Why the Bluebird Café and the Ryman are still going strong

‘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’

Inside the Bluebird. Photo: Bluebird Cafe

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

Photo: The Bluebird Cafe

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

The Ryman. Photo: L.A. Times/Don Bartletti

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.

The British are coming!

Why more Brits than ever are on their way to Nashville

Pop quiz: What’s the biggest industry in Music City?  No, it’s not music, it’s healthcare. But ‘Healthcare City’ doesn’t sound half as much fun as Music City, and Nashville’s musical heritage accounts for millions of dollars in tourist revenue.  Much of that revenue comes from foreign visitors and that revenue is set to increase still further. The reason: direct flights to Nashville from London’s Heathrow Airport.

Two recent news stories – one from each side of the Atlantic – look at Nashville from different perspectives. ‘Boom (Chicka-Boom) Town’ by Chris Parton in the January issue of Nashville Lifestyles magazine interviews nine ‘movers and shakers’ in Nashville’s music industry.

Meanwhile, a story in London’s Sunday Times, dated December 31, 2017, tells British readers why they “should join the hoedown in 2018” by flying to Nashville. The article’s author, Rich Hall, should know what he’s talking about. He is an American performer whose comedy and country music show, Rich Hall’s Hoedown, tours the UK from February to June, often adopting the character of Tennessee country musician Otis Lee Crenshaw.

‘More than one style’ of country music

Rich Hall. Photo: David Donaldson

Hall makes a point of mentioning several venues familiar to Nashville residents but probably less so to overseas visitors. He writes that there’s more than one style of country music. “Station Inn is spectacular for bluegrass,” says Hall. “And at 3rd and Lindsley, every Monday night, a 10-piece band called the Time Jumpers takes the stage, featuring Andy Reiss and Vince Gill (guitars), Paul Franklin (steel) and leader Ranger Doug (playing killer rhythm on an old Stromberg). If you’ve never heard western swing music, prepare for a religious conversion.”

Brits are notorious for being bad tippers, as tipping is less expected in Britain. Mentioning several of Lower Broad’s honky tonks, Rich says, “There’s a bucket at the foot of the stage. That’s for tips. Be generous, you tight-fisted British miserlings.”

Thank you, Rich! Let’s hope your readers make a note of that!

‘Behind the Scenes’ in Music City

Back at Nashville Lifestyles’ Music Issue (subtitled ‘Behind the Scenes of Our Signature industry’), the story notes that: “According to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Regional Economic Development Guide, the area’s population has now ballooned to more than 1.8 million people and, in 2016, was joined by 13.9 million visitors.”  Those visitors made an impact of $5.7 billion on the city.

If you are part of the music industry, yours is one of 56,000 jobs that are maintained as a result of music in Nashville, according to Chamber estimates. The magazine article quotes the Music City Music Council’s report that 8,000 jobs are directly involved in music making, with 190+ recording studios in the city. “Nashville is currently home to 10 times more music activity than either Los Angeles or New York,” reports writer Chris Parton in Nashville Lifestyles.

‘Challenges’ for Nashville’s music creators

Bart Herbison. Photo: NSAI

But some of Nashville’s music creators are facing challenges. “Songwriters and publishers have seen a huge payment disparity in the streaming area versus the artists and record labels,” Bart Herbison, Executive director of Nashville Songwriters Association (NSAI) explained to Parton. “On the performance side, [artists and labels] get 88 cents for every 12 cents we get, and, on the sales-royalty side, it’s seven-to-one or greater. So, we’re trying to fix that.” (A note from Preshias: for more information on the Songwriter Equity Act, see an earlier post at NashvilleMusicLine.com.)

Among the other Nashville music execs interviewed for the Nashville Lifestyles story are Kos Weaver, Executive VP of BMG Nashville, Mike Dungan, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, Nashville, and Shannan Hatch, Creative Director of SESAC, and several others. All offer professional insight into Nashville’s music industry and where it is heading.

Rob Beckham. Photo: Music Row Magazine

Rob Beckham, partner at WME/IMG points out that in the past, country acts rarely toured abroad. “But now that international audiences can access the music as easily as domestic audiences, we are seeing an increased demand to bring our acts overseas,” he told Parton.

Which brings us back to the article written by Rich Hall for the Sunday Times in London, England. American-born Hall is a comedian who has become popular in Britain and is frequently featured on BBC TV shows.

“Behind Lower Broadway stands the mecca of country music, the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry. Giants walked here. Stand on the center-stage circle and channel the ghosts of Hank Williams, Chet Atkins and Tammy Wynette. The Opry still broadcasts from there on weekends from November to January. Do not, however, confuse this with Opryland, a Disneyfied tourist hellhole on the outskirts of town, designed to separate rubes from the contents of their wallets.”Rich Hall

In addition to mentioning Nashville’s music venues, Hall recommends Brit visitors sample Nashville hot chicken, country ham, grits, Goo Goo Clusters and hash browns slathered in Cheez Whiz – though not necessarily all on the same plate.

