NASHVILLE – “People never read the sign,” Erika Wollam Nichols says with a laugh as a woman in her 50’s tugs on the locked front door of the Bluebird Café, shielding the midday sun with her hand while peering into the dark club.
This happens a half-dozen more times over the next hour, as car after car pull up to a nondescript strip mall in the Garden Hills neighborhood and approach the tiny-but-mighty restaurant and music venue, which doesn’t open for another four hours. The Bluebird Café has been a cherished Music City landmark for more than three decades, but its cachet has swelled in recent years thanks to its star turn in the hit TV series, Nashville.
“Now we have many, many people wanting to come here primarily for the celebrity of the Bluebird,” said Wollam Nichols, the club’s general manager since 2008. The blink-and-you-miss-it location and humble exterior belie its mark on the Nashville music scene and add to its mystique.
The Bluebird opened in 1982 as an upscale eatery in a space whose previous incarnations included a drug store and a pool hall. Live music didn’t become a focus until a few years later.
“Amy Kurland, our founder, had a boyfriend who wanted to play music here, so she thought it would be a great idea to start booking bands,” explains Wollam Nichols, who took a part-time job waiting tables at the Bluebird in 1984 while studying philosophy at nearby Belmont University. “One night a songwriter show was booked, and Amy looked at the cash register and saw that it had made more money than ever before.”
The rest, you could say, is music history.
“That established the Bluebird as a listening room,” Wollam Nichols (pictured above) said. “Nashville is a songwriter's town, and every songwriter wants a place to play.”
And for this community, the Bluebird is the place to play. Unlike the dozens of theaters, music halls and dive bars in Nashville that host concerts featuring touring acts, the stars of the show at the Bluebird are the “heroes behind the hits” – the men and women who make a living penning songs that go on to be recorded by chart-topping artists in country, rock, pop and other genres.
The Bluebird presents two shows per night, seven nights a week. All seats for the 90-person-capacity room are sold online, a week in advance. Demand far exceeds supply.
“When tickets go on sale, there can be as many as 1,000 people online for each show,” Wollam Nichols said. Fans without tickets line up outside the Bluebird, hoping for rare no-shows that result in last-minute seats.
The club’s interior is as unpretentious as its staff, most of whom have worked there for years and consider each other family. Its walls are covered with framed gig posters and autographed photos of the countless artists – known and unknown – who have played there. Strands of white icicle-style holiday lights add a touch of kitschy ambiance.
But the Bluebird’s appeal is as much about the “what” and “how” as it is the “who”. Everything about the 1,785-sq.-ft. club’s cozy environs is designed to showcase the craft of songwriting and create a unique listening experience for the lucky few who snag reservations. Viewing space is maximized with small tables and a few rows of church pews tucked away in the back corner, next to the bar.
When the music starts, the Bluebird’s signature “Shhh” policy – a polite request for the crowd to silence their phones and keep conversation to a minimum – takes effect.
“It basically means that we ask people to respect the song and the songwriter,” Wollam Nichols says of the unspoken rule. “It's not meant to stop people from having a wonderful time… it’s meant to say, ‘We're asking you to listen because these people are creating the soundtracks of our lives.’”
A typical Bluebird performance consists of four songwriters seated in the center of the room, taking turns playing their compositions and sharing the stories behind them.
“You sit in a circle, and the crowd is around you like a little amphitheater,” explains Roger Cook, who co-wrote “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” and many other pop and country hits. “And you go around and sing about five songs each.”
The in-the-round format fosters an intimate, communal vibe and forges a bond between performers and fans.
“Everyone in the room feels like they're sharing in the music, as opposed to being just an audience,” Wollam Nichols said. “One writer puts the show together, so everyone play together and sings backup on each other's songs. They know each other's material. They know each other's history. So when the storytelling starts, it feels like you're part of the story because they're letting you into their world.”
Audiences are often surprised to hear different arrangements of hit songs they know and love, and to put faces to the words and melodies behind the voices they hear on the radio. And to hear hits performed as they were written; often in a different arrangement or even an entirely different genre.
“You get up to play, and everybody in the group has hit songs,” Cook said. “And the crowd goes, ‘Whoa, he wrote that?’
“It's always a great experience because it's a very respectful audience. They listen quietly. And at the end, they give you a lot of this (clapping his hands). And I've never grown tired of listening to that.”
Wollam Nichols says she still gets choked up when she hear fans buzzing about the experience as they leave the club. “It’s such an amazing opportunity for us to be able to give to the songwriters,” she adds. “These walls have a lot of energy, and I think people feel that when they come here.”
In 2008, Kurland sold the Bluebird to the Nashville Songwriters Association International, (NSAI) a longstanding nonprofit. She saw NSAI’s mission to “educate, elevate and celebrate songwriters” as a continuation of the Bluebird’s legacy. The Bluebird Café has taken steps recently to extend its mission beyond the club’s cozy confines, presenting concert series at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah and Blackberry Farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
“We see these partnerships as an opportunity to bring the Bluebird experience, and highlight the importance of songwriters, to more people,” said Wollam Nichols.
A documentary on the Bluebird is also in the works. Wollam Nichols shared a just-finished trailer with us, clearly excited about the project. When we ask her to summarize the film’s narrative, she pauses for a few seconds before flashing a smile and giving this answer:
“It's a story of a place in a strip mall that's meant so much to so many people.”