Clip: The Bluebird Cafe...in the Sun-Times
A tunesmith's paradise
April 30, 2006
BY BOBBY REED
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Songwriter Travis Meadows' eyes are closed and his
head is bowed. The only sounds in the small room come from the gently
strummed strings on his acoustic guitar. Meadows and three other
songwriters are encircled by 85 people seated at nearby tables.
One wall is adorned with enormous photographs of musical icons Emmylou
Harris and Ralph Stanley. On another wall, above the pew-style wooden
benches, is a diverse collage of glossy headshots that includes
country star Brad Paisley, journalist Barbara Walters and disco diva
Everyone in the room -- including songwriters Luke Austin Daugherty,
Beth Champion Mason and Terry Moody -- is listening intently to
Meadows play an original tune called "My Boots.'' As Meadows unfurls a
lilting melody, he softly sings, "My son walked in from the kitchen
like he had no knees / Waist high in leather he said, 'Hey Daddy, look
at me' / And I laughed so hard it was hard to speak / Those are my
boots / The same size my grandpa wore."
Several audience members smile and chuckle. After Meadows finishes the
song, the crowd vigorously applauds, then quiets down as Mason sings
the next tune.
That was the scene a few weeks ago, but patrons at the Bluebird Cafe
can experience similar moments seven nights a week.
Country music fans vacationing in Nashville have three requisite stops
on their travel itinerary. Topping the list is the Country Music Hall
of Fame and Museum, followed by the Grand Ole Opry.
The third stop is a bit harder to find. Located on Hillsboro Road in a
strip mall, which also contains a dry cleaner and a rug dealer, sits
the Bluebird Cafe. For Nashville tunesmiths, this nondescript
storefront is both a workshop and a shrine. For fans, this 100-seat
club is a mecca of songwriting.
Among the dozens of country musicians who have played at the Bluebird
en route to stardom are Dierks Bentley, Garth Brooks, Mary Chapin
Carpenter, Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Toby Keith, Trisha
Yearwood, Keith Urban and Phil Vassar.
Opened by owner Amy Kurland in 1982, the Bluebird has become world
famous because it is fervently focused on one goal: giving songwriters
a forum to try out new songs before a quiet, attentive audience.
"We are probably the only club in the world that considers itself a
songwriters' venue," Kurland said while seated in the Bluebird the
morning after Meadows' performance. "We're not a music venue. We're
not a country venue. We are a songwriters' venue. We've stuck with
that, and it's been great."
The real stars of the Bluebird aren't household names, but they are
well-known to everyone in the country music industry. They are
songwriters who have composed hits for country acts.
Songwriters closely associated with the Bluebird include Matraca Berg
("Strawberry Wine''), Bob DiPiero ("If You Ever Stop Loving Me''),
Roxie Dean ("When I Think About Angels''), Marcus Hummon ("Bless the
Broken Road''), Fred Knobloch ("If My Heart Had Wings''), Gretchen
Peters ("Independence Day''), Don Schlitz ("The Gambler'') and Thom
Schuyler ("Love Will Turn You Around'').
There are other Nashville stages that feature songwriters' nights, but
no venue has achieved the recognition and status of the Bluebird.
"Nashville is a town where there are very few open doors, very few
places for songwriters to get seen,'' Kurland said. "It's important
for songwriters to play as often as possible, and they want to play
here so that they can invite [song] publishers and their friends. If
we had a mission statement, it would be 'We help songwriters.' We're
not here for any other reason than to see these people move forward in
Kevin Welch knows this. A revered tunesmith who co-founded the Dead
Reckoning label and who tours internationally with his musical cohorts
Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin, he's a frequent performer at the
"The Bluebird has been a real training ground for lots of
songwriters,'' Welch said. "When most songwriters first come to town,
they'll make a pilgrimage to the Bluebird and they'll listen to other
writers. Sometimes it will be new writers like themselves, but a lot
of times it's going to be old pros. So the Bluebird provides several
benchmarks for writers because they're able to compare their work to
what they're hearing from new guys and also see if they might have a
ways to go before they catch up to the old vets.''
The Bluebird has a structured hierarchy of performance slots. The
lowest rung on the ladder is an open mike night, which is open to
anyone who performs original material. The Bluebird also holds
auditions quarterly. Songwriters who pass the initial audition play at
the club regularly in hopes of landing a deal with a song publisher.
The most prestigious gig at the Bluebird is a late-night "In the
Round" show, which features four established songwriters who take
turns singing and swapping anecdotes about their compositions.
Darrell Brown, who co-wrote the Keith Urban hits "Raining on Sunday''
and "You'll Think of Me,'' attended Bluebird shows for years before he
ever performed there. Brown is currently working on vocal arrangements
for the next Neil Young album, but he took a break to reminisce about
"Somebody took me to the Bluebird in 1989, and I was astounded that
this was even taking place -- that people went around and played songs
for each other like this," he said. "I was in such awe listening to
people like Don Schlitz. I was blown away. Years later, the first time
I was asked to play an 'In the Round,' I was never so nervous in my
Before she had any top 10 hits as a recording artist, Pam Tillis was
one of the first female performers to play an "In the Round" show at
the Bluebird. The show's format keeps its participants on their toes.
