Music City Blog: The Bluebird Café

By <b>Steve Buchanan</b><br/> Executive Producer of Nashville and President, Grand Ole Opry Group Oct 23, 2012

One of Nashville’s key characters never says a word, but tells a compelling and true story about one of the city’s most treasured musical landmarks—The Bluebird Café—and most revered crafts, songwriting.

Night after night, aspiring writers who have yet to score a cut lay the blood, sweat and tears of their best efforts on the line for what amounts to a peer review from colleagues who have been there, done that, and know what it takes. From just-got-to-town newbies to Nashville Songwriter Association Hall of Fame members, they’re each there to give their tunes a whirl in front of an audience that can literally reach out and touch the performer.  Every available inch of space is utilized for seating—including the small elevated platform where Nashville viewers saw Scarlett and Gunnar make their debut as a duo in the first episode.  On any given night there are only 20 tables in the room, and even counting in the barstools and three old pews, the Bluebird reaches capacity at about 100 people.

The Bluebird opened in1982 at the same address where it remains today—in a small shopping center across a busy road from a much larger shopping center in an area of town about five miles from Music Row.   Though much has changed around the Bluebird in the last 30 years, very little about this club has.  A faded blue awning with The Bluebird Café in script marks the spot, and inside, signed B&W publicity photos are in the same place they were when they were first stapled there. Brad Paisley, Steve Earle, Faith Hill and Vince Gill are forever young on the walls of the Bluebird.

The first thing that people who snag a reservation see when they come in the door is a Tennessee vanity license plate nailed to a post with the words of the Bluebird’s #1 rule: “SHHH.” Because the club is so small and intimate, and because it is a listening room, talking by members of the audience is not only frowned upon, it can be grounds for removal, or at least a stern ‘Shhhhh’  from a server or bartender.

There are typically two shows a night—one early and one late—and most are staged “in the round.” Four chairs and four microphones are placed in a circle in the center of the floor, and four songwriters take turns singing one of their songs, around and around. The stage is used for bands and the weekly Monday Open Mic Night, which gives writers who have never played the Bluebird a slot and a shot.

It was the end of an Open Mic Night when Scarlett reluctantly joined Gunnar on stage and wowed Watty White with their haunting poem-to-music “If I Didn’t Know Better.”  This performance in the first episode was shot on location at The Bluebird but because the club is so confined, and the equipment and crew required to shoot a television show is so large, we made the necessary production decision to build a Bluebird on a soundstage in North Nashville.  The replica is authentic from the pale blue color of the walls to the placement of every photo, string of twinkle lights, pew, candle and liquor bottle behind the bar.  The faux Bluebird is so genuine that it even smells like the Bluebird.

The emotional musical closing scene in “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” is filmed on that set, and re-creates the close of our first episode, replacing young newcomers Scarlett and Gunnar with former lovers Rayna and Deacon, who stun the room with an aching performance of one of their own bittersweet tunes, “No One Will Ever Love You (Like I Do)” that lingers long after the song ends.