-pack and a hot dog at a Mapco Express on the way home from a gig, running smoothly. They dress funny and ask dumb questions and still want the Greatest Hits on 8-track, but ya gotta love ’em, because Ernest Tubb said so.

They come around to the motel, or the truck stop, or the theater, or the club, and want to meet the star. “Hey, tell Faron I was in boot camp with him at Ft. Bragg.” “Faron wasn’t at Ft. Bragg.” “Yeah, he was. We used to get drunk together.” Greasy sweaty guys who look like they just changed out the transmission in their ’72 Monte Carlo come tottering up to the bus sucking on a Lone Star: “Tell Alan that Billy Bob’s here. I’m his cousin. I gave him his first git-tar.” Girls want to know what motel y’all are staying at, including room numbers. If they can’t connect with the star, they’ll settle for the front man, any other singer, any band member, the road manager, or the bus driver, usually in that order. The motherly types bring baskets of fried chicken around for you and, if you look like you’re under thirty, want to know what your parents think about you traveling around the country with a bunch of hairy-legged country musicians. The fatherly types eye you suspiciously if you get too near their womenfolk.

Local musicians come out to see you. Sometimes they bring a bottle of cheap whiskey to share with you and then want you to autograph their guitar and introduce them to the star. The older ones have stories about the time they cut a record in Nashville or played with Red Foley or some other dead singer who can’t substantiate their claim, and the younger ones want to know if they should move to Nashville. They think we all drive Cadillacs around from studio to studio down here and party with Tanya Tucker and Travis Tritt in World Famous Printer’s Alley. Hee! Haw! Tell ’em to come on down! Fans want to know what it’s like on the road. (Do you guys live in that bus, or do you check into a motel sometimes?) They want to know what the star is really like. (Does he get that drunk all the time?)

Pickers ask if you’re getting tired of playing the same old show. “How long you been with Faron, eighteen years? How many times you played ‘Hello Walls’?” “Three thousand five hundred and forty six and a half times.” “How ya get a half a time?” “There’s been lots of half a times.”

Fans get to be old friends when they come out again and again to see their favorite singers, and it’s nice to have friends out there on the road. They might loan you their car for a pizza run, or help out loading equipment or selling T-shirts and tapes, and even help you drag your star to his stateroom in the back of the bus when he’s passed out on the floor blocking the beer cooler. Fans you met on the road show up in Nashville and get you out of bed at the crack of noon, and you have to show them Dolly’s house, or where Ernest Tubb is buried, or where Randy Travis used to wash dishes, and then you have to get them in backstage at the Grand ‘Ol Opry and then show them the exciting Nashville nightlife. You never thought they’d really call; shoot, you tell everyone to call.

A scary thought, all the fans you ever met coming for a visit. Imagine a horde of camera-toting, autograph-hunting, laminated K-Mart straw hat-wearing, cheap plastic souvenir-buying, Reba and Garth-ogling country music fans descending on Nashville to turn left from the right lanes and complain about the heat and the humidity. Gee, sounds like it ought to be an annual event……

But fans have been instrumental (pun intended) in the development of country music into a big time salable commodity and have elevated it from its lowly beginnings, in the hills and hollers of the Southeast and the dusty plains of Texas and Oklahoma, to the corporate boardrooms of big record companies in New York and Los Angeles so it could be bastardized, sanitized, commercialized, and packaged and sold like Tide to housewives who wouldn’t know a pitchfork from a pitch pipe, but who long to be on the Chattahoochee with Alan Jackson and who really believe that they can look like Lorrie Morgan with enough aerobics and the right haircut.

If it weren’t for the country music fans, there would be unsold stacks of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” on 78RPM warping in somebody’s attic down on what would have been Music Row, and Reba McIntyre would be back in Oklahoma taking first place in hog calling contests. If you’re in the music business, remember that you work for the fans. They’ve helped create a huge industry in which you can toil. They pay your salary, such as it may be, and you owe them a good show when they buy a ticket and come out to see you. Smile and act like you’re having the best time of your life, like you haven’t played these songs three thousand five hundred and forty six and a half times and haven’t heard these jokes before, and maybe they’ll buy you a beer and ask for your autograph.