The Bluebird Cafe is one of the most famous venues in the city, the place where some Big Names were discovered. From the outside, it’s a fairly nondescript cafe in the middle of a strip mall out on the Hillsboro Pike. But that adds to the legend, of course. It only seats about 120 people, so there’s an ‘exclusive’ feel to it. The walls are covered with pictures of the great and the good. Monday night is for those at the other end of the ladder, however – those who are willing to queue for the chance to sing a song. I reckon it can’t do any harm to join a queue like that...
By the time I arrive at 5pm, there’s already a line of about 25 people hanging around outside with guitars. When the doors open, you come in from the car park, write your name on a piece of paper and throw it in one of two baskets – one for ‘first try’ and another for ‘second try’ – people who queued last Monday night and didn’t get the chance to play. So second tries are selected first, and then names from the ‘first try’ basket are selected.
The venue is now run by the Nashville Songwriters Association, and because I’m a member and I’ve made a long journey, I’m told that I’ll definitely get a spot. So the names are pulled, and the rules are read out – no rambling introductions, no extended guitar solos, be in tune before you get to the stage, etc. And then we start. I’m up seventh.
After a while it’s clear that the variation in quality is enormous. Some are ready for the studio. Some have material that could definitely work, with a little polishing and shaping – but others are embarrassingly bad. They come with their guitars and their pages of lyrics, and sometimes with their accompanists. And up they go, gulping into the spotlight with their guitars and their high hopes. Many of them are a far cry from ready - can’t sing, can barely play. A few obviously don’t know how to tune their guitars.
The ones who show a glimmer of potential are the ones that break your heart. They start off with their mouths dry, and as they hit that high note on the third line, their voices crack a little with nerves, and then the throat tightens, that awful cold sweat starts, the fingers start to shake and the performance starts to unravel. I watch as one girl of about 17 makes the journey from hope to panic, to anger, then resignation and despair - in three verses. She’s just dejected, on the verge of tears, when she leaves the stage.
There are 53 songwriters slotted to perform tonight, in a three hour slot. The room is all steamed up with hope. This is the dream business we’re in, and you have to wonder what an awful steel-toecapped kicking some of the singers give their own dreams - in the three minutes between stepping up into the light and walking back to their tables.
There’s not a lot more to say... I get up there and deliver ‘Well Well Well’, get my round of applause and go back to the table. And now I can say ‘I played the Bluebird’. Me and 52 others. I wanted to do it, of course, but afterwards, part of me wanted a chance to talk to those dejected young hopefuls and tell them to... slow down. It’s okay to take more time, to get ready, to build up your performance muscles... Being in the spotlight doesn’t mean you’ve arrived at any destination – it’s just a part of the journey, a glimpse from the car window as you roll through. In spite of what X Factor and American Idol tells us, artists aren't made overnight. And if you’re serious about it, it gets easier. And the queues get shorter.
(This is the last of the blogs from the Nashville trip - thanks for visiting & reading...)