Nashvillians are ‘just genuinely nice’

Hall’s article closes by mentioning that Nashville is exceptional because it is so friendly. In fact, Travel & Leisure magazine named Nashville one of  ‘America’s friendliest cities’. Nashvillians, says Hall, are: “Just genuinely nice. So much of America runs together these days. Nashville stands out.  After a short time here, you start wondering why the rest of the world can’t be this pleasant.”

British Airways’ new direct flights between London and Nashville are scheduled to begin in May 2018, so expect to hear even more Brit accents at this year’s CMA Music Festival, June 7 – 10. You can reach Rich Hall at offthekerb.co.uk/rich-hall

You can read the entire ‘Boom (Chicka-Boom) Town’ article and more about what’s happening in Music City in the January edition of Nashville Lifestyles, now at newsstands or go to www.nashvillelifestyles.com

Preshias Harris is a music journalist and music career development consultant with the emphasis on new and aspiring artists and songwriters. Her book, ‘The College of Songology: The Singer/Songwriter’s Need to Know Reference Handbook’ is available at www.collegeofsongology.com Follow her blog at www.nashvillemusicline.com

New “Garth Brooks Channel” on Sirius XM

Historic ‘first’ concert at the Ryman Auditorium

Garth at SiriusXM's studio at the Bridgestone Arena
Garth at SiriusXM’s studio at the Bridgestone Arena

Garth Brooks took a short break from his three year “Garth Brooks World Tour with Trisha Yearwood” to launch his new channel on SiriusXM Satellite Radio.  He kicked it off with a press conference September 8, at Sirius XM’s studios at Bridgestone Arena on Broadway in Nashville, in front of an ‘invitation only’ group of print and broadcast media, before performing a concert at the Ryman Auditorium.

Garth started out by saying, “I got to step inside the [Ryman] yesterday. That’s a cool place, man. Feels good. Don’t know if I deserve to be there but it treated me like welcome. It welcomed the band and everybody. I hope it knows its heart and soul, because you might have said it in front of as big a country fan [as me], but you’ll never say it in front of a bigger one.”

He went on to describe how it would feel, walking on to that historic stage with his guitar for his first ever concert at the Ryman. It’s amazing to think this was to be a ‘first’ for Garth.

“The only time I got to stand on the Ryman stage was at Loretta Lynn’s Lifetime Achievement Presentation and I had to stand in for Conway on “Cold As Ashes,” said Garth.

Representing ‘those who’ve been before’

I asked Garth to compare the difference between two milestones in his career, playing Central Park and playing at the Ryman. Garth said, “Probably feeling the same good anxiety, good fear, all those good things. Central Park was cool for its size and stuff. I wanted to represent Country music, I wanted to represent the flag of Country music, your family and God the best you can. Everybody is in their seats. Tonight you think about, this ain’t a million people, there has been about a hundred names that played that house that – you – want  – to – represent…” (He slows he speech down with emotion as he finished the sentence.)

He continued, “To represent those people who have been there before. The biggest thing between this and Central Park is just that the Central Park show was representing Country music as it was. Here [Ryman], I think we’re trying to represent Country as it is, as it was and of course – as always like a family moving together – hopefully for the future of it.”

Like a homecoming

All throughout the press conference he would turn every few minutes and look out the window at the Ryman Auditorium with evident emotion in his voice and his eyes welling up, referring to the Ryman as “The House”. This seemed almost like a homecoming, just to listen to his sincerity and honestly as he spoke his thoughts and heartfelt emotions.

He was asked what song he was going to start the concert with and he said that he couldn’t even tell us what song he was going to start off with or end with, and assured those present that he was being totally upfront with the media.

Garth fields questions at the SiriusXM press briefing
Garth fields questions at the SiriusXM press briefing

Immediately following the press briefing, Garth crossed the street to Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium for a soundcheck preceding his performance at the special concert in front of invited guests.  The concert aired live on the Garth Channel, SiriusXM channel 55 and via SiriusXM apps on smartphones and other connected devices.

His appearance marked the first time in Garth’s career that he has put on a full concert at the Ryman Auditorium, known as “The Mother Church of Country Music.”

Additionally, Garth recently launched Inside Studio G, a weekly Facebook Live series that will give fans a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his next album. It airs every Monday on Garth’s Facebook page at 7:00 PM EDT.

The final leg of his and Trisha’s North American Tour resumes on Monday, September 12.

More information at Garth’s Facebook page and www.siriusxm.com

NOTE: Due to limited space, some quotes were shortened to fit accordingly.