The Legacy of the Bluebird Cafe
March 28, 2023
When the bus driver dropped us off at a run-down strip mall, I was confident there must have been a mistake. But for the line of people hoping to score last minute tickets, there was no indication that the nondescript building housed the iconic Bluebird Cafe, where aspiring artists and music royalty alike come to play a short acoustic set before a sold out crowd. We didn’t have time to contemplate whether we were in the right place before we were rushed to our seats just a few feet away from the stage moments before the show began.
The Bluebird Cafe opened in June 1982. Its founder, Amy Kurland, envisioned a cafe far from Nashville’s Music Row that occasionally offered live music. Within a year of its opening, however, the Bluebird Cafe had become known as the premier place for musicians, and specifically songwriters, to perform in Nashville. On March 29, 1985, the Bluebird Cafe held its first “in the round” show, where songwriters sat at the center of the Cafe and took turns playing music and telling stories. The in the round format was wildly popular and to this day most shows at the Bluebird are in this format.
The Bluebird Cafe’s stage has been graced by megastars including Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Lady A, and even the queen of music industry herself, Taylor Swift. Garth Brooks, who was one of the first country stars to successfully cross over into rock and pop music, got his start at the Bluebird in 1987. Brooks was filling in for another artist during a songwriter showcase when he was discovered by Capitol Records and signed to the label the next day. Similarly, Taylor Swift first performed at the Bluebird on November 4, 2004 when she was only 14. Scott Borchetta, CEO of Big Machine Records, was in the audience and shortly after the performance Taylor Swift became the first artist signed to his label. Swift returned to Bluebird in 2019 to sing some of her biggest hits. This performance was filmed and included in the Bluebird documentary, which tells the story of the Cafe (I highly recommend). Swift is just one of many artists who drop into the Bluebird when they are in town to the delight of Bluebird audiences.
On the night I visited the Bluebird, we were treated to a four person show in the round. The artists included Alison Veltz Cruz, Joe Fox, Nora Collins, and Matt McGinn. While the artists share a love for country music, their backgrounds and the songs they have written are diverse. Alison Veltz Cruz is known for her lyricism and wrote a song for Girls Generation that debuted at number one in Japan and South Korea. Joe Fox was born and raised in New Jersey, attended Berklee College of Music, and moved to Nashville where he has written for many artists, including Blake Shelton. Nora Collins is from Wisconsin, moved to Nashville in 2016, and released an EP in 2018. Matt McGinn is from Virginia and has written songs for Kane Brown, Florida Georgia Line, Walker Hayes, John Legend, and many others. While the music industry may be big, these artists seemed to know one another and people in the audience, making the small venue feel even more intimate. Each artist played four songs, telling jokes and stories in between. But the focus was clearly on the songwriting, and the audience was given strict orders not to talk during the performances. The songwriters, the acoustics, and the amazing history of the Bluebird Cafe made it easy to comply and savor the performance. And who knows? Maybe we had just seen music’s next big thing.