Bluebird Café

Bluebird Café

Patrick Morgan

The Bluebird Cafe isn’t much to look at. It’s in a Nashville strip mall, next to Le Bon Ton Hair Salon. The joint seats fewer than 100 people, and there are just two small bathrooms -- directly in the path of the waiters leaving the kitchen.

But the club’s humble footprint belies a storied history: This is where Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift scored record deals, where an unknown Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban once played open-mic nights, and where, on any given evening, Bonnie Raitt or Vince Gill might just drop by unannounced.

Since Amy Kurland opened the Bluebird in June 1982, it has become a haven for songwriters, a listening room (most shows are played in the round) where patrons are encouraged to shush anyone talking during a performance -- and where A&R executives just might find the next big thing.

Today, the Bluebird’s crowds spill out the door (thanks in part to a little show called Nashville). For the club’s 35th anniversary, many of the best-known performers, actors and executives who have passed through its doors spoke to Billboard, recalling big-money deals, nerve-wracking auditions for slots on the coveted Sunday Writers’ Nights and -- yes -- the moment that Swift’s career took off.


THE PILGRIMAGE

Kelsea Ballerini: On my first trip to Nashville with my mom, we waited in line to see if we could get in. Jake Owen was a surprise guest. I remember thinking, 'This is the coolest place ever. I want to play here.'

Maren Morris: It’s a rite of passage.

Taylor Swift: For any singer-songwriter in Nashville, the Bluebird Cafe is the heart of Music City. I love driving past, because that’s where I played the acoustic show that ended up getting me a record deal.

LeAnn Rimes: I moved to Nashville when I was 22, and I lived right down the street. I would run down there in my sweats. One night, we maybe had a few drinks. I started to sing "I Need You" with Dennis [Matkosky] and Darrell [Brown]. It’s almost like sitting on the bus after a show, when we’re all just playing music and chilling out.

Melissa Etheridge: When my first album came out in 1988, I went to Nashville, and I played the Bluebird. They had all these pictures of everyone who’d played there up on the wall. I had these crazy 8-by-10 glossies. It looked like 'I’m Employee of the Month.' It’s hanging on the wall now.

Ballerini: You can hear a pin drop when people are singing.

John Oates (Hall & Oates): Some people have called it a church.

Connie Britton (actress, Nashville): I have felt the fear of, like, 'I can’t make a sound.'

Amy Kurland (original owner): People think that I started this thing, telling people to shush, but it was the audience. Nobody is more than a few rows away from the music. The songwriters put their drinks on the customers’ tables.

Loudon Wainwright III: I’ve played at the Bluebird only once. I recall having a heated discussion with Amy about why I felt the venue should have a dressing room. We agreed to disagree.

Dierks Bentley: Sometimes a guy gets onstage that doesn’t look like a star, and your friends are like, 'Why’s he singing that Luke Bryan song?' And you’re like, 'He wrote that song.' I wanted to play the Bluebird before I turned 23, and I waited until the very last Sunday before I finally got the nerve up.

Kelsea Ballerini

Ballerini surprised young songwriter Wall in June 2016.Courtesy of Landon Wall 

Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson

Willie Nelson (left) and Kris Kristofferson took the stage together in January 2013.Courtesy of Bluebird Cafe

Kurland: Garth Brooks had the highest [audition] score I ever gave to anybody. He was singing a song about how well he’d treat this woman if she would be his. I got onstage and asked him to marry me.

Kathy Mattea: Someone would play a song, and I’d do everything but French kiss them to get it for my next record.

Morris: Before I moved to Nashville, I saw this YouTube video of Natalie Hemby at the Bluebird, doing this song she wrote for Lee Ann Womack called 'The Bees.' I remember being like, 'I have to write with Natalie Hemby.' [Morris did, on Hero.]

KurlandPerforming Songwriter was putting on a show with a bunch of songwriters including Mike Reid. I don’t know why, but Bonnie Raitt was in the audience. [Reid] played "I Can’t Make You Love Me," and she sang. It was one of the most miraculous musical moments I ever saw.

