View Full Version : Article on The Bluebird Cafe

02-09-2002, 09:47 PM
This article was in today's Los Angeles Times. And, yes it does mention Garth. You can probably find it at their website, but I'll go ahead and post it here anyway.

Where the Big Breaks Are Born

The country music isn't always good at the Bluebird, but sometimes all the pieces fit. Just ask Garth Brooks.

First in an occasional series about venues where aspiring artists go to be discovered.

By Robert Hilburn

Nashville-A steady rain on a chilly night might hurt the turnout at some music clubs, but Bluebird Cafe regulars are true believers, and they flock to the room like parishoners to a church. Some of the seats in the back of the intimate room are even old pews.

Like the row of stools at the bar and the chairs at nearly two dozen tables, the pews fill up quickly once the doors open for the 6:30 p.m. show, and the room is hushed as four songwriters sit in chairs facing one another in the center of the room.

Over the next two hours, the writers take turns singing their tunes, united in the faith that their music is special and that someone, on this night or another one, will recognize that fact and get it recorded.

Many of the most respected record company executives in this country music capital are big fans of the Bluebird. Tony Brown, co-founder of the new Universal South label, calls it a "local treasure that contributes to the creative spirit and health" of the music community here.

I've stopped by the Bluebird, located in a converted video game arcade in a mini-mall on the outskirts of town, half a dozen times over the years without ever hearing a memorabe song. Some are frustratingly close but lack one or more essential elements. You'd be surprised how many times in a bad song you can guess the rhyme.

Still, there's something about the place that keeps pulling you back, and here I am again, looking for the chance, however remote, to sit in on a moment of discovery like the night in 1987 when a young man from Stillwater, Okla., got on stage during the "open mike" night and won a standing ovation.

It was Garth Brooks, and Bluebird owner Amy Kurland remembers the reaction vividly. "Garth was not someone who was invented by the marketing machine at Capitol Records," she says, watching the rain against the window. "He looked like just another kid with a striped shirt and a hat, but he was fabulous, and the crowd went wild."

It was also at the club that Brooks found "The Dance," an inspiring song about pursuing your dreams that became his signature hit. It was written by Tony Arata, who came to Nashville from Savannah, Ga. and was working at UPS while trying to peddle his tunes.

Kurland, whose father, Sheldon, is a Julliard-trained violinist who played on such '70s and '80s country hits as George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today," has operated the Bluebird for almost 20 years.

During that time, she has seen thousands of songwriters come and go and, in the cases of the persistent ones, come again. The faces of the successful ones are saluted in the 8-by-10 glossy photos on the walls. The faces of the others are recalled only in Kurland's memory, if at all.

"Some of them were terrible...just trite, ridiculous stuff," says Kurland, 46. "But we encourage all of them because many of them get better. Some of them get a lot better."

Even before Brooks' breakthrough, the story of the Bluebird had spread, luring young songwriters form as far as Canada and Europe in hopes of launching careers. A few have ended up working at the club.

Mark Irwin had peddled his songs around New York City, but there wasn't much interest in country music up there, so he headed to Nashville in 1986 with a $1,200 nest egg and some dreams. He worked as a bartender at the Bluebird for nearly two years before he and Alan Jackson co-wrote "Here in the Real World." Jackson's 1990 recording of the heartache ballad was one the biggest country hits in years.

Irwin's name is now in the honor roll on the Bluebird's Web site, along with the more established writers who played the club-from
Vince Gill and Steve Earle to Lucinda Williams and Trisha Yearwood. Most of the big names appear at the late show, simply enjoying the opportunity to play in a warm, supportive atmosphere.

The writers on the early shows are mostly unknown, and the audience consists largely of family and friends.

For such a major recording center, Nashville has a relatively small club scene. There are other rooms that have palyed key roles in the development of talent, including the Nashville Palace, where Randy
Travis worked as a catfish cook and dishwasher between sets in the '80s. Tour groups frequently stop by the Palace for that reason. There's also the Exit/In, which was Willie Nelson's and Waylon Jennings' stomping ground before the mega-stardom of the "Outlaw" days in the '70s. It now offers a variety of pop, rock and country acts, most of whom have record contracts.

None, however, approaches the Bluebird as a consistent showcase for aspiring writers. Kurland, who had worked at various jobs in the restaurant industry, didn't plan on focusing on songwriters when she rented the room in 1982 and spent her $30,000 savings to remodel it.

She tried jazz nights, rock nights and Christian music nights for the first few months, then adopted the acoustic songwriter emphasis after hosting several writers at a benefit and noticing how well the music was suited to the room.

Neither rowdy nor funky in the honky-tonk tradition, the intimate 105-seat Bluebird, which Kurland has since bought, has the polite feel of a modest mom-and-pop restaurant, and the waitresses have mastered the art of moving through the room-carrying everything from margaritas to prime-rib sandwiches and chicken fingers-without distracting you from the music. The room's success has led to a regional cable TV show and a record label, showcasing some of the artists who have performed there. A book, containing reminisces by artists, is in the works, Kurland says.

In this night's early show, most of the songs would warrant some consideration by a talent scout. The melodies are frequently strong and the wordplay can be clever. But as usual, there is invariably something missing.

After 90 minutes, I'm ready to slip out the dooor when Barbara Cloyd, who hosts the club's Monday night "open mike" shows, sings a song that locksin-fast and hard.

The bittersweet lyrics are about a woman whose marriage has lost its spark. She tells her husband about seeing a couple in a cafe and marveling at how much in love they looked. It reminded her of the time when their own love was strong. The twist, of course, is that the man at lunch was actually her husband.

The song, "I Guess You Had To Be There," has the kind of soaring melody that often accompanies heartbreak tunes, and Cloyd sang it with a marvelous sensitivity.

It was precisely the type of discovery that keeps pulling you back to the Bluebird. I was so enthused I even found myself telling the stranger next to me at the bar, "Great song."

That's when I learned that it was a country hit 11 years ago for Lorrie Morgan.

Cloyd, who moved here from St. Louis in the '80s to pursue songwriting, later told me she has played "I Guess You Had to Be There" (co-written with Jon Robbin) several times at the Bluebird and it always got good response.

Because she wrote one song that good, it's easy to assume she's written a few more. But Cloyd has had only two other songs recorded, and neither was a hit.

"It's a hard, grueling, frustrating business," she said. "Even really good writers don't hit a home run every time, but you're always hoping for one every time you write a song or hear someone else start one. That's what keeps us coming back to the Bluebird. It's like a family here. We've all gone through similar experiences and we support each other."

At the end of the early show, you see that support. There is a lot of handshaking and congratulating among the songwriters and the friends who have come to encourage them.

Outside, it's still raining, but another long line has formed for the late show, when the anticipation will again build every time a writer introduces another song.


02-09-2002, 10:03 PM
Cool Article!

Thanks for sharing it with us.

02-09-2002, 11:02 PM
That is a great article. My goal on my next trip to Nashville is to go to the Bluebird. That's something I've missed out on so far.


02-10-2002, 12:22 AM
Come on down Lisa! We'll take in a show. :)

02-10-2002, 06:04 PM
Joyce, I'm saving up right now for the convention (whenever Jen posts some info on it), and maybe spring training. So my next trip there will probably be the convention this summer. Hope to take you up on that then though!