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By Laura Ewald
Photos By Daniel Dubois

Underneath the awning of a cafe tucked into a strip mall on the outskirts of Nashville is a wooden plaque, easily missed by the untrained eye: “The best songwriters in the world pass through this door.” A bold statement even in a city big on bold statements, it is nonetheless true—from Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to the poets behind today’s biggest country (and pop, rock, Latin, and instrumental) hits, countless songwriters and recording artists call the Bluebird Cafe home.

Founder Amy Kurland, BA ’77, is one of the most influential people in what many consider the music capital of the world.

I Feel Lucky

Kurland runs, as singer-songwriter Karen Staley puts it, “the Ellis Island of Nashville,” hosting open mic nights, auditions, and booking new writers and artists to perform at the Bluebird and with affiliated touring shows. She has rolled out the welcome mat for the unheard and unsigned since 1982 when the Bluebird opened far off “Music Row,” the area southwest of downtown Nashville that houses the big dogs: labels, executives, managers, studios, and the Country Music Association, one of the music industry’s most powerful trade groups. Despite its less-than-commercial location, the Bluebird is the heart of the industry. “Nashville more than ever is considered the songwriting capital of the world, and we are the Capitol dome,” Kurland says. “We’re the place you can see the process happening.”

As the songwriting process unfolds at the Bluebird, so do all the other steps that happen before a hit reaches the radio, TV, and the Internet—audiences respond, writers collaborate and revise, execs and managers take meetings, artists record demos, and marketing teams put together the whole package. But you don’t play at the Bluebird without making it past Kurland.As the gatekeeper to Nashville’s most respected songwriter showcase, her taste and point of view shape who plays, who listens, what sells, and what the world hears.

Fortunately for the world, Kurland has a good ear. Countless songwriters and artists warmed up at the Bluebird—Kathy Mattea, Faith Hill, and Vince Gill among them. But nowhere is Kurland’s influence more obvious and universal than the career of Garth Brooks, who became a featured writer and performer at the Bluebird in the mid ’80s. Brooks heard the song that would become his first hit, “The Dance,” penned by Tony Arrata, at the Bluebird, when Arrata performed it in a showcase.

“I could not picture my life without the song or the songwriter,” Brooks writes in The Bluebird Cafe Scrapbook: Music & Memories from Nashville’s Legendary Singer Songwriter Showcase, which Kurland co-edited with Mark Benner and Neil Fagan. “The Bluebird gave me both.”

Brooks made it big, in some categories outselling Elvis and every other individual performer in history—his sales are comparable to those of the Beatles. And after Brooks, country music—all of music, actually—will never be the same. His boundless appeal helped to break down genre barriers and opened the cross-promotional, collaborative doors that remain open today. Mass appeal is what the labels still look for and is in part what makes collaborations such as rap star Nelly and country favorite Tim McGraw’s “Over and Over” so successful. Broad appeal catapulted a number of female solo country artists—namely Shania Twain, Yearwood, and Hill—into the limelight in the ’90s, paving the way for the young female voices of today.

Songwriters are stars at the Bluebird, which celebrates the craft.

“The whole music business is absolutely in turmoil—it’s a wonderful thing because radio stations still are genre-directed, but nothing else is,” Kurland says. “Big labels know they can’t afford to be in one genre. The big labels every day become less powerful. You so seldom hear about someone unknown being signed to a major label; but you so often hear someone say, ‘Go to my MySpace page, I’ve gotten thousands of page views.’

“Luckily, I’m not in the thick of having to pick the next big star. We are here for the songwriters to show off their wares. These songs happen before anybody categorizes what they are, which is great because a good song can take 10 years to get on the radio.”

In a way, Kurland’s voice is heard in the music born at the Bluebird. “I wish I could sing and play guitar, and I cannot. But I get to have a career in the music business that makes me part of the good songs that are on the radio; part of having audiences go crazy at shows,” she says. “That’s almost as good—maybe better—than being the one doing the singing. I’m part of making the music.”

Music and performance run in Kurland’s blood. Awards her father, Sheldon, won for work on Music Row grace the walls of the venue among headshots of songwriters and artists who perform at the Bluebird. Shelly Kurland Strings, which he founded, was a highly regarded group often requested for recording sessions on Music Row. Kurland’s mother started a theater group near where the Bluebird now stands when Kurland was growing up. Kurland’s parents supported the Bluebird from the beginning, though her father warned her not to include a stage in the cafe, as he thought people wouldn’t want to be bothered with music while they ate.

Kurland’s upbringing played a hand in developing an important tool in recognizing good music—her gut.

