On the drama “Nashville,” the Bluebird Cafe is a sacred space where singer-songwriters belt out stunning songs that make the audience cry, and soulmates Rayna (Connie Britton) and Deacon (Charles Esten) met for the first time. Over the years, fans of the show who have flocked to Nashville have been eager to check out the real-life place and maybe grab a beer and a bite to eat.
Many are shocked to learn that, unfortunately, that’s not how it works. “Nashville,” first on ABC and now CMT, has made the 90-seat venue so incredibly popular over the last five years that it’s impossible to get in unless you have a reservation (snapped up seconds after they’re available online) or wait in line outside for hours.
“It has become a celebrity in and of itself,” said Erika Nichols, the Bluebird’s general manager. “We had to significantly change our business operation.”
Now that the Bluebird has received international recognition, Nichols and others are trying to capitalize on its new fame — and 35th anniversary — with “Bluebird: The Movie,” a documentary that tells the little-known story behind the cafe that went from beloved local institution to a must-see travel destination. A campaign to raise funds for the project launched last month and ends on Monday.
In mid-October, Esten appeared at one of the venue’s famed “in the round” performances, where songwriters sit in the middle of the room in a tight circle. One by one, they tell the stories behind their songs and play them. The event, which served as the movie fundraiser’s kickoff, was streamed on Facebook Live, and all the musicians tried to put into words the importance of the Bluebird.
“You can feel the foot tap on the carpet when someone pours their heart out right next to you,” said Esten, who arrived from the set of “Nashville,” still dressed in the clothes he wears to play tortured singer-songwriter Deacon Claybourne. “There’s no place like this in the whole wide world. They should make a movie about it.”
Unless you’ve been to a Bluebird show, it’s difficult to describe why so many audience members leave in tears. At the movie kickoff, artist Lucie Silvas could barely hold it together after someone played a particularly intense song. “I feel like I’m on the verge of a breakdown, but in a good way,” she said.
“People can have that kind of emotional response. A lot of times, they’re not expecting it,” said Nichols, who started working at the Bluebird as a waitress in the early 1980s and became general manager 10 years ago.
Part of it is the physical closeness of the cozy room, lit up by white lights with walls covered in pictures of singers who have played there. The packed crowd is seated around the musicians in the center — you can literally bump elbows with a famous songwriter, or even Garth Brooks, who is known to drop by.
The setting is so intimate that artists often play deeply personal songs. Nichols joked that she’s no longer allowed to make eye contact with Tom Douglas when he plays “The House That Built Me” (Miranda Lambert’s Grammy-winning ballad that he co-wrote with Allen Shamblin) because she always cries, and then he’ll start to tear up, too.
Sometimes, audience members have no idea that when, say, Tony Arata is on the bill, that he’s the one who wrote Brooks’s smash “The Dance.” The crowd gasps when songwriters, many of whom they don’t recognize, launch into a huge hit — for the Nashville songwriting community, that’s one of the perks of the Bluebird.
“It brought [songwriters] to the forefront in a way that intentionally showed people their creative spirit and their craft so they’re no longer behind the scenes,” Nichols said. “They’ll always be somewhat behind the scenes. But we’re putting them out there to show people that their work is what creates the songs.”
Back in 1982, owner Amy Kurland had inherited some money from her grandmother and wanted to open a small restaurant near her house. So she bought the cafe space in an unassuming strip mall. Soon, it became a busy daytime lunch spot, and was “a restaurant with a little bit of music,” as Nichols said.
It eventually attracted some of the biggest names in town (Minnie Pearl, Chet Akins) and the booker noticed that the room’s sound worked unusually well for acoustic music. So just as songwriters held “guitar pulls” in their living rooms, they started holding them at the Bluebird. In the late 1980s, Kurland canceled lunch and launched two singer-songwriter shows a night with dinner service.
Taylor Swift played there before she had a record deal. Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley were performers. Yet in those days, you could likely just show up and get a seat. Now, if you don’t snag a reservation, you have to wait — some line up outside around 5:30 p.m. for a 9 p.m. show. (Even if you don’t get a seat, the staff will let you in for a minute to snap a photo.)
“The Bluebird was always busy on weekends, but when we started, we had to publicize Tuesday and Wednesday shows,” Nichols said. “We don’t publicize anything now.”
Though “Nashville” built an impeccable lookalike of the Bluebird on set, the show offers some misconceptions. For example, Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) launched her country career after she was peer-pressured onstage during a slow night. In reality, that wouldn’t happen, as the performance spots at the Bluebird are hotly contested and ultra-competitive.
One option is to perform at an open-mic night on Mondays — the first 25 people to call on Monday morning get a slot. Another choice is to audition to be a regular performer. Four times a year, the venue holds tryouts. The lucky 50 or so people who manage to sign up online arrive on a Sunday morning and get in line. For about two hours, a panel of judges takes notes as the performers have one minute onstage to introduce themselves and play a song.
Only about 10 percent make it through that round. Then, they have to play at least four Sunday early shows. During those nights, they’re evaluated by the staff. If their scores are high enough, then they could qualify to put together their own “in the round” during the week, and invite other writers.
At a recent audition in mid-October, the venue was packed. “Please do not stake your whole life on this,” Nichols urged the nervous crowd, explaining that many people have auditioned multiple times.
One hopeful was Mitch Emmons, a 60-year-old musician from Auburn who had already auditioned once before. While he previously played the Bluebird with fellow musician friends, his dream was to have his own slot as a featured performer.
“Playing the Bluebird is on my bucket list and I’m getting to end of my bucket so want to get it done,” Emmons said. “If I don’t get it this time, I’ll be back a third time.”