Bruce Feiler,

Thursday; 6 p.m. CT; Nashville
       I thought for sure we’d seen the last story about hair in Nashville this week, but today brought yet another. Neal McCoy, the half-Filipino Texan who upset Billy Ray on Monday night for Entertainer of the Year, auctioned off his emasculated ponytail at a fan club breakfast. The winning bid: $2,900.
       As Fan Fair drew to a close on Thursday, the temperature finally reached into the 90s and more than a few people fainted while waiting in line. Two seemingly contradictory sentiments emerge from a week at the gothic core of what Nashville likes to call “America’s Music.”
       The first is that country is now big money. The once ridiculed format full of big-wigged women and tight-Wranglered men is now crawling with drooling corporate sponsors hoping to get their carefully researched fangs into some of the loyal wallets of Nashville fans. At one booth today a local bank was selling MasterCards and Visas with pictures of country stars on them. Their one-day total of applications: 700. Onstage at the Arista show this afternoon were no fewer than six (!) agents from Creative Artists snooping out everything from television specials to movie soundtracks (the No. 1 album on the country charts this week–and the No. 5 pop album–is the soundtrack from Hope Floats).
       The marriage of corporate America and country music is not always so smooth, though. Tuesday night Doug Morris, head of Universal Music, and Frank Biondi, head of Universal Pictures, flew in on MCA’s corporate jet. In preparation, they were sent bios of all the stars and managers; all the stars and managers, in turn, were sent prep sheets on their corporate bosses. In the schmoozing tent behind the stage, Biondi cosied up to hunk-in-training Tracy Byrd and congratulated him on an excellent performance. Only one problem: Byrd hadn’t performed that night.
       The other feeling is how romantically American the event remains, despite this corporate influence. Vince Gill this morning sent 300 dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts to his fans who had stayed up overnight. John Berry’s fans had communicated with one another over the Internet in the last few weeks and decided to celebrate his new single, “Better Than a Biscuit,” by bringing home-baked biscuits to his fan club breakfast and playing a game called “bisquitball.” At Kathy Mattea’s booth, a fan had painted pictures of Kathy into some of the world’s most famous paintings, including Mona Lisa, American Gothic, and Picasso’s Girl Looking in a Mirror. The paintings were being auctioned off for charity, except for the faux Picasso, which Kathy is keeping for herself.
       And, this being country music, everyone has a story. As I was walking to my car tonight a man stopped me. His name was Mark. In his mid-40s, Mark had a heart-shaped earring in one ear that he told me symbolized the love between him and his daughters. This was his first Fan Fair. He had been strung out on drugs and alcohol for over 10 years, he said, until he heard a song by Kathy Mattea a decade ago and decided to go clean. He saved the money he made by driving forklifts until he could make it to Nashville.
       “This is the most important thing I’ve done in the last 10 years,” Mark said, describing what it was like to see Kathy sing in person and take “lots of pictures” of her at her fan club breakfast.
       “And did you get her autograph?” I asked.
       “I didn’t need to,” he said. “I’ve got her autograph on my heart.”