Gary Daniels remembers who helped him heal the hurt that tore his heart almost 20 years ago. It was Ray Price, a man he never met, who sang a song he'll never forget.

"I was in the Navy," Daniels says, "and I was married to a very pretty little gal, my high school sweetheart. We split and it just devastated me. I sat and I listened to this song over and over and over on the jukebox, in Virginia Beach, in a little club called the Lamplighter."

Daniels, who is now working on his own country music career, recounts the song, "It Should Be Easier Now," in which Price sings: "The wound in my heart you carved deep and wide, followed and washed by the tears I've cried, but now there'll be more room for love inside, it should be easier now."

Those words, Daniels says, "gave me a light at the end of the tunnel. Here I'm 19 years old, and this is my first love, my true love, and I don't think there will ever be anybody else that could even compare. And all of a sudden this song is telling me: 'Hang on. Just hang on.' It carried me through."

And that, country music fans say, is country's draw: The words and the music carry them through the pain to a place of hope and greater understanding.

At least this was the consensus of dozens of country music lovers interviewed at the 19th annual International Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville last month. They were among the 24,000 performers, fans, promoters, managers, disc jockeys and roadies who attended the up-close, down-home fan appreciation week.

The event, sponsored by the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Association and held at the Tennessee Fairgrounds, included 13 shows featuring more than 90 acts -- among them Randy Travis, Waylon Jennings, the Judds, Charley Pride and Charlie Daniels. Seven buildings housed more than 260 exhibit booths, mostly manned by fan club organizers. And many stars hosted breakfasts, luncheons and barbecues for their faithful followers.

Loretta Lynn headlined a 14-act dinner show sponsored by the International Fan Club Organization, a group founded by Loudilla Johnson of Wild Horse, Colo., and her sisters Kay and Loretta. Johnson says it was her idea for "some kind of party for all the fan club people" that led to the first Fan Fair.

"We envisioned it was going to be this huge success," Johnson says, "because we had worked with fans of country music enough to know that if the artist would devote the time, the fans would be there to support them."

Number among them Julie Sbraccia of Boston, who attended her first Fan Fair this year. "It's just something I thought I really should do, even just once," Sbraccia says. "So many stars participate and they stand behind their fan club booths and talk to you. You can actually walk up to someone you really admire, meet them, shake their hand. In rock-and-roll, I don't think you'll ever see something like this."

For Sbraccia, and fans like her, it's all about connection.

"When you listen to somebody's music over and over, you kind of feel like you know him," Sbraccia says. "And then you come here and you meet him, it's almost like you feel you have a friendship. This person whose singing has done something for your life. And it's almost like: 'I finally got to meet that person who contributed to my life.' I might never do it again but I made a memory this time."

Sbraccia is among 30 million people nationwide (an industry estimate), among them President Bush, who listen to country music.

The misconception is that country music "is hayseed, but it's not," says Ronald Cotton, a concert promoter. "And it's not the 'Hee Haw' you see on television."

The stereotype is "twangy and hillbilly," says Lucy Grant, a Cleveland disc jockey who grew up in Bethesda. "And it's so much more contemporary now, with kind of a rock feel to it. It has a lot more mass appeal."

Country music "is everybody from k.d. lang to Hank Williams Jr., with the Kentucky Headhunters somewhere in between. Now you define that," says singer Larry Gatlin. "You can't. It's impossible. And it isn't important."

What is important, Gatlin says, is what country stands for in the minds of those on both sides of the jukebox. And there, some common themes emerge.

"It's the 'Green, Green Grass of Home,' " Cotton says, citing the title of his favorite cut. "It's going back home. We'll never be able to. None of us will. But we try to remember the times as great."

"It's music for the people, everyday people," says Roy Wakely, a disc jockey in Dayton, Ohio. "People can relate to it in the way they live their lives: their love affairs, their ups and downs, their jobs, the hard times and the good times and the bad times."

"When you're down and out," says Michael Powell, of Michigan and a member of country singer Gary Morris's fan club, "you can listen to the music and say, 'Hey, I'm not alone. There's other people out there, maybe not in the same boat I am, but close enough. And they're making it. So I can make it too.' "

That's the key, says Jim Ibbotson of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose favorite self-penned lyric is: "Dance, little Jean, this day is for you, two people you love stood up to say, 'I do.' Today your mama's marrying your dad."

