Bluebird Cafe Turns 35

Nashville’s small but powerful Bluebird Café is celebrating its 35th anniversary and Pollstar talked to its longtime GM, Erika Wollam Nichols, about its history and its efforts to make a documentary

It’s hard to imagine there is another venue in the U.S. with such a small capacity – 90 – that has had more of an influence on modern music (even the mighty Joe’s Pub in NYC is about 180).

This tiny space in a strip mall can rattle off all kinds of seminal moments: Garth Brooks got signed in its kitchen. Taylor Swift got signed here when Scott Borchetta saw her play. On any given night, one might see John Prine, Reba, Rascal Flatts, Bono, Dave Grohl, or any other number of visitors-slash-performers. It became an integral set-piece for the television show “Nashville,” and by set-piece, that’s exactly right: the Bluebird Café on the show isn’t the actual Bluebird Café. Wollam Nichols goes into all of this. But first, we asked her to go into the Wayback Machine.

Bluebird Cafe
– Bluebird Cafe
Erika Wollam Nichols

So, Erika, how did you come to being at the Bluebird?

I applied for a job here as a waitress in 1984 when I started college at Belmont University. I didn’t get hired right away and was kind of aggravated because the Bluebird, at the time, was not primarily a music venue. It was a restaurant where ladies ate lunch, and for dinner they had flowered tablecloths and candles. It was a very sweet café. Then, Amy Kurland, our founder, had a boyfriend who played guitar and said, “If you put a little stage in, I’ll bring my friends and play some music.” But she didn’t even book it in the beginning; it was booked by outside folks. So, when I started, I was a lunch waitress and people like Chet Atkins and Minnie Pearl would come in, which was fun. But originally, when I didn’t get hired, I actually got a call two weeks later and it was actually Amy herself, the person who interviewed me and said, “I wanted to get your application. Would you like to come and work here?” And I said, “No, I already got a job!” I was really snippy. As I hung up the phone a little voice in my head said, “Turn around and call her back.” It was one of those things that changes your life and you don’t even know it. I was a philosophy major destined to become a philosophy professor (laughs).

The Bluebird has grown from a very organic place and it’s a place still, and we’re filming for a documentary. That has become an interesting path as I get to hear people’s stories about the Bluebird and what it’s meant to people. That could be Kathy Mattea, where she played her very first band show on her way to a record deal with Mercury, or when Garth got signed, essentially, in our kitchen by Lynn Shults, who had passed on him one time but then saw him live here. And the story about Taylor.

But we could talk all day about the big-name people with career moments here. But the thing that is really amazing, and keeps coming out as I tell people about this film, is that everybody has a story. Something has happened at the Bluebird for so many people, and it’s not just the artists, it’s the songwriters, the publishers, it’s record label people, it’s students, it’s people who met their spouses here. It’s people who met in line one time and now come back every year to attend a show together. It’s a community. So many people on the staff have been here a quarter of their lives. People have been working here 18, 24, 26 years. How many places have a staff like that?

When the performers walk in the back door, they hug everybody because it’s family here. Everybody knows each other and they’ve been through a lot together. They’ve heard each other’s songs. It’s hard to describe the experience that happens here at the Bluebird, and how meaningful that is to the people who are a part of it, whether they’re performing or in the audience.

It’s what keeps us all coming back.

Tell us more about the documentary.

We’re in the process of shooting right now but we haven’t raised any money for it yet. We start our fundraising campaign on Indiegogo on Oct. 17, and we’re running it 35 days to correspond with the anniversary.

Bluebird Cafe - Dave Grohl
– Bluebird Cafe – Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl plays the Bluebird while filming “Sonic Highways” in Nashville circa 2013

All those “big” stories – Garth, Taylor – are any of them part of your personal recollections?

I was not here for either of those nights.

Then which ones can you talk about, of the thousands?

Oh, there really are thousands. I was just thinking about one that happened recently that illustrates the experience here. I got an email from a gentleman who wanted to bring his wife to the Bluebird, and we were already sold out. It was their anniversary. He wanted to come that particular night because Marv Green was playing and Marv Green wrote “Amazed,” which was their song. He wanted to surprise his wife and be in the room when Marv played the song. So, in these kind of shows, it’s in the round, there are four writers, and they were doing an early show so they had to be done by a particular time so as they went in the round, Marv didn’t realize that he didn’t have another round to go, so his last song was notAmazed.” The show ended and I was, like, “Oh my gosh! This guy! We got him seats this is the whole reason he came,” and I just felt terrible about it but I was in the middle of 500 other things.

Well, here’s what happened: the couple introduced themselves to Marv because we don’t have a green room here. They went and told all of this to Marv and Marv took them in the corner and played it for just them.

So that’s the kind of thing that happens here. Another kind of large story is Kathy Mattea’s song “Where Have You Been?” Her husband, Jon Vezner, co wrote the song. She loved it, and he played it here at the Bluebird. She was interested in recording it but Allen Reynolds, her producer, and herself – she just thought it was such a sad song. Jon’s grandparents were the actual subjects of the song. But when he played it in our room, she saw everybody crying and said, “This song needs to be heard.” So she cut that song and won a million awards for it.

That’s what happens here, because people listen. And it’s about the songs. We shush people or we send them outside (laughs) if they’re not going to listen. And people can try out songs here, which is something that doesn’t happen very often. You might not hear the best song but you’ll hear the story and the songwriter will get some absolute face-to-face feedback.

A lot of people try out new songs here. Hunter Hayes was writing one day with Lori McKenna and Barry Dean. They had written and then played a show here, and it was Hunter’s first time to be a full-time participant in one of our rounds, kicking it off. So he decided to play that song and both Lori and Barry were horrified. He started off, got the verse-chorus, and said, “You’re right. I don’t know it.” He pulled out an iPad, put it on the stand, did the song and everybody went crazy because they got to experience that moment. I keep telling him how I always tell that story. It’s such an epitome of what happens here.

