A Retrospective on the Bluebird Cafe by Linda Marie Fischer

Photo by Deone Jahnke, 2017

Photo by Deone Jahnke, 2017

In February of 2007, a cabaret singer in NYC mentioned the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. It sounded like a great place to go so I set my sights on it. It was a memorable night and here’s an article I wrote about it at the time.

From the Algonquin to the Bluebird

The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee, has been on my mind ever since my husband and I saw a cabaret singer named Lari White at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. The name of her show, My First Affair, was taken from the song “Please Be Kind.” White was impressive vocally and she commanded my attention. I took note of her patter.

“You know, I came to New York and they said it could be a tough crowd up here,” she said, looking out into a sea of fans, eyes blinking like traffic lights, peering at her in the darkened, rectangular room of the Algonquin. “But I thought, it couldn’t be anything as tough as the Bluebird.”

She then went on to describe the Bluebird Café as a place where nascent and well-known songwriters audition and perform their new songs in an open microphone environment in front of an audience.

After that night, my husband and I concluded that if a certain Bluebird Café produced a Lari White, then we had to go see this place.

A year later, on a warm President’s Day weekend, we found ourselves zipping over Seventeenth South, Music Square West, on our way to the Bluebird Café. A block over was Sixteenth South, Music Square East. Our cab driver told us the big music companies and recording studios were located in both places.

He also mentioned that he had encounters with some stars himself. “Amy Grant, she’s been in my cab a few times. Drove Dolly Parton, too,” the cab driver said, reminiscing about two memorable moments. “Now many singers just take limousines.”

A white limousine actually darted by in the distance, as we made our way to the Blue Bird in the Green Hill section of Hillsboro. We drove into a small parking lot in a 1950s strip mall.

“The musicians, the people, they’re taking a break and hanging out,” the cab driver said, observing a crowd outside the café.

The Blue Bird is an unassumingly small building, painted an aqua blue, sandwiched between The Patio Hair Salon and a space that houses a barber; music lessons for violin, viola, fiddle, and guitar; a real estate office; and another hair salon.

Photo by Deone Jahnke, 2017

Photo by Deone Jahnke, 2017

This unpretentious, down-to-earth setting belies the Bird, as the locals called it. The small theater-like setting is rich in history and famous for being an ideal place for songwriters to test out new material. We got that, in spades, when we entered and saw photos lining the walls like wallpaper. The Bird had seen the likes of Garth Brooks, Melissa Etheridge, Kim Carnes, Michael McDonald, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, Bonnie Raitt, Orleans, and even Donna Summer. There were countless others. Lari White was right: When in Nashville, one had to go to the Blue Bird. “This place reminds me of what Applause was like in New York,” my husband said, getting comfortable in his seat. “Actors were waiters. They rotated performances and they had good burgers, too.”

I parked myself in my chair, ordered a slice of key lime pie and a cup of coffee, and took a good look around. There were four mikes and four chairs in a circle. Tables surrounded the musicians. It was an intimate setting that felt like we were in someone’s living room. The seats in the back, where we were, seemed to be the best ones. We sat right by the sound guy, up a level, and could see everything very clearly, over everyone’s heads. It was great. And as my husband said, I was far enough away to jot down a few quick notes without being obvious. No one was in need of a reporter that night. The packed house was there to have a great time, and so were we.

Thom Schuyler was the ringleader, kicking off the evening with light banter, joking with Fred Knobloch, Tony Arata, and the quiet but super talented harmonica player Jelly Roll Johnson.

Their names were not terribly familiar to me, but these guys are as well known in Nashville as some of the biggest names around.

Schuyler, who is currently interim youth director and youth choir director at the Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville, was senior vice president of A&R for RCA Records in Nashville for much of the 1990s. He had worked with Lari White sixteen years earlier.

I started to get a picture of these musicians, and their talents, as they went back and forth, ribbing each other. One of them said they had dubbed Tony, whose songs have been recorded by such artists as Garth Brooks and Patti Loveless, “Aunt