NASHVILLE – Jeff Middleton begins his first song at the Bluebird Caf? Wednesday night with some self-deprecating humor.
“How’s everybody doing tonight?” he asks. “Is everyone else as nervous as I am?”
The laughs from the audience of around 100 people seem to put him at ease a bit, and his fingers begin to stroke his guitar. His head, torso and legs start to move to the rhythm of the song, and the music begins.
There would seem to be little for an experienced singer-songwriter like Middleton to be nervous about at the Bluebird, a generic, shoebox bar and restaurant with a crowd that looks definitively local. The Bluebird is almost hidden along a row of strip malls on the southern outskirts of Nashville – it could be any small restaurant in any strip mall in any suburban area of the country.
But Middleton knows how tough it is to get a gig at the Bluebird in the first place, between the thousands of demo tapes sent in from around the world each year and the overflowing lines outside on open mic Mondays. He knows how relatively few people get to sit where he is sitting, in one of the four chairs in the center of the restaurant, in front of one of the four microphones, for one of the two nightly shows that run seven nights per week.
He is also likely aware of what success at the Bluebird – or failure – can mean to an aspiring country musician in Nashville. For most, a good show commands respect to their talent in a city filled with singer-songwriters whose names will never be widely known. And for a rare few, like then-unknown Garth Brooks in 1987, the Bluebird is the gateway to Music City stardom.
“We are the Ellis Island of the country music industry, we are the open door,” owner and 1977 GW graduate Amy Kurland said. “When somebody comes to town to want to play, this is the first place they’ve heard of, it’s the one place they can play for the people in the industry. But more than anything, this is where the songwriters come and play, this is where they develop, get their chops, and get well known.”
In addition to Brooks, now a country music icon, the Bluebird has also been a starting point for accomplished stars such as Kathy Mattea, T. Graham Brown and the Sweethearts of the Rodeo. It was also the setting for the 1993 movie “The Thing Called Love” with River Phoenix and Sandra Bullock.
But when Kurland opened the Bluebird in 1982, all she wanted to do was add some live music to her casual restaurant, like so many other bars and restaurants in Nashville. She had spent a few years in Washington after graduating from GW, including a year in culinary school before she dropped out, and moved back to her home city hoping to get into the restaurant business.
“It was really ignorant and juvenile because what I really wanted was to hang out with guitar players and be in a bar,” Kurland said. “And I thought I could afford to start such a place.”
Almost immediately, however, the Bluebird became more of a musical venue that served food and drinks than just a restaurant.
“The first year we were open we did something called a writers night, and I didn’t know anything about that,” Kurland said. “But I walked in the door and two things were happening. We were really busy, and the place was really quiet. And we had been having rock bands and people were complaining, ‘It’s too smoky, it’s too loud.’ And I thought, this is what I want to do. I want to do something acoustic.”
Acoustic, at the Bluebird, means near silence once the lights go down. For such a popular caf?, the motto “Shhh!” may seem unwelcoming. Neither the food nor the d?cor – with country music posters and autographed pictures covering the walls – do much to distinguish the place from the scores of bars in the city of Nashville. But the message is clear: the Bluebird is not about food, beer or conversation; it’s about the music.
Tom Manche, who was making his third appearance at the Bluebird on this Wednesday night, said musicians are drawn to the caf? because “they seem to put the music first. There’s a well-known policy of shushing people. That won’t happen every place. And they have good sound. Whatever advantage they can give, they do, for the music. And they keep the bar pretty high. A lot of places, anybody named Joe can sign up on a paper and play, but here, it’s a higher bar. It always makes you as a performer feel like you’re in better company.”
The bar is raised each time a musician who performs at the Bluebird goes on to get a record deal, or even when someone just has one of those nights that overwhelm the audience, the way a young Garth Brooks did in 1987.
“The man got a standing ovation on the first song he sang,” Kurland said. “He sang it with a sincerity and I think an out on the edge risk taking. I think sometimes that’s what makes people feel great. Why do we applaud when somebody hits a high note and holds it for a long time? Because we were afraid they weren’t going to be able to, they weren’t sure they could, and they did it. And that’s Garth.”
But as the bar has been raised, so too have the hopes of the thousands who aspire to play the Bluebird and the hundreds who actually get to. In a city of country music songwriters with dreams of Brooks-like stardom, the Bluebird is one place where good performances can get noticed by the powerbrokers of the industry.
“Any songwriter in this town would say they’d like to get cuts, but it’s really hard to get cuts in this town,” said Susan Anders, who was making her fifth appearance at the Bluebird on this Wednesday night. “The last time I played here, the next day, a publisher called up and said send me your demo and I’m negotiating with him right now about a single.”
Those kinds of success stories are relatively few and far between, Kurland said, but they lead many to believe that the Bluebird could be their ticket to fame and riches.
“A lot of it is sad and desperate people who are thinking that if they can write a song and become famous it will change their lives, they’ll win the lottery,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of them don’t make it as big stars. Maybe 10 percent end up staying in Nashville because they like it here, and they’ll end up working in the music industry or have one hit. But huge numbers of them never make a dent at all.”
Some musicians, like Anders, come to the Bluebird with a more realistic mindset, hoping to “have fun and write great songs too.”
“It’s a complete and utter crapshoot and very, very tough,” she said. “So it’s a crazy gamble, and no one can even think about, ‘Gee, the car payment will get paid in six months because I’ll have a cut.’ That’s insane.”
But for the thousands who hope for one shot at the Bluebird each year – a chance they may only get once – there is always the hope, however far-fetched, that this tiny restaurant in a Nashville strip mall will be the site of the breakthrough they have been waiting for.
“Everybody comes with a dream,” Kurland said. “Am I realistic when I buy a lottery ticket? No, but it doesn’t hurt me at all to spend the night before they pull the numbers thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a boat?’ But in this particular case, it’s hard work, not the stupidity of buying a lottery ticket.”