Making a welcome return – The Bluebird Cafe at C2C was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
It’s hard to believe it’s three weeks since C2C wrapped up. The Sunday evening will be remembered for all sorts of reasons – good and bad – but speaking personally, there was one very special highlight earlier on in the day, when I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for the lunchtime session.
Trying to recreate the intimate surroundings of Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe in the more sterile surroundings of the O2 Blueroom is never going to be an easy task, but somehow, when the music begins, everything else just slips away into the background and you can hear a pin drop.
Introducing the session, Erika Wollam Nichols, COO/GM of the famous venue – which celebrates its 40th anniversary this June – paid tribute to the energy, creativity and songs that have been played in the Bluebird Cafe over the years.
“Being in that room when the songs start is just amazing,” she said. “People come in and play a song that may or may not go on to be a big hit, and I know that you know just how important the songs are. I have never seen audiences so committed to listening to songs as those in the UK – so bravo.”
Taking to the stage were Tebey, Caitlyn Smith and Tony Arata, and it wasn’t just the proverbial pin dropping that added to the atmosphere, it was the sound of tissues being wrenched from pockets and packets.
We all know that heartbreak songs are a staple of the country music menu, but these three took emotion to a different level entirely. Maybe it was the late night before, a mysterious sprinkling of dust in the eye, or simply the home stretch of a busy weekend…whatever the reason, shares in Kleenex must have gone up that day.
It all began on an upbeat note as Tebey sang his latest single What Was I Drinking, born out of a Mexico songwriting trip where he fell foul of some suspected dodgy ice cubes – I guess drink beer not water is the moral of the tale!
As is the way with songwriters’ sessions, each of the artists took it in turns to talk in between the songs and the Canadian-born platinum-selling artist, award-winning producer and songwriter – six number one songs to his name so far – entertained the audience with stories of his time living in the UK, binge-watching Naked Attraction and Gogglebox, and his love for English football.
For Caitlyn, it was the chance to look back at her songwriting career and how she had been mentored by renowned Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz, who had taken her under his wing.
Perhaps most famous for writing the Kenny Rogers mega-hit The Gambler, Schlitz was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, and more recently, in 2017 to the Country Music Hall of Fame, also earning two Grammy Awards and many more plaudits along the way.
In 2013, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton celebrated 30 years since the recording of their classic duet Islands in the Stream (written by Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb) by releasing a duet entitled You Can’t Make Old Friends from the album of the same name.
Caitlyn was a co-writer on that track – alongside Schlitz and Ryan Hanna King – and it was this most poignant of songs that Caitlyn chose to sing first, saying ‘this one’s for Kenny’, totally bringing the house down – cue the tissues…
When a man with as great a songwriting pedigree as Tony Arata asks how he’s going to follow that, you know you’ve witnessed something special.
The highlight of his performance had to be when he sang The Dance, the mega award-winning song he wrote that proved such a great hit for Garth Brooks (of which more later). Before we got there however, Tony touched on his incredible career, which has seen him write songs for no lesser luminaries than Dolly Parton, Don Williams, Patty Loveless and Hal Ketchum.
If anyone had told him, he said, that he would be writing for his heroes for over 30 years, he would have called them ‘delusional’. I suspect the audience would beg to disagree.
Tony’s set included Satisfied Mind, which appeared on Hal Ketchum’s 1996 The Hits compilation album, but it was when he played and sang The Dance that brought the greatest applause.
Considered by many to be Garth Brook’s signature song, Tony told the story of how, having written The Dance in 1986, it was heard by Garth when the pair were on the same bill at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville.
“Garth said to me, ‘If I ever get a record deal I will play that song’ – well, he got signed at the Bluebird and three years later he called me and asked if it was still available,” said Tony.
The rest, as they say, is history and The Dance went on to be a hit single around the world, being named both Song of the Year and Video of the Year by the Academy of Country Music in 1990.
Tony’s own version was a privilege to listen to and what made the story extra special was when he said that while he might have seen Garth flying around an astrodome, to him, ‘he will always be the young man sitting on a stool singing a song I had written…’
The engaging and charismatic Tebey shared When the Buzz Wears Off, from his 2016 Old School EP (co-written with Kelly Archer) and his hit song Somebody Else Will (co-written with Adam Hambrick and Kelly Archer), a big success for Justin Moore.
Caitlyn kept tugging at the heartstrings and at the end it was Tacoma, the song co-written with Bob Di Piero and featured on her 2018 debut album Starfire after having been earlier recorded by Garth Brooks (yep – him again!), which set everyone off once more.
A story of saying goodbye and hitting the road, Tacoma was also a favourite at the CMA Songwriters’ night, and when Caitlyn said that ‘as hard as songwriting is, there is nothing else she would rather do’, you knew it was meant from the heart.
A richly-deserved standing ovation waved all three off the stage but the queues for autographs and photos was a reminder that together, we had all witnessed something rather special.