John Prine & Bono

Singer-songwriter John Prine (left) and Bono at the Bluebird around the time U2 The Joshua Tree was released.Courtesy of Bluebird Cafe

 


MAKING DEALS AND MOVIES

Erika Wollam Nichols (current president/COO of the Bluebird Cafe through Nashville Songwriters Association International; former Bluebird waitress): When I was bartending there in the early ’90s -- the heyday of country music -- A&R people came all the time.

Kurland: Trisha Yearwood did a showcase. Faith Hill was singing with Gary Burr’s band and got noticed here. There was a [1988] showcase put on by the Nashville Entertainment Association. A songwriter named Ralph Murphy was sick that night, so they subbed Garth [Brooks] in.

Bob Doyle (Brooks’ manager): Lynn [Shults, the late Capitol A&R executive] had passed in our meeting with [Brooks] in his office. It was after he saw Garth in front of an audience that he reconsidered his decision.

Kurland: Lynn grabbed Garth and said, 'We made a mistake. Come back to the kitchen and talk to me.'

Scott Borchetta (president/CEO/founder, Big Machine Label Group): I met Taylor [Swift] for the first time on Nov. 2, 2004. Then I went to see her at the Bluebird on Nov. 4. I was just blown away by her songs. And she could hang, you know? She had no problem hanging with these seasoned songwriters. She’s so competitive, and in that moment, she wasn’t going to let anybody upstage her.

Nichols: Music Row was papered with information about Taylor.

Borchetta: I was at Universal then, but I had decided I was leaving. I said, 'The only promise I can make you tonight is, when I start my label, you have a deal with me.' She called me 10 days later and said, "I’m waiting for you."

Nichols: I heard Maren Morris sing 'I Wish I Was.' We saw Bailey Bryan on an open mic maybe a year-and-a-half ago. Then, you know, boom.

Peter Bogdanovich (director, The Thing Called Love, about an aspiring singer-songwriter): I disliked Robert Altman’s Nashville. It was sort of snide -- an Easterner looking at these singers. [When it came to shooting at the Bluebird], the studio said, 'Don’t you want to use [a more] glamorous place?' I said, 'No, that’s the point.'

Morris: I remember being obsessed with [The Thing Called Love] as a kid; my mom loved [star] River Phoenix. I wanted to be a songwriter, but I didn’t know it was this job.

Billy Joe Shaver, Gary Nicholson, Townes Van Zandt & Guy Clark

From left: Outlaw country star Billy Joe Shaver, songwriter-producer Gary Nicholson and singer-songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark in 1994.Courtesy of Bluebird Cafe

Connie Britton & Rayna Jaymes

Britton (center, as singer Rayna Jaymes) performed at the Bluebird with Lennon (left) and Maisy Stella (right) on season three of Nashville in 2014.Mark Levine/ABC

AFTER NASHVILLE, A NEW ERA 

Callie Khouri (creator, Nashville): I wasn't interested in doing a Hee Haw version of Nashville. I thought if we were going to establish a show that was really authentic, we shouldn’t fake it. Believe me, it would have been much easier -- you can’t talk at the Bluebird. It’s not like Cheers.

Britton: I was in the audience at a benefit at the Bluebird. Sheryl Crow was there. We’d talked about doing 'Strong Enough' together. We’d rehearsed it. The whole time I was sitting there, I was like, 'Am I going to get up and do this?' At the 11th hour, I chickened out. I’ll always regret it.

Nichols: People come to the Bluebird now because it’s a celebrity. And it isn’t like any club in the world.

Mattea: As we've watched our city get gentrified, the fact that this place has been not just preserved but revered and honored makes me proud of my town.

Rita Wilson (actress, singer): I was writing in Nashville, and some people I was writing with put in a good word for me. You know what has come before you in a place like the Bluebird.

Nichols: Tom Hanks [Wilson’s husband] came. We brought him in the back door. I have never seen the room like that; I had to walk around saying, 'Put down the phone.'

Ballerini: A guy named Landon Wall wrote a response to my song 'Peter Pan' called 'Lost Boy.' I found out he was playing the open-mic night at the Bluebird, so I was like, 'I’m going to go surprise him.' I love that the Bluebird is the kind of place where you can do that.

Morris: It's a place you come home to. The importance put on the craft of a song -- that’s the root and the heartbeat of Nashville. It’s our little jewel.

This article originally appeared in the August 5 issue of Billboard.