When ASCAP hosted its monthly songwriters-in-the-round showcase on March 5 at the Bluebird Cafe, about 20 people huddled in the cold outside the venue, hoping a seat might open up for them.
The performers weren’t exactly household names. Kelsea Ballerini, signed to Black River, was the only one who has a recording contract. The other three — Bonner Black, Sarahbeth Taite and Jordyn Shellhart — have publishing deals or are being courted for one.
Despite their relative anonymity, they were playing on a weeknight to an overflow crowd. The Bluebird, which seats no more than 100 people, has long been a difficult place to get a table. Now, thanks to its central role in the ABC drama “Nashville,” it’s close to impossible.
“Nothing is simple anymore,” says Bluebird COO/GM Erika Wollam Nichols.
Not that it ever was. Opened by Amy Kurland in 1982 with a tiny parking lot in a strip mall on busy Hillsboro Pike, the Bluebird quickly became a songwriters’ mecca after Don Schlitz (“The Gambler,” “On the Other Hand”) played the venue’s first writers night 30 years ago. Since that time, such artists as Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Kix Brooks earned early affirmations when they auditioned for a Bluebird performance slot. Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks received their first recording deals based on appearances at the club. Dustin Lynch purposely rented a home just blocks from the Bluebird when he first moved to Music City so he could frequent the venue and improve his writing skills.
The plot of “Nashville” has several of its struggling artists working at the Bluebird, and it’s also been the scene for numerous performances by cast members Connie Britton, Clare Bowen and Jonathan Jackson, among others. As a result, millions of people — fans and aspiring artists from out of town — have discovered the Bluebird, making it the No. 1-rated Nashville nightlife attraction on TripAdvisor.com.
However, that newfound level of awareness creates additional strain for the Bluebird. More visitors line up for those precious few seats, and many are shocked — and often frustrated — to find they may not be accommodated. The club is designed for listening — dinner reservations and casual at-the-bar drinking are discouraged, and people who talk during the show invariably encounter the Bluebird “shhhhhh” policy.
Last summer, the Bluebird hosts succumbed to pressure from well-intentioned visitors who asked to be wedged in. They found inventive ways to fill every available inch of floor space, but it created issues for the servers, and a few angry customers tipped off the fire marshal. As a result, there’s no longer standing room available at the bar. Thus, the club has fewer seats than it did before, which means less revenue.
At the same time, the number of songwriters trying out for open-mic nights has ballooned. There are sometimes more than 100 hopefuls auditioning, and they show up early, warming up in front of businesses nearby or clustering in the already cramped lot. It’s required the Bluebird to pay extra for security.
The most obvious solution isn’t a good one. While the club has raised the entry fee slightly — a show that once cost $10 might now run $12-$15 — it is limited by the uncertainty of TV. There are no guarantees that Nashville will still be running a year from now. The club’s long-term reputation is more valuable than a short-term revenue spike.
“We have to be a living, breathing part of the music community, and I think we have to be careful about inflated prices,” Wollam Nichols reasons.
Meanwhile, merchandising seems like the most effective way to increase revenue. The Bluebird used to sell about three T-shirts a day, Wollam Nichols says. That number has jumped to 50, and the club has enlisted a merch partner. That deal, unfortunately, hit a snag, and the club was forced to find a different fulfillment company. Wollam Nichols hopes to have a new deal in place by summer.
For their part, the Nashville executive team — including creator Callie Khouri and executive producer Steve Buchanan — has been sensitive to the club’s situation. The on-screen representation isn’t always 100% accurate — one or two episodes have, for example, featured “Happy Hour” signs — but the set re-created the Bluebird room almost exactly, and the plots continue to portray the club as an essential element in the Nashville music business.
“Even when I’ve been on the set, they’ll have people milling around more than we have them milling around,” says Wollam Nichols. “It has a vibe of more of a restaurant and a more casual sort of drop-in atmosphere. I asked the writers to think about writing a little bit in about the ‘shhhh’ policy, and ‘Can you have us doing an in-the-round?’ They’re trying, I think, to steer it [that way] a little bit. They’ve got a lot to work around, though.”
The best news is that an entirely new tier of consumers is gaining an experience at the Bluebird that never would have sought it out before Nashville went on the air. On any given night, the customers who stake out a table in advance might well find themselves on the outskirts of one of the Bluebird’s signature in-the-round performances. Forced by the “shhhh” policy to focus on the music, they’re likely to discover the depth of talent in the town beyond the artists they hear on their local radio station. When they connect with the emotion in the songs, they’re also likely to see another patron mirror it back at them.
“If you’re sitting on one side of the round, and I’m sitting on the other side of the round, and Don Henry starts singing ‘Where’ve You Been,’ all of a sudden we both have tears running out of our face, and we’re looking at each other as that’s happening,” Wollam Nichols notes. “Other places that are more theater-like, you don’t see that happening for people. Here, you can see the emotions, and I think that really has an effect on people.”
If they can get in.