Published On: Wed, Mar 1st, 2017

The History of The Bluebird Cafe

It’s smaller than the living rooms of some of the stars it’s spawned, but its influence is very big…

The Bluebird Cafe

It’s very intimate. That’s the first thing to mention about it. Just like Graceland or Sun Studio in Memphis, Nashville’s Bluebird Café is, indeed, a lot smaller than you might have thought, holding only 90 people and around 20 tables.

The Bluebird Cafe’s diminutive dimensions are there to see when its exact replica features in the American TV drama Nashville. But the real Bluebird Café is no place of fiction.
Open since 1982, the Bluebird is a Music City mecca.

Grammy-winning songwriter Don Schlitz (of The Gambler and On the Other Hand fame) played the Bluebird’s first Writers Night 30 years ago. Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Kix Brooks earned early acclaim when they auditioned for a Bluebird slot.

Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks scored deals after shows here. Dustin Lynch purposely rented an apartment behind the ’Bird when he was seeking his Music City break. And that corkscrew-haired teen who debuted at the Bluebird in 2004? That’d be one Taylor Alison Swift.

Such stars have mostly long flown, but it’s still a place that talent-hungry music execs frequent in search of their next pot of gold.

Nashville’s Hillsboro Pike strip doesn’t exactly exude Nudie suit glitz – and even the cleaners next door has bigger sign frontage than the Bluebird. But the quality cheap eats are a taste beyond the McDonald’s 100 yards away – and the side-dish they serve is the chance of maybe witnessing a future country legend.

Success, though, has brought its own problems: many more aspiring artists seeking to secure a slot; more visitors means fewer tables, and thus less food revenue; extra security is now needed.

The Bluebird’s wings could have been clipped when it changed hands in 2007, except the new owners were the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). And the Bluebird remains determined to keep it real.

The club is still a music venue first, a tourist attraction second: it’s designed for listening, with dinner reservations and casual at-the-bar drinking discouraged – and anyone who talks during the shows is soon shushed. The determination is that long after Nashville the TV show has gone, the real Bluebird Café will carry on.

Pre-booking remains essential: it’s no longer a place you just drop in. Sunday Writers Night and Monday Open Mic nights are getting less casual, even for the artists.

Open Mic organiser Barbara Cloyd says: “We’ve had to cut it to one song each and we get over 30 writers on stage each Monday night. If someone comes and they don’t get on we’ll give them a stamp that guarantees them a chance to play the next time they come. Some people are coming now just to get a stamp.”

Likewise, some of the clientele probably come just to get the t-shirt. Who knows who you’ll see? Next time the Bluebird hosts a future star, it’ll be like the Sex Pistols at London’s 100 Club. Thousands will say:

“I was there!” (when they weren’t). Dustin Lynch may have eventually got his break via YouTube, but as a student of the venue’s songwriting showcases, he would agree that the Bluebird is still “where it’s at”.

Some of the stars who’ve played the Bluebird Café

Maybe they came for their big break, maybe just to say they’d been, but they all played the ’Bird…

Garth Brooks
Signed after 1987 Open Mic on a Monday: “The Bluebird is the beginning and the mecca, the end.”

Kenny Chesney
Passed his audition in 1991

Chris Stapleton
Wonder if he ordered whiskey, and where from?

Keith Urban
Auditioned in 1993; he’s returned as recently as 2014

Taylor Swift
Debuted aged 15 in 2004,
six years before she could legally sit at the bar

Faith Hill
Spotted singing back-up vocals for Gary Burr in 1991

Steven Tyler
Launched ‘country’ career at
the Bluebird in 2013 – with Aerosmith songs

Trisha Yearwood
Still pops in to source new
songs to record

Kris Kristofferson & Willie Nelson
2007 NSAI ceremony

Dave Grohl
Foo Fighters’ frontman checked in with: “Hi, my name’s Dave Grohl and I’m a drummer…”

Check out The Bluebird Cafe’s official website here



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