Following her intuition has served Kurland well, at least in the long run. Growing up in Nashville and in upstate New York, Kurland came to GW because friends were nearby and she was interested in politics. “We made so much use of the city. I was in the museums, on the Mall, and in Georgetown every weekend,” Kurland says. During her sophomore year, Kurland became interested in cooking (a skill she developed by using butter and sugar packets pilfered from the Thurston Hall cafeteria to make cookies) and the restaurant business. She decided to finish her bachelor’s degree, double-majoring in American studies and American literature, largely, she explains, because the coursework was flexible and fit her broad interests.

“The fact is that it wasn’t my intention at all, but an American studies degree fits in perfectly with a career that’s about country music and songwriting,” Kurland says. “I think that education, that way of thinking about things, has made me a better person to understand country songs, and that’s what I do for a living, I’m around songwriters.”

After graduating and briefly operating a bakery in Nashville, Kurland attended the Culinary Institute of Washington. “I went back to Nashville as a GW grad and a cooking school dropout,” Kurland recalls. “After hanging around nightclubs and learning to love country music at a hot dog place, I opened a restaurant as a naïve 25-year-old. I credit no sense or anything else for my success, just flat-out stupidity and bravado. The musicians I knew from bars said, ‘Why don’t you put in a stage?’ and I agreed because it gave me a chance to be around more guys who play guitars.”

In Nashville, when it comes to music venues with open mics, it’s not “if you build it, they will come” so much as “if you build it, they will help you build it, and then they will come and keep coming.” From the very first night, the Bluebird has been packed.

With success came responsibilities, and Kurland found she had a lot to learn about running a business. She took classes in small business management at a community college in Nashville; there, she picked up a piece of invaluable advice.

“I learned that you’ve got to find one thing to be, and to be the best at that one thing,” Kurland says. “So we focused on showcasing good songwriters.”

That simple decision changed the country music industry.

Stars Go Blue

Garth Brooks’ audition sheet, autographed for Kurland.

Though Kurland says she didn’t see a dime from running the Bluebird until after it had been open for six years, its impact on audiences and performers was immediate and deep.

“The Bluebird completely changed the way writers were viewed on Music Row. It also brought the creative people who had been in the shadows for so many years to the attention of the public who had never thought about who wrote the songs they heard on the radio,” artist Karen Staley says. “At the Bluebird people come to listen to music—not to just use it as background noise for conversation. People really respond to the purity of the creator of the song interpreting it the original way it was intended.

“Everyone loves to play the Bluebird,” she continues. “That’s why everyone from T. Graham Brown to Faith Hill to Garth Brooks and scores of others knew that if they were going to get their name out on the Row, the place to be seen was the Bluebird. It was automatic clout.”

Kurland, too, has built a solid reputation on and off Music Row. She’s proud of her venue and the artists it showcases. And while many are quick to point out its untapped potential (read: expansion and commercialization), Kurland definitely thinks the ’Bird ain’t broke.

“We get asked the question about expanding all the time, but nobody’s ever offered me the money to expand,” Kurland says. “I decided years ago that it is best for the people who play here to play in a small environment.

“We really work with brand-new songwriters right off the turnip truck, and you don’t want to put them in front of 300 people. Even more, you don’t put them in a room that seats 300 people, but only has 10 people in it. Seventy-five to 100 seats is perfect. If only 25 people show up, it doesn’t feel empty; and if it’s crowded, everybody thinks they’re having a great night.”

Because of its reputation and popularity, the Bluebird has had to cut back on its large-scale open auditions, holding them only four times a year. Open mic nights on Mondays are always packed. But Kurland is quick to point out that hers is not the only place in town to gain exposure—the Bluebird is part of a Nashville network.

“You come in on a Monday, put your name in the hat, if you get your name drawn, you get to play two songs for a great audience, and right away, you get your career started. People will hear you, talk to you, offer you advice,” Kurland says. “But there are other open mics around town, and I’ve never told anybody otherwise. I tell people to go play everywhere, play all over town, and being here is just part of the process. Nashville is Songwriter University.”

While she wants to keep the Bluebird physically small, Kurland enjoys exploring its potential.

“I’m interested in expanding my reach. There are other ways to reach people than just running a bigger club in Nashville.”

The Bluebird sponsors nationwide tours, hosts numerous charity benefits, develops partnerships with travel destinations including Disney World and a ski resort in Montana. It has been the setting of a weekly music television program on Turner South. This was the fourth summer the Bluebird’s music was featured in a series at Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort. In 1994, Paramount Pictures released The Thing Called Love, starring Sandra Bullock and Samantha Mathis, about a group of singer-songwriters based at the Bluebird.

