In June of 1982, something monumental happened in Nashville, Tenn.: The famous Bluebird Cafe opened its doors. Since that month, 40 years ago, the venue has become one of the most coveted and prestigious show locations in Music City, especially for songwriters.
Founder Amy Kurland originally intended for the Bluebird Cafe to be a restaurant with a small stage, which she added to the 90-seat venue to attract customers. But then, patrons began flocking to the Bluebird — located in a strip mall just outside of downtown Nashville — to hear live music moreso than to eat. Kathy Mattea, one of the first performers at the Bluebird Cafe, landed a record deal following seven months of regular performances at the venue.
In 1984, the Bluebird began hosting its popular – and ongoing — writers’ nights on Sundays. For these nights, event organizers invite rising songwriters — who have to pass an audition — to perform with a special guest who has already found success in the industry. On the very first night, Don Schlitz was that special guest; at that time, he’d won a Grammys trophy for his hit “The Gambler,” sung by Kenny Rogers.
One year later, in 1985, the Bluebird Cafe began hosting in-the-round writers’ nights, which allow several songwriters to perform on the same night by seating them onstage together and having them take turns singing; dubbed a guitar pull, this format is now a popular style of show. Schlitz, Paul Overstreet, Fred Knobloch and Thom Schuyler were the first four writers to perform on a Bluebird Cafe in-the-round writers’ night.
By 1987, shows at the Bluebird Cafe were so popular that the venue began offering two shows — one early, one late — each night. Throughout the years, several of country music’s biggest stars — including Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift – landed their record deals, at least partially, via Bluebird performances. Additionally, acts such as Kenny Chesney, Deana Carter, Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley began by passing their auditions at the Bluebird, a rite of passage for aspiring singer-songwriters.
In 2008, Kurland sold the Bluebird Cafe to the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), to help foster the relationship between songwriters and the venue. Three years later, in 2011, Brooks helped elevate the Bluebird’s popularity when, during his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he said, “The way the Bluebird is run, the songwriters are king. If the whole entertainment world understood that, we’d all be so much better off, because they get it.”
The Bluebird Cafe is the setting for the 1993 movie This Thing Called Love, starring River Phoenix and Sandra Bullock; it’s also become a regular location on the hit TV show Nashville. Although the show’s depiction of the Bluebird is not entirely accurate, it’s added to the venue’s profile, with tourists coming from all over the world to visit.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bluebird Cafe continued to host two shows on most nights, with reservations required for Tuesday-Sunday shows; Mondays are open-mic nights and were first come, first served. The venue is billed as a “listening room,” meaning that audience members are not permitted to talk during the performances. In addition to live music, the Bluebird Cafe operates as a restaurant and has a full bar.
Since the Bluebird Cafe opened, dozens of established artists, along with veteran songwriters, have returned to perform at the venue. Those names include LeAnn Rimes, John Prine, Gordon Kenney, Chris Tompkins, Hillary Lindsey, Gary Burr, Peter Frampton, Chris Stapleton and Vince Gill, among many others. A list of all of the upcoming performances at the Bluebird is available at BluebirdCafe.com.