For decades, songwriters and aspiring artists have lined up at The Bluebird Cafe, hoping to get noticed as part of the journey to a star-level country music career. This week at Austin’s South By Southwest conference, the boot is on the other foot. The club – by way of a documentary about its 35-year history – is making a kind of audition of its own, hoping to get picked up for distribution, to be seen, to be heard.
The 90-minute film, simply called Bluebird, screens this Thursday at the Paramount Theatre. It’s pitched as an underdog story about an “accidental landmark” covering the ethos and impact of the famous music venue in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville. Founded as a restaurant in 1982, owner Amy Kurland installed a stage and a live music component that quickly gained influence as a showcase for Music City’s songwriters and artists on their way up. The documentary includes commentary and performance from a number of the major stars whose acoustic Bluebird performances changed their lives, including Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Kathy Mattea and Faith Hill.
The doc was the brainchild of Bluebird veteran and current general manager Erika Wollam Nichols. She started work as a server there in the mid 1980s, when the club was discovering its purpose, and eleven years ago, when Kurland retired and sold the club’s name and operations to the Nashville Songwriters Association International, Nichols was called on to run it as a self-sustaining arm of the non-profit trade association.
“When I first took over, it was very important to me to instigate a film about this place,” Nichols told WMOT’s The String. “It hadn’t been done. So many people and so much of the story could be lost if we didn’t act quickly.” That led to several round of filming but no production company appeared ready to assume the risk and cost of taking a film all the way. Then the Bluebird became a key locale in the popular TV series Nashville, and through that, Nichols met director Brian Loschiavo and cinematographer Jeff Molyneaux. They spun off their own company and committed to the project, in tandem with Nichols herself. It was completed in part with two rounds of crowd-sourced funding online.
In the conversation above, Nichols talks about several aspects of running the club in modern-day Nashville, including the security of the building in a rapidly changing city.
“We have a level of protection. Our space is still owned by Amy and she digs her heels in as I do to maintain what the Bluebird is. Our little tiny condominium of the dry cleaner, the beauty shop and the downstairs offices is independently owned. So this little space of four businesses is private and none of those parties are interested in selling out to a developer.”
On whether the club has held on to its reputation as a venue for discovery of break-out stars:
“It’s not as easy and as clear as when I was a waitress here (in the 1980s) and the A&R people littered the bar. There’s a whole different way of discovering artists and writers these days that’s multi-faceted. And we are certainly a piece of that gem, for lack of a better word.”
On the occasional interest by others in opening Bluebird branches in other places:
“We are very connected to what happens here. So you can’t just create a Bluebird. We have our writers and our perspective. And what we export we control. That doesn’t always fly with some people. But that is the way I think we maintain the brand – by making sure that what goes out from the Bluebird represents what happens here.”
Listen to the full interview with Erika Wollam Nichols in the audio player above or on the new episode of The String, where this conversation first appeared.