Deep in its heart, Nashville is a songwriters’ town. While many visitors chase the neon rainbow to the bars and honky-tonks of downtown’s Lower Broadway, where they encounter venues bearing the names of superstar performers such as Alan Jackson, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan, those seeking the true soul of Music City make the pilgrimage to Green Hills, an area about five miles south of the urban core. There, nestled in a nondescript strip mall between a barbershop and a hair salon, sits the storied Bluebird Cafe.
The walls of the 90-seat “listening room” are decorated with glossy photos of stars who found their performing legs at The Bluebird, including Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift, who first appeared there at age 14. Opened in 1982, the venue features a tiny stage and a mishmash of small tables, benches, barstools and pews for seating. The holiest spot in the room is right in the middle, where four chairs are arranged around a quartet of microphones. It is here that songwriters assemble almost every night to perform their songs “in the round” and share the stories that inspired them.
Bluebird Cafe COO Erika Wollam Nichols began working at the club as a waitress in 1984. She has seen the emergence of many stars, but more importantly has witnessed top songwriters honing their craft. “The way our shows are put together is that one writer creates the round by inviting others to play,” she explains. “That creates a community aspect to the experience, and people have a connection. The audience gets to be a part of it all.”
Writers play one of their songs while others jump in to accompany on guitar or add harmonies before moving on to the next performer. In between, the writers tell stories and share a peek into their process. That alone would be worth the price of admission, but it can also be a vital part of a song’s creation, with the audience offering feedback about whether a piece is working. “It’s rare to have a room full of people actually listen to your songs,” Wollam Nichols says. “It’s an education for some visitors to discover that we’re a listening room and what that means in this town. They get to hear the people who actually wrote the songs that are played in the downtown bars or on the radio.”
The new documentary Bluebird reveals what the listening room has meant to some of the celebrities who have performed there. Faith Hill sums it up this way: “Being in that room, playing that place can change your life, as it did mine.” It can also change the lives of fans who make the short trip from downtown to Green Hills to appreciate the artists behind the music.