After 35 years, the Bluebird Café is still a go-to spot for millennials

By Barbara Harmon, Studio M staff //

As a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Laramie, Wyoming, Manon Ward aspired to have her chance to play at the Bluebird Cafe. Its reputation had traveled those hundreds of miles and through those vast plains.

“It is just cool, especially as an artist, hoping you will play there someday. Then, when it actually does happen and it is even better than you anticipated, you just want to tell everybody about it and keep playing it over and over,” said Ward.

In 2014, Ward visited Nashville for a week to work with Chad Carlson, a multi-Grammy-Award-winning engineer. She said her small town didn’t offer the music opportunities she was looking for.

Interactive timeline: Learn more about the history of the Bluebird Cafe

“I just knew once I was out here, this has got to be my home. I dove all in with music. I didn’t have a backup plan,” Ward said.

The Bluebird has received even more notoriety since appearing on the TV show “Nashville.” Shows are sold out and people hoping to get in for the music and experience — many of them tourists — stand in line for the chance.

The venue has given dozens of artists the spotlight that aided in their climb to success. Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift are two of those noteworthy performers. In 1987, Brooks played at a Sunday Songwriter’s Show and was signed to Capitol Records soon after. Swift was discovered after playing at the venue in 2004.

After 35 years, the Bluebird Cafe remains the go-to place for up-and-coming performers. Millennials are eager for their moment with the mic and their time in the circle.

There’s a system to who plays at the Bluebird and when: Open mic is on Mondays, but participants have to register and their material must be original. Songwriters who pass the auditions can play at Sunday Writers Night, which consists of eight writers who play three original songs. Then, their performances are scored for consideration for their eligibility to play in a Spotlight show and/or Early Show (usually “In-the-Round” with other rising songwriters) Tuesdays – Saturdays.

Having lived and performed in Nashville ever since, Ward said she considers the Bluebird one of the best venues she has ever played.

“As an artist coming here trying to make it, you can tell people, ‘Yeah, I have a show at the Bluebird next week.’ They instantly realize you are doing something—you are working hard to get into this legendary venue where so many people have gotten discovered,” added Ward.

Erika Nichols, general manager of the Bluebird, said that the venue’s welcoming atmosphere and notable reputation assist in giving these artists the audience they are looking for. Even though the greater percentage of millennial songwriters play in the early shows, when established songwriters play in the Late Show, sometimes they will have a younger writer accompany them.

“A lot of the established writers are really interested in co-writing and performing with some of the millennial writers, because it helps both of them,” Nichols says. “It gives them new energy when they have younger, fresh ideas around that they can participate with.”

She adds, “I think for the younger writers, it is great for them to have some of the more established writers to give them a sense of what it is like and the history and their careers. … It’s a good relationship.”

Christian Lopez, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Munford, West Virginia, played for the first time at the Bluebird last year and just recently played in another round.

“You have people walk in with sort of a lust for just hearing something good. It is such a prestigious little place that people scoop up the tickets just to go inside and see any music every night,” Lopez said.

Artists that perform at the Bluebird appreciate the intimate space and quietness of the audience. Something they say is unique to this listening room is how performers face each other on the stage with the audience only a guitar’s length away.

“Original work is the most pure display of music and art that there could possibly be. That is what people come to see. People come up to you afterwards and want to know about the song. That is something that is kind of rare at a venue and that always stands out,” Lopez added.

The prestige of the Bluebird isn’t limited to the United States, though. Performers from other countries also strive to grab their chance with this club’s mic.

Nikita Karmen, a 25-year-old musician from Sydney, Australia, said her first time to play at the Bluebird was during open mic. She just recently played there again with popular radio personality Bobby Bones.

“You are playing original songs and people are listening like they know the songs, which is so amazing. I was used to playing in pubs where people talk over you,” Karmen said.

Karmen moved to Nashville two years ago and has been touring with Bones since 2016.

“It is like you are just in a living room with friends. Everyone is so close to you and everyone is listening so intently to your stories,” Karmen added.

Said Ward: “The best way I can explain it is magic.”

Barbara Harmon is a senior majoring in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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