"We write songs that deal with the events of our lives," Ibbotson says, "and we present them in an easy-to-swallow melody. It's nothing real challenging for anybody to listen to. Plus, if the song is any good, it will touch a chord inside the listener. I think that's why most people tune in day after day, 'cause they find out that somebody else hurts as much as they hurt or felt as elated as they felt."

In other words, country music is about "real people in real situations in a real world," says Jim London, co-host of the morning show on country music radio WMZQ-AM/FM (1390/98.7), the area's third-highest ranked station. And many of the listeners, says news director Kim Leslie, "look at the songs and the artists behind them as their own personal support group."

Support groups provide courage and encouragement from people who share a similar plight, "and you're saying the same thing goes on with a country music song," says Dan Hammer, president-elect of the Tennessee division of the Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. "The singer tells his story, and it's not exactly like my story, but it's close enough for me to say: 'Gee, I hadn't thought about telling my story in those words, but I can really relate.' "

This innate need for identification, for connection, magnifies in times of trouble.

"We listen to music all the time, even just walking around the mall, but we're not always feeling that particular need for support," Hammer says. "But when I'm experiencing a loss, I'm more heightened to words from anywhere. I'm not claiming country music is always artistic. But if it's in a form that can reach past some of our usual blocks, then we'll feel supported. We'll identify with the words."

Some people make the connection through other forms of artistic expression: an opera, a rock song, a poem, a painting, a dance. To focus on country is to "take a piece of Americana to show some very common, ordinary traits that happen to do with being human," says Esco McBay, a family therapist in Nashville. "They're simply being expressed in this particular way in this particular setting.

"Obviously, behind every piece of art there is a person who expresses that thought or feeling," McBay says. "The music, then the song, becomes a connecting link between that person and the receiver. And so when I respond to that message, when I respond to that song, at some level I'm connecting to that person."

In today's "society of strangers," he says, "you see it even more. We're looking for a person to connect with, a person who understands us."

Garth Brooks, one of those people, found at Fan Fair a connection to the "real people" country music attracts.

"It's people who have started with nothing and built it," says Brooks, 26, whose debut album went gold in May. "They're chasing their dream, you've chased yours. They've given you your dream and now it's time to give something back."

Fan and star alike feel bonded by the values and memories they hold most dear. Fans talk about the stars almost as friends. Stars talk of fans who work hard, take pride in their families, believe in America and make it possible for the stars to live their dreams. And each sees in the other a reflection of himself.

"Hey, I slop hogs, I shovel horse manure and I change diapers," says Pam Perry, singer and mandolin player for Wild Rose, an all-woman band. "I know what that part of life is about."

"It hasn't been that long that I remember being a fan, wanting to meet somebody," adds Kathy Mac, bass player for Wild Rose. "It's the American dream. It really is. Because you've seen somebody come from humble beginnings and suddenly become popular, and people want to meet them and they want to be around them. To people who are trying to get ahead in this world, that gives them hope."

It's a matter of "taking courage in our own lives by the examples of others," McBay says. "The way that I can relate to that is the mentor concept. Most people develop mentors ... people who ... in a sense become a model."

Wendell Cox, lead guitarist for the Travis Tritt band, sees that with "I'm Gonna Be Somebody," a song the band sings "about this guy" everybody looks down on "so he wants to make something of himself."

And "most teenagers go through a hard time," he adds. "You get depressed or think about suicide and things like that. I think this song would probably give them a little bit different view of things and maybe help them to go for it, some kind of goal to have in mind, instead of sitting back and being depressed."

To tell a story that inspires, enlightens or entertains, someone needs to put pen to paper. And that's when country comes alive.

Our lives are better left to chance, I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance.

Those words, from a Garth Brooks song, "The Dance," written by Tony Arata, describe a dance "shared underneath the stars above" that for a moment made the world right. But the dance ends and the romance fades, and the song, says Janet Williams of Nashville, begs the greater question: "If you knew something was gonna hurt and break your heart and be painful, would you avoid it? If you did, then you'd never know the sweet part, the good things, the pleasure. And so the pleasure is worth the pain."

If you're gonna throw stones and put on an act, you better move out of your house made of glass.

Those lyrics come from "It Takes One to Know One," a song about a woman who leaves her man because he's been cheating, which "is kind of typical country," says songwriter and singer Robbin Linda Brown, 34. Brown says while she has "a knack for rhyming and timing," she "had to live some life" to give heart to her songs. "I had to hurt a little."

I've looked to the stars, tried all of the bars, and I've nearly gone up in smoke. Now my hand's on the wheel of something that's real and I feel like I'm goin' home. -- from "Hands on the Wheel" by Willie Nelson

This theme of going home is a staple of country music.

"We wouldn't need to go back to childhood if our childhood were so perfect that it prepared us for everything that life was going to give us. And so there are some gaps," says family therapist Hammer.

For some people, he adds, a country music song provides "a retreat to a place where things were more secure. And there may be some things we would like to go back and experience because we'd like to have some more out of those experiences."

Such was the case for Ruth B. Swift of Baltimore, who was reminded at Fan Fair of good times with her father.

"He was a balladeer," Swift says, "and I remember as a child growing up, Daddy taking us to see a lot of the old performers." While walking the grounds at Fan Fair, the sound of country in the air, Swift says, the memories washed over her, "and I looked at my sister and said: 'Wouldn't Daddy love this?'

"And so it's personal," she says of her attraction to country music, tears welling in her eyes. "It's personal." Making Connections

Those interested in country music or country music fan clubs can connect through the following:

The International Fan Club Organization, run by Loudilla Johnson and her sisters, Kay and Loretta, furnishes assistance and information on joining, forming or learning more about country music fan clubs: IFCO at P.O. Box 177, Wild Horse, Colo. 80862-0177.

Country Club, a subsidiary of the Country Music Association. Annual membership is $20, and includes a bimonthly newsletter, VIP concert seating, a toll-free concert hot-line number, and a tape of new artists and a merchandise catalogue. CMA Country Club, 507 Maple Leaf Dr., Nashville, Tenn. 37210-9861. Or call 1-800-767-2900.

Smithsonian Recordings has scheduled an October release for "Classic Country Music," 100 selections recorded from the late 1920s to the mid-1980s. Included is an 84-page book written by Bill Malone, with notes on the selections, photographs of the performers and a reading list. Send $59.96 for records or cassettes, $64.96 for CDs, and $5.09 for postage to: Smithsonian Recordings, P.O. Box 23345, Dept. WT, Washington, D.C. 20026; (202) 287-3738, ext. 369. (Smithsonian Associates, $5 discount.) For Fans, 30 Seconds of Heaven

Ann Scalise of Brentwood, Tenn., had one goal in mind: to get Randy Travis's autograph to give to her mentally retarded sister.

"I know why I do it," she said in her fifth hour in line for the autograph at Fan Fair in Nashville last month. "But I don't know why people come and stand in these incredible lines for less than 30 seconds in front of this guy. I guess it's their one moment of glory. If they can't get famous, they're going to get close to somebody who is."

"Oh, it's worth it, just to get to meet them," says Sherry Hunt of Greenfield, Ohio, who waited hours at Loretta Lynn's fan club booth. "It's like being a part of their world for a little while."

An autograph, says Esco McBay, a family therapist in Nashville, is evidence of that contact, "reminders of a moment, a piece of time."

Says Tommy Daniel, who researches fan attraction for the Country Music Association: "It's like they {entertainers} live a life that's different from me, and I want to get close to them, to touch them, even if it's just for a moment."

Dozens of fans interviewed in Nashville say they see in the stars living proof that "real" and "down-home" people can, with sacrifice, humility, faith and hard work, overcome formidable odds. And many fans see in the stars a realization of the dreams they treasure.

"Everybody thinks they can sing to a certain extent," says Roy Wakely, a disc jockey in Dayton, Ohio. "They think: 'I can be a singer, but I don't want to because I've got a good job and a family. But that's me, Garth Brooks, if I would have pushed it. He's lived the life for me, and I'm staying home with my safe and secure job with my family.' People think like that."