Bluebird Cafe - John Prine & Bono
– Bluebird Cafe – John Prine & Bono
John Prine and Bono hang out at the Bluebird, likely in 1988 when Cowboy Jack Clement (background) produced three tracks on U2

It’s still hard to imagine a place with that small of a capacity having that big of a story.

It’s crazy, huh? People still stop me and ask all the time, “Aren’t you going to expand?” Well, you know we couldn’t expand because then it wouldn’t be that experience and, no, not everybody gets to have it. People come because of the celebrity of the Bluebird from the television show. They have no idea what they’re doing, they don’t know they need to be here for two hours, that they’re going to sit, that they’re going to be shushed. They don’t know any of that. They come and they’re, like, “Wait, what?” And then something changes, and the experience overtakes them, and they walk out the door and say, “I’ve never had an experience like this in my whole life.”

How difficult is it to get in?

It depends because our room is like one of those little games where you slide the numbers all around. We have 90 seats. We hold tables for each of the performers. We probably go on sale with about 65 seats online, and they sell out in about a minute and a half. But we keep a certain number back because of walkups. And, because we don’t take money in advance, people will not show up. We have to have a walkup line. Our revenue depends on every seat being full for every show, because you can imagine that, with 180 seats if we don’t turn tables, that’s not a whole lot of revenue to ask people to spend $10 per seat. So, we really depend on the walkup line to fill in any no-shows. Sometimes people are downtown at Tootsie’s and they don’t want to make the trip, or they’ve had too much to drink and, because they haven’t paid anything but a reservation fee, they don’t feel that obligated to go.

How big is the staff and who handles what?

Bluebird Cafe - Taylor Swift
– Bluebird Cafe – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift is “discovered” by Scott Borchetta at her first Bluebird appearance in 2004

We have me, we have a woman who does our daily finances and some of the early-show bookings, and handles our seniors, our monthly senior show, and all of our merchandise – that’s one person’s job! We have another woman in the office who does all our corporate, private events. She also does some of the booking of the early shows and handles the performer requests for seating, and our newsletter. We have another gentleman who handles all our websites and social media, that kind of thing. He handles the Sunday night riders, our Sunday night guests and a lot of the general seating requests. And I just hired a part-time person because Rob, our one-man here, typically spends a lot of the time on the phone here but the phones get crazy. And our part time person helps with getting the merchandise ready and other odd projects.

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Those are our admin people.

I have a manager down at the club and he’s been here 26 years. He started off as a day manager, keeping the place going, and when I took over 10 years ago, I steered him into this management position because he has such a history and connection with the club that he’s invaluable. Then we have our club staff, which is three people on the door, typically, at any point in time. Bartender, two wait staff, food runner and audio engineer. Three people in the kitchen.

Bluebird Cafe
– Bluebird Cafe

That’s half of the capacity.

Exactly! We’re not all down at the club though. Our club couldn’t even fit our office staff. We have it down about a half-mile away.

So was all this the original idea?

The growth came from bands. When I was working lunches, it was bands that got onstage at night. Blues bands, all kinds of plugged-in things, but the room is too small. Gradually the songwriters came in and found a place where they could have people listen because every seat looks at the stage. There were a couple writers who decided to try this in the round. They did, and for a long time that was Thom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch, Craig Bickhardt, and Don Schlitz. For a while, they were the only ones who did it in the round. Then some women decided they wanted to be involved. So that was Ashley Cleveland, Trisha Walker, Karen Staley and Pam Tillis. Pretty much more and more people wanted to that format and it grew organically.

What about this so-called “virtual” Bluebird on “Nashville.”

It’s not virtual, it’s real. I get to play myself sometimes on the show. It’s fun. They want you to feel like you’re really there. So, when Callie Khouri oversaw the development of that, they shot the pilot here and as soon as the show got picked up, they spent three weeks in the club with the set-deck people, and they measured everything. They took pantone color samples. They took every one of our headshots off the wall, which are a lot, and scanned them, and put them on the wall on the set just like they are here. They took our merchandise. They built our merchandise stand up front. They found clocks that look like our old clocks. They put mother-of-pearl inlay in their bar, which you will never see on TV. But it was really important that it looked exactly like the Bluebird to them.

It was remarkable. And, still, I tried to go to the bathroom or clean up the floor when I know I don’t have to. It was weird. And when I have to be on set and then come back to work? That’s really bizarre.

It was very important to them to make as close of a replica as possible.

Do you upgrade technologically or eschew it?

We don’t have any kind of streaming presence most of all because we haven’t found the right partner and, secondly, because of all the digital issues with musical distribution that we’re very conscious of and want to be careful about. When we sign on to digital distribution of our Bluebird content, it will be a big day so we want to have the right partner for that.

Anything else?

I’d like to add something about the process at the Bluebird, which is different from a lot of venues. We have an open mic on Monday where anybody can play, but we also have the Sunday writers’ night where eight songwriters, up and coming, have been auditioned and they each get to play three songs. With that process, we ask them to perform four times and they get scored. If they have good scores after their fourth time, which takes about two years, they become eligible to be the “team captain” for an in-the-round show for up-and-comers. So we don’t just book people here like most every other venue. It’s a real inside job, kind of. There were times when we wanted to have Dan Wilson to play here and so I worked out a round with Jesse Alexander, Chris Stapleton and Tom Douglas, with Dan, which was an amazing show. People will say, “Can I be in the round at the Bluebird?” and I’d say, “It doesn’t really work that way.” The rounds are created by the writers so that the synergy of that musical circle is really powerful.

The documentary Indiegogo page is available here.