As The Bluebird Cafe takes flight to C2C, we find out more about its special place at the heart of country music
With just two weeks to go before the C2C Festival opens its doors for 2020, some of the hottest tickets in town are for The Bluebird Cafe’s sold-out ‘songwriter’s round’ sessions which this year feature Austin Jenckes, Tony Arata, Reverie Lane, Gabby Barrett and Kylie Morgan.
Ahead of its return for the fifth year, Six Shooter Country spoke to The Bluebird Cafe president and general manager Erika Wollam Nichols about taking the iconic listening room ‘brand’ on tour, the impact of the Nashville TV series, and the one person she’d love to see play The Bluebird. Alison Dewar reports.
Tell me more about the concept of bringing The Bluebird on tour, what gave you the idea and what will you be looking forward to?
When we were first invited to come and be a part of the event, I didn’t know what to expect – I didn’t know if the audience knew anything about The Bluebird. It was shortly after the Nashville television show had hit the airwaves in the UK and wow, we had overwhelming support, which has continued for every year we’ve been. It’s been really great, the audiences are amazing because they love the music, people listen and in many cases are familiar with songs that even folks here don’t know, there’s a deep love and a deep knowledge of the music we all love in Nashville. It’s just been really exciting to see the response and how excited people are to have us there.
How do you choose who to bring over?
We work with AEG to scan the folks who are already making a commitment to come. You can imagine it’s expensive, and part of that is because we want to keep the show small and intimate. AEG will talk to me about the people they are looking at and then I get to choose one person who’s just coming for The Bluebird show. That person needs to be ‘a glue’ because they need to be able to work with virtually anybody and this year that’s Tony Arata. Every single person here in Nashville wants Tony on their show, he is so good, he is a great guitar player, of course he wrote The Dance (Garth Brooks) and he is just a lovely person.
He plays The Bluebird once a month as one of our ‘fab four’ and so he really brings the spirit and the history of The Bluebird and he is so supportive of the younger writers, which is a Bluebird thing too.
C2C is expanding more across Europe – now you’re taking The Bluebird to Berlin and Amsterdam as well.
When I was in London 2018, I was introduced to the folks in Berlin and Amsterdam who were excited about having the opportunity to expand their events. I am so gratified that all of the people involved in C2C recognise that the music is bigger than just the big names, which kind of reflects the Nashville community.
We all know each other here, you can run into Keith Urban at the grocery store and that’s not a big deal. I think the way C2C is presented continues to incorporate that. The writers are as important as the big-name artists, the audiences in London that I have seen, they react to the people who are working their way up just as enthusiastically as they do to the Miranda Lamberts and Keith Urbans, and that is supported by what the promoters are giving the audience – from the basic level up to the top.
What are some of your special moments from The Bluebird?
I think it’s when you see a room full of people having an emotional experience. I find it so gratifying that we present that opportunity, because there’s not very many places that happens. You’re with a bunch of strangers with whom you’ve shared something that’s really deep and important in a lot of ways. You could be sitting on one side of the round and you meet eyes with someone in the audience on the other side, you may never get their name or even speak to them, but you’ve got something that is a big takeaway and very different to the way you see music at a traditional concert.
Among the many success stories, Garth Brooks was famously signed by Capitol after playing at The Bluebird. How do you recognise the magic ingredient – what makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
One thing is watching people perform and being a part of that situation, watching how that impacts them and how they choose the songs. The other night we had a songwriters round and Jay Buchanan from the (Grammy-nominated) rock band Rival Sons did a song about dying.
He had never played at the Bluebird and he’d never played in the round before. He talked about the song, which was the very last song of the show, and he was unsure he wanted to do it. The song was sad but also hopeful in an unusual way – to watch the audience being with him, everybody focused on what he was doing and listening to every word. This guy, he’s like a rock person, so to see him with an acoustic guitar singing this song to a room full of people who are breathing down his neck as he was delivering the song, was really unusual and that’s what I love.
Is there one that’s got away – someone the audition panel didn’t score and then they’ve hit the big time?
There are certainly people like Kenny Chesney, we had an audition sheet on him but he jumped to the top before he had too much of a Bluebird experience. I wouldn’t say it like ‘the one that got away’ because people come to the Bluebird when they’re ready – and Kenny can come back any time.
Do singer-songwriters come in trends, if Maren Morris is number one, do you tend to see a raft of Maren Morris’s coming through the door?
I’m a painter and a visual artist and one of things they do is they take you to a museum and make you paint a Rembrandt. In many ways yes, I think people find a doorway into their music often comes by being inspired by somebody and then they follow that door. I think The Bluebird is a good proving ground because you can come in following a style and you start finding your own way at the same time – it is like a doorway where you find access to your own self.
In our early shows, less established writers have an opportunity to try their music out and see what speaks to people. Sure, there are people that will follow a trend and do it well, some of them will not do it well, and some of them won’t find anything.
In the Bluebird documentary, it’s very interesting to see and hear the different take on songs from the people who have created them.
I agree, it doesn’t take away from the recorded studio version, it just enriches it so you feel like you know the song and the people better. When you hear the story of a song that an artist has recorded, you know that that artist knows that story too, and has connected with it. All of a sudden, you have this expanded version of the song, which makes it feel so good.
The Nashville TV programme brought The Bluebird to the attention of a massive worldwide audience and the documentary shows that you even had to bring in security to handle the crowds of fans. With that in mind, was it something of a blessing and a curse – do you feel some people just want to tick The Bluebird off their bucket list?
(Laughter) It certainly was a challenge and yes, many, many people came because of the celebrity of The Bluebird and had no idea what we did. They wanted to come to breakfast, or they wanted to run in and talk, so it was an educational process for us. Mostly I saw it as an opportunity and I do still feel that, to let the world know what we really do.
If you came and you didn’t know you had to sit there for a whole show, well, maybe something happened to you during that show – I have heard people walking out the door and saying ‘oh my gosh, I had no idea what to expect and then I came and this was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen’. So, in that way it was a blessing, although it took an awful lot of managing – I wouldn’t have turned it away even knowing what I know now, although I might have got security a little earlier (more laughter).
Is it like the TV programme, do people like Taylor Swift just pick up the phone and say ‘hey I’m in town, can I come and play?’
It’s not like Deacon on the television – we had a laugh about that! When Taylor came to do the movie that was a long negotiation but a short turnaround, we had been asking her to participate for a long time, then her publicist said how about if Taylor comes and plays with Craig Wiseman and you can get the footage, so it took shape that way. (Taylor played a writers’ round at The Bluebird when she was just 14-years-old.)
Usually with an artist it’s a little bit more than just an overnight call, but for example, when Kelsea Ballerini came to see Landon Wall*, her manager called me that afternoon and said Kelsea had heard he was playing and she wants to come down, are you ok with that? (*Wall’s song Lost Boy was written as a response to Kelsea Ballerini’s Peter Pan and thanks to the power of Twitter when people tweeted her to say Landon was playing at the Bluebird she popped in to join him on stage.)
Steven Tyler, when he showed up, they called me that afternoon and said Steven wants to come and support Marti (Frederikson) in the round – sometimes it happens just like that – and other times it’s a little more calculated.
The Bluebird is now entrusted to the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). What are your thoughts on its future?
Well, we’re safe because the building is owned by Amy (original owner and founder Amy Kurland) so the developer can build around us, but at this point that’s not necessarily going to impact us.
The future is we want to keep doing what we’re doing as long as there are people that care about songwriting and want to have that experience. We’re small, so it’s not as if we’re trying to be corporate with the mindset of making it bigger to make more money, and then the next year making it bigger still.
Although we’re a separate business than the Nashville Songwriters Association, we do contribute to it and it’s important to make sure that our revenue provides not only the opportunity for the Bluebird to be able to do what we do, but also to support NSAI and their efforts.
We’re not trying to make our shareholders happy by making a ton of money and that allows us to remain true to who we are while also looking at opportunities – like C2C for example – because that allows us to expand what we do, without doing anything that harms the original Bluebird.
Often with a successful brand, the idea would be to franchise it, for example having a Bluebird Cafe in LA or Toronto or wherever it might be. Has that ever been on the table?
It’s certainly been requested, when I first took over I know it was something Amy wanted to do and she had been in conversation with people, but it became really clear to me that our best opportunities are the off-site events that we control.
We don’t do an event off-site anywhere with a Bluebird name on it that we’re not controlling.
The risk of a franchise is that it could be so jeopardising to the truth of what we do and it became clear it would not help us at all. I thought it could be really harmful if we took a step like that and crashed and burned, and it would only harm the writers and that just wouldn’t be feasible.
And finally – is there one person you would love to play at The Bluebird.
Bruce Springsteen – that would be the win.
Now that would be very special – the perfect note on which to call it a day. Thank you Erika and we look forward to seeing you and all the The Bluebird artists at C2C.
The Bluebird Cafe is at the O2 Blueroom on Saturday March 14 and Sunday March 15.