"If somebody who takes a turn before you just slays the crowd, it has
the dual effect of inspiring you and kicking you in the pants," Tillis
said. "You better have a good follow-up! An 'In the Round' is a little
competitive, but it's also good-natured.''
Like the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., or Largo in Los Angeles, the
Bluebird is a listening room where audience members refrain from
talking during songs. The Bluebird's slogan, which is printed in bold
letters on the cover of flyers given to patrons, is simply "Shhh!''
Songwriter Radney Foster, whose songs have been recorded by the Dixie
Chicks and Sara Evans, has played the Bluebird many times. He knows
precisely when he has won over a crowd there. "That's when you really
know you've got them," Foster quipped, "when you can hear people
Silver anniversary soon
Kurland is already thinking about special events to celebrate the
Bluebird's 25th anniversary in 2007. In the meantime, she'll continue
to rub shoulders with the most talented songwriters in town, as well
as the inexperienced tunesmiths who move to Nashville every month.
"People just show up at my door wanting to play for me on the
sidewalk, which I have allowed many times,'' Kurland said. She's not
annoyed by these dreamers. "If we do anything well, it's to provide a
soft place to fall. We were here for Dierks Bentley and Kenny Chesney
[early in their careers]. We provide a cushion so that when
songwriters arrive in town, they have some place to go and something
to do while they're waiting to be seen and heard by the industry."
Bobby Reed is a Chicago free-lance writer.
Club immortalized on big screen
Media exposure certainly has helped Nashville's Bluebird Cafe over the
years. The venue has been the subject of a book, The Bluebird Cafe
Scrapbook, published in 2002 and co-edited by Bluebird owner Amy
Kurland. It also has been the setting for a TV series, "Live From the
Bluebird Cafe," which formerly aired on the Turner South network.
Additionally, Kurland has increased the club's reach by sending
songwriters on the road, booking Bluebird-themed concerts for venues
in Big Sky, Mont., and Sundance, Utah.
Perhaps the biggest boost to the Bluebird's popularity came from the
1993 film "The Thing Called Love,'' released last month on DVD.
Although the theatrical release was not given wide distribution, the
movie has become a cable TV standard.
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the film stars Sandra Bullock, Samantha
Mathis, Dermot Mulroney and River Phoenix as aspiring songwriters
whose lives revolve around the Bluebird. (Tragically, Phoenix died
from a drug overdose shortly after completing the film.)
"In the theaters, that movie didn't do much for us at all, but it has
done great on cable TV,'' Kurland explained. "It's an excellent movie
for networks like CMT and USA [Network] because it's rated PG-13, so
they can run it uncut. The movie has a cult following, and people come
down to get their picture taken in front of this place all the time.
That movie brings a lot of tourists to our door.''
A handful of musicians have cameos in the film, including Pam Tillis,
Kevin Welch and Trisha Yearwood. Singer K.T. Oslin has a dramatic role
as Lucy, a character based on Kurland.
Bogdanovich filmed several key scenes in the parking lot outside the
Bluebird. The indoor scenes, however, were filmed on a Hollywood
soundstage, using an intricately detailed set that was an exact
duplicate of the Bluebird's interior space, complete with copies of
the photos that adorn the club's walls.
Welch served as an unofficial consultant for the movie. "[The
filmmakers] wanted some local people to look over the script and point
out any inaccuracies having to do with the actual day-to-day life of a
songwriter,'' he said, laughing. "We pointed out a lot of them, but I
don't think they listened to us. When the movie first came out, we
were all going, 'Oh, come on!' That's because we were so close to it.
The movie was about us, basically. But over time I've learned to
forgive a lot of the liberties that they took.''
There's no Bluebird Cafe in Chicago, but there are several small
venues for aspiring singer-songwriters and larger stages for
OLD TOWN SCHOOL OF FOLK MUSIC
Where: 4544 N. Lincoln
Phone: (773) 728-6000
The school offers a variety of songwriting classes, as well as an
open-mike night the first Friday of the month. Internationally
acclaimed songwriters often perform in the concert hall. Jim
Lauderdale and Gail Davies will perform May 21. Bobby Bare Sr. and
Bobby Bare Jr. will perform May 26-27.
Where: 3800 N. Clark
Phone: (773) 929-3680
This Wrigleyville coffeehouse is a hot spot for local songwriters.
Open-mike night is every Monday.
Where: 2500 N. Southport
Phone: (773) 472-1502
Open-mike night at this Lakeview bar is every Tuesday. Artists sign up
at 8:30 p.m. and performances begin at 9.
Where: 2011 W. North
Phone: (773) 278-6600
This Wicker Park club offers an acoustic open-mike night every Monday
and a hip-hop open-mike night every Tuesday.
Where: 940 W. Weed
Phone: (312) 337-3486
Country chart-toppers Brad Paisley, Sugarland and
singer-songwriter/"Nashville Star" judge Phil Vassar all have played
at this warehouse-style venue during the past year. Charlie Robison
and Jack Ingram will perform May 4. Little Big Town will perform June
Where: 3159 N. Southport
Phone: (773) 525-2508
This music room is a regular stop on national tour itineraries for
many Americana acts. Upcoming shows include Mary Gauthier (May 5-6),
Dar Williams (May 19) and Hayes Carll (May 25).