Though the film—and the occasional reporter—perpetuated a few stereotypes about everyone in Nashville wearing cowboy hats, Kurland has enjoyed the Bluebird’s visibility and successes. And she’s left its momentum unchecked. “I’m an old-fashioned owner who doesn’t have a phone bank, doesn’t have Ticketmaster, and doesn’t have a glass case in the front with T-shirts in it. But if you’re willing to wait on the phone with a busy signal to get tickets, and if you can get in the door, we want you here and we hope you come back.”

Long Time Gone

Part of what keeps music lovers coming back to the Bluebird is the chance to hear new music not yet on the radio. What is on the radio right now by and large leaves Kurland cold.

“Country music is in the middle of a stupid phase, a phase that is probably on its way out,” Kurland says. “The part of ‘country culture’ that a lot of music chooses to celebrate right now is ‘let’s get drunk and drive our cars real fast.’

Rivers Rutherford “in the round,” singing hits he wrote for artists including Tim McGraw.

“You hear a song like [Montgomery Gentry’s] ‘Hell Yeah’ or [Gretchen Wilson’s] ‘Redneck Woman’ right now, basically a song that says, ‘I don’t care what you think of me—my kind of people are running this country’—and in some ways, that’s great, because everybody deserves their day in the sun, and people who respond to that music perhaps have felt ignored for a long time. But I think our country, and music, is swinging back to caring about the environment, taking responsibility for our children, and I would be surprised if we don’t start to hear more songs about taking care of each other.”

This isn’t the first period of dramatic change country music has experienced, nor will it be the last. Everything from the invention of the radio to world events have changed the music, and country’s ebb and flow toward and away from its “roots”—if those can be traced and quantified—is a familiar theme. Whether country is or belongs to genres such as folk or bluegrass is debatable. Whether it will be annexed by pop is, to some, a frightening thought. Blurred genre lines, while making for better sales, also make it harder to answer the question: Who, and what, is country?

Wherever the music has been, it’s been celebrated in Kurland’s venue. Wherever the music is headed, the foundation of change will be laid at the Bluebird.

When the Lights Go Down

On a Friday night in August, when the stars are out at the Grand Ole Opry with a crowd 4,000 strong, the hottest ticket in town is at the Bluebird, where four men and their guitars are sitting in the center of the room, telling the stories of their lives—and your life, too—to a packed house of about 100. Rivers Rutherford, Brett James, Cole Deggs, and Jim Collins write songs for Martina McBride, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, and Tim McGraw. If you’re lucky enough to catch a performance “in the round” at the Bluebird, you’ll hear the stories behind the songs from writers who love to perform—and even for diehard country fans, to listen is to be surprised.

Take Collins’ “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” a big record for Kenny Chesney, with its relentless percussion, unapologetic twang, and a healthy dose of pop gloss. Stripped down to the songwriter and his guitar, with backup vocals from the crowd, there’s a charm and a tongue-in-cheek humor that got lost in big label translation. Songs that have been exhausted by airplay—and ubiquitous American Idol covers—are reborn, and the men who are singing them aren’t stars by Billboard standards, but are deeply appreciated by the audience. (Appreciation at the Bluebird often comes in the form of beers and tequila shots sent over by fans.)

An open-mic performer on the Bluebird’s small—but legendary—stage.

Calling Kurland the “den mother” of established and up-and-coming songwriters alike, Rutherford says part of the magic of the Bluebird comes from putting the songwriters front and center—after all, many of them first came to Nashville in hopes of becoming recording artists. “She gives people behind the scenes a chance to be in the spotlight,” Rutherford says. And the crowd is in the spotlight as well, singing along, calling out requests, drumming on tables and clapping, becoming a part of the music.

Sitting at small, candlelit tables, leaning against the bar, and packed into three mismatched church pews over in the corner, tonight the crowd is made up of music lovers from California, tourists from Chicago, singer-songwriters, and Clay Bradley, vice president of artists and repertoire of Columbia Records, who is gamely fielding cracks from Rutherford and crew.

In a few hours, the human condition has been sung and strummed: love, heartbreak, sex, and laughter; children, God, America, and war. This is the Bluebird. And—movies, books, articles, tours, stars aside—this has been the Bluebird since the doors first opened: music, stories, writers, audiences who love real music. And while Kurland has always recognized and executed opportunities, nights like these will never change. The past and present of music are found within the Bluebird’s walls, and the future is in the notes ahead, songs unwritten.