‘Special people’ keep venues special
The Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Café. Two iconic names that immediately create mental images of what Music City is all about. Both are at the top of the list for tourists to visit, particularly since the worldwide popularity of the TV drama series, ‘Nashville.’
In fact, many visitors, listening intently to their tour guides, might actually know more about those two venues than those of us who live and work here. It never hurts to remind ourselves just how important they are to the success of Nashville’s music industry.
In many ways, the story of both venues is really the story of a small number of remarkable people (mainly women, as it happens) whose tenacity, dedication and unwavering belief ensured that both the Ryman and the Bluebird are still thriving today.
The Bluebird put songwriters ‘In the Round’
Originally started as a restaurant in 1982 by founder Amy Kurland, the Bluebird Café had evolved into a 90-seat listening room by 1984, holding regular ‘Writers’ Nights.’ In March 1985, three songwriters, J. Fred Knobloch, Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet, performed the Bluebird’s first ‘In The Round’ show, in which the three writers sat in the center of the room and took turns playing songs and telling the stories behind the songs, while audiences listened quietly and attentively.
The ‘In The Round’ concept was an immediate success and was soon adopted by other venues, but The Bluebird is recognized as the place where it really all started and continues to this day. So many hit writers and recording artists cite the Bluebird as the place where their careers really took off. Among them: Taylor Swift, at the age of fourteen, discovered by Scott Borchetta, and Garth Brooks who, in 1987, filled in for another artist and was spotted by a Capitol Records’ A&R exec and signed to a record deal the very next day.
‘Alive at the Bluebird’ concert series
After 36 years, the Bluebird Café is as popular as ever. It is still the place where songwriters really want to be seen and heard. Baseball great Yogi Berra is credited with saying about a popular restaurant, “Nobody ever goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” And among some Nashvillians, there’s a feeling that the Bluebird has become mainly a tourist destination. But that really is not the case. Just take a look at the list of upcoming shows at their website, and check out the astonishing list of hit writers scheduled to appear.
The 25th Annual Alive at the Bluebird concert series is currently underway with at least 27 shows running through February 1, 2018 that benefit Alive Hospice. There’s never been a better time to catch a great show and support a really worthwhile cause.
While you’re at their site, it’s a good idea to click on ‘Reservations’ too. That’s where you’ll see the Bluebird’s policy about booking seats. Remember, it’s a small room (the intimate setting and the close proximity to the performers is part of the charm) so have a second or third choice in mind if your first choice is sold out.
The Ryman: 125 years and counting
The Ryman Auditorium dates back to 1892 when it was originally known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Now, with around 2,360 seats, it is considerably bigger than the Bluebird, but still one of Nashville’s best venues to see live shows, even in these days of stadium and arena spectaculars.
But, like the Bluebird, the Ryman owes its current existence to a few people who were convinced that it was an essential part of Music City’s heritage. In 1920, Lula C. Naff was hired to manage the space, after working there for several years, booking acts for the Ryman in her spare time. Her tireless dedication kept the venue alive and thriving until her retirement in the 1950s. Since then, the Ryman has had two more female GMs.
“To work here [at the Ryman] you have to be like a crazy, crazy music fan.” – Lisaann Dupont, Director of Communications for Opry Entertainment Group, quoted in an interview at Uproxx.com. You can read the entire story, ‘How Women Shaped the Legacy of Nashville’s Oldest and Most Celebrated Venue, the Ryman Auditorium,’ here.
Saved from demolition
It’s hard to believe now that, when the Grand Ole Opry moved to its new location at Opryland, the decision was made to demolish the Ryman. Pressure from local preservationists led to the Ryman being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, preventing demolition. But for nearly two decades, it slowly deteriorated as its owners had little interest in it. Gaylord Entertainment finally carried out repairs to the exterior including the roof.
But the turning point was a recording made in the dilapidated building by Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers. Titled ‘At The Ryman,’ the album won a Grammy for Best Performance by a Duo or Group in 1993. The success prompted Gaylord to invest in extensive renovations. Since then, additional updates have revitalized the Ryman into the great venue it is today.
Both the Bluebird Café and the Ryman Auditorium prove that when even a small number of people believe strongly that a venture is worthwhile and never give up on their objectives, great things can happen. Today, it’s difficult to imagine what Nashville would be like without the Bluebird Café or the Ryman. They are living proof that people with strong beliefs and perseverance can make things happen.
The Bluebird, the Ryman. Two stops on any visitor’s tour of Nashville. But both great entertainment resources for all of us living in Middle Tennessee who owe a debt of gratitude to those who made them what they are today.