The Bluebird Cafe
The Bluebird Cafe is a musical historic landmark located just outside of downtown Nashville, TN. It is known for jumpstarting the careers of several notable artists, such as Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Kathy Mattea, Trisha Yearwood, Dierks Bentley, Faith Hill and Vince Gill. Musicians play in the center of the cafe, which provides a more personal and intimate setting for the less than 100 people in the audience. Originally founded as a gourmet lunch and dinner cafe, it is now visited by 70,000 people annually. Described as “part church, part living room,” it has been called “the 'accidental' Nashville landmark that has altered the course of music history.” Katie Couric has referred to it as "the temple of country’s pure soul."
Backstory and Context
The Bluebird Cafe was founded in 1982 by original owner Amy Kurland as a gourmet lunch and dinner cafe. Only three years later did Kurland decide to add a stage as a venue for aspiring songwriters. The Bluebird has offered two shows nearly every night for over thirty years in a small venue in a strip center in suburban Green Hills.
The cafe is a staple in the community and a very important part of the musical history of the city of Nashville, so much so that it has appeared many times in the ABC television show Nashville. On January 1, 2008, Kurland sold the venue (though the sale was described as a "donation") to the Nashville Songwriters Association International, which is committed to the art of songwriting. Calling ownership of the venue "a sacred trust," the Executive Director of the NSAI vowed to make no changes to the site's programming or decor.
The Bluebird's current general manager, Erika Wollam Nichols. has confirmed that at least some of the legendary tales about music superstars sealing instant recording deals simply from performing at the Bluebird are true. “Lynn Schultz [from Capital Records] took Garth [Brooks] into our kitchen and said, 'Come tomorrow and we’re going to sign a deal.'" Superstar Taylor Swift, who was 14 when she first played the Bluebird in 2005, invited a record executive to see her play, who promptly signed her. Nichols recalls how Swift demonstrated on that occasion "how she can actually work a room." She admits, however, that the industry no longer works that way.
In the cafe's early days, fans would call the Bluebird line as soon as reservations opened until all seats were taken. Today, there is an online registration system, but patience is still required. The registration fee goes to the registration company, the cover charge at the door goes to the artists who perform there, and all charges for food, drink and merchandise go to the cafe itself. However, there is no cover charge for the Sunday Spotlight, open mic (Mondays), Sunday Writers Nights or most early shows Tuesday-Saturday, but online registration is still charged.
The management calls the venue a “listening room”
rather than a club, and enforces what has been called a “shhh policy.” "Because
we are so small, there is not a lot of room... We ask
people to listen to the songs in an atmosphere that is an opportunity for the
songwriters to try out a song," said Nichols.
A documentary feature about the cafe was recently screened at SXSW in Austin. Because of its high-profile status, Nichols has felt challenged not to allow the café from turning into a mere tourist attraction. “It’s something that’s concerned me from the minute the television show happened — how do we stay real and not be a facade of ourselves? And I always tell our staff, because there are now a million songwriter places, we just have to be the best Bluebird.”
Capps, Milt. “Bluebird Cafe gets new owner after 25 years.” Nashville Post. Publication Date: 11/8/07. Access Date: 5/19/19. https://www.nashvillepost.com/home/article/20401389/bluebird-cafe-gets-new-owner-after-25-years.
Hance, Mary. “Bluebird Cafe: 8 things to know about Nashville's famed venue.” The Tennessean. Publication Date: 8/22/18. Access Date: 5/19/19. https://www.tennessean.com/story/life/shopping/ms-cheap/2018/08/22/bluebird-cafe-tickets-nashville-music-venue/824883002.
O'Brien, Kristen. “Taylor Swift (at Age 14!) Proved 'She Can Actually Work a Room' at Nashville Landmark Bluebird Café.” People.com. Publication Date: 5/16/19. Access Date: 5/19/19. https://people.com/country/bluebird-cafe-documentary-nashville-landmark.