by Brian Howe
In ABC’s popular drama Nashville, an old-guard country music star and a young upstart vie for power on the volatile terrain of Music City’s storied music industry. Though the Bluebird Café, a major ongoing location, is filmed on a soundstage, the venue it replicates in minute detail is very real. In fact, it’s been a unique aspect of Nashville’s rich musical culture for 20 years, connecting songwriters to musicians and breeding celebrities from Garth Brooks to Taylor Swift.
Nashville has no lack of venerable halls that host titans of the genre, from Belcourt Theatre and Ryman Auditorium to the Grand Ole Opry House. Nor is there any shortage of honky-tonks where you can hear new talent in a less formal environment. But the Bluebird combines the best of both worlds, with big names and hopeful unknowns mingling in an intimate, attentive setting.
|Recently on Nashville, actress Clare Bowen performed "Every Time I Fall in Love" at the Bluebird.|
Unassumingly tucked away under an old blue awning in a shopping center outside of downtown Nashville, the Bluebird’s history lines its walls when you enter, with signed publicity photos of the likes of Faith Hill and Steve Earle commemorating their appearances. There is also a Tennessee license plate nailed up that says “SHHH,” which is what you’ll hear from a bartender or waiter if you violate the Bluebird’s cardinal rule: No talking during performances.
The 100-seat venue (be sure to reserve one of its 20 or so tables in advance) is geared as a close listening room for acoustic music where the “heroes behind the hits,” as manager Erika Wollam Nichols has said, perform songs they wrote but others made famous. Meanwhile, those same chart-toppers haunt the club for new material.
Early evenings are usually given over to the Bluebird’s distinct “Music in the Round” format, where four singer/songwriters in the center of the room showcase and discuss new songs, helping each other out with instrumental backing and harmonies. At night, the action moves to the stage with more established bookings. So you might come to hear what Hilary Lindsey, writer of Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” is up to now, and then stay for LeAnn Rimes, who perhaps came for the same reason.
The Bluebird opened in 1982 as a restaurant with a small stage for occasional live music, but the latter vocation quickly usurped the former. Within a year, it helped launch its first career—that of Kathy Mattea, who remains a frequent guest performer at the Bluebird today. Mattea dropped out of college in the late-‘70s and moved to Nashville, where she got a job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It wasn’t until after Mattea spent a few months performing at the Bluebird that she got a record deal in 1983, going on to chart more than 30 country and bluegrass singles to date.
In 1984, the Bluebird inaugurated its long-running Writer’s Night, where young songwriters get to play their original material alongside a better-known one. The first Writer’s Night featured Don Schlitz, the Grammy-winning writer of “The Gambler” for Kenny Rogers. That tradition continues unbroken, with Schlitz hosting two Writer’s Nights this July. Even more significantly, 1985 saw the introduction of the Bluebird’s trademark in-the-round format, and within a couple years, it started its Open Mic Nights.
Songwriters have to audition to play the Bluebird’s main stage, and it was around 1987 when a newbie named Garth Brooks walked into one. Not surprisingly in hindsight, he passed, and was signed by Capitol Records shortly after performing on the Bluebird’s Sunday Songwriter’s Show. He continued to frequent Writer’s Nights and found essential songwriting collaborators in hit-makers Kent Blazy, who wrote Brooks’ first number-one, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and Pat Alger (“The Thunder Rolls” and others).
Founder Amy Kurland sold the Bluebird in 2008, but it hardly tarnished the club’s reputation for influence and community-building: The buyer was Nashville Songwriters Association International, a decades-old nonprofit that caters to the needs of working songwriters. And while the mainstream country music landscape may have changed considerably since the heyday of Brooks—who prefigured its vibrant but uneasy blend into pop—the Bluebird remains an indispensible fount of future legends. After all, in 2004, a 15-year-old singer/songwriter was discovered there by the name of Taylor Swift, who many see as the inspiration for Hayden Panettiere’s character on Nashville.
Despite all the new media attention, the Bluebird continues to operate as it always has, putting songwriters and musicians both untested and eminent into contact with each other and the attentive ears of music industry players.