Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe isn’t home to your average open mic.
How could it be average, with before-they-were-famous folks alumni like Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney (Come on…even if you don’t love Garth and Kenny, that’s pretty cool).
How could it be average, when the open mic is at a club legendary for nurturing stars such as Kathy Mattea, Taylor Swift, Dierks Bentley and David Wilcox? When it’s in a city, Nashville, known as “Music City”?
How could it be average, when it is an open mic that is now practically a character in the delightfully-soapy TV show Nashville, which features a soundtrack by T Bone Burnett?
So, when I was curious to find out more about Nashville’s storied songwriting scene, it was a no-brainer to reach out to songwriter and songwriting teacher Barbara Cloyd, who founded the Bluebird Cafe’s open mic in 1986 and has hosted it each Monday night ever since.
That Song is So “Nashville”
Nashville, of course, is more than a city famous for its music and songwriting. Its musical culture and traditions are used as an adjective, as in, “That’s so Nashville,” and a verb, as in, “The ‘Nashville’ way. ”
But the truth is, I’ve never really understood the whole “Nashville” thing. I’ve always felt I was missing something when I’ve talked to songwriters who have gone down to Tennessee to try to score a record deal. Or, when I’ve heard from songwriters who are taking “Nashville-style” workshops; looking to get songs “cut” by Nashville artists; getting produced by “Nashville-style” studio musicians; or talking about songwriters I’ve never heard of but who have written hits in “writing rooms” for dozens of Nashville stars. Hey, as a Long Island gal who grew up on Billy Joel and ’80s New Wave and urban folkies, it seemed like a long way from home.
I attended a Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) chapter meeting near my New Jersey hometown a couple of years back and enjoyed it — but felt there was an entire language and culture behind it that I didn’t quite get. So I was thrilled to speak by phone to Barbara (whose next “Play for Publishers” workshop is June 27-29, apply by May 17, yada yada) so I could get the whole scoop on Nashville’s songwriting scene, including the Bluebird Cafe’s open mic.
Here’s some of what we talked about:
Q: I think a lot of songwriters don’t have a full understanding of the Nashville songwriting “scene” and some of the traditions/culture/craft that surrounds it. How would you describe the scene for songwriters in Nashville?
They will be shocked to discover how supportive and open and friendly and the community is. The reality is the chance of getting a cut is miniscule. The top writers in town who have had a long track record of multiple hits don’t get 10% of their songs cut. The chances that, as an artist, you’re going to get signed to a deal, or that as a writer you’re going to get a major label artist to record your song, are next to nothing. But, the chance that you’re going to find amazing friends and be blown away of the creativity of the people around you and find people in your community who love your music and support you, well, you have to be a jerk to not make those kinds of friendships in Nashville.
The music industry in Nashville is commercial country music. That’s how the industry sells records and downloads and fills stadiums. But there are all styles of music in Nashville. It is such a fertile, creative scene with a million musicians and a million studios. However, the way to make the big “score” is in commercial country. Traditionally, there are many huge artists who don’t write, though now record labels with 360 deals are more interested in signing writer-artists because they can get a cut of the publishing. But still, here in Nashville we’re all about the song, it’s not so much about “I’m the artist and this is my vibe,” it’s just about the song. If you look at the classic American songbook, more than any other scene Nashville is trying to write those songs.
Q: The open mic at the Bluebird is legendary. Why is it so special? What can people expect?
I started it back in 1986, it’s been my baby since then. I think what makes it special is all the amazing people who have played at the Bluebird Cafe and at the open mic itself. It first started out as a place where local writers who had moved there could try and be discovered, by playing 2 or 3 songs. But over time its popularity has increased. If you play the open mic at Bluebird, you’re standing on a stage where Faith Hill and Taylor Swift and so many of the best writers have stood. That’s just really exciting to people and over time the attendance has gotten greater and greater. We’ve had to cut it to one song each and we get over 30 writers on stage each Monday night. If someone comes and they don’t get on we’ll give them a stamp that guarantees them a chance to play the next time they come. Some people come now just to get a stamp. And since the TV show, all the tourists want to come to the Bluebird and to the open mic where Gunnar and Scarlett got discovered [two central characters on the show].
And you don’t need to only sing country music at the Bluebird open mic. The audience loves all kinds of great music. I’ve seen jazz singers just set the place on fire and people rapping acapella that blow the room away.
We also have a Sunday Writer’s Night and if you’re a touring professional you can submit a press kit, or if you’re a songwriter we do a live audition four times a year. You have to register in advance online, and we only register 70 people. It only takes a minute to fill up 70 slots to come out on a Sunday morning and play for one minute — basically just a verse and chorus — and out of the 70 we pass maybe five of them.
Q: What are your biggest tips for songwriters when it comes to performing their own songs at the Bluebird open mic or another Writer’s Night?
Pick a song that you’re totally comfortable with. Don’t try to play the song you wrote yesterday. It’s probably not as good as you think it is. There’s a saying that the three best songs ever written are “Yesterday,” “Amazing Grace,” and “That Song I Just Wrote.” Pick something tried and true, so if something is distracting or you’re nervous, you’re not going to forget the words.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes you think songwriters make when it comes to the writing process?
Not realizing that the audience doesn’t read your mind. I could sing a line that says “I can’t believe what she did when he looked at her like that.” Well, what did she do? Why was that surprising? Who are you? What’s going on? Songwriters tend to talk about a story that they never tell. Oh, and choruses that are too long. And songs that are too long. And, just the same-old-same-old. In a town like Nashville, we don’t need any more good songs. That doesn’t have a chance. It has to have a fresh angle.
Q: Who are a couple of your favorite young songwriters on the Nashville scene right now?
Hands down, Adam James. I’m going to be shocked if he is not huge. And Alyssa Bonagura. Oh, and Jeffrey Steele, he wrote half the hits in the 80s and 90s, he could do 3 sets of all the songs he wrote. He plays in Nashville with his band and plays those songs just as well as anyone.
Q: What do you think defines Nashville songwriting?
A high level of craftsmanship is the first thing I think of. If you hear songwriters perform in-the-round in Nashville, you’ll hear big commercial hits but you’ll also hear songs probably no one ever will cut but are still well-crafted. They have great contrast in the melody; clear, fresh lyrics that aren’t cliche; a central focus and payoff to the song; and a focused, pointed message.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Nashville’s songwriting scene?
Last week I was talking to the president of the Songwriter’s Guild and he said our problem is Google, because Google’s business model is to take other people’s product and give it away for free and then charge advertising for it. I don’t know what the future is. I know people will continue to write songs and love country music. As far as the industry’s ability to monetize it, I think the future has as much to do with what happens in Congress than in what happens in writing rooms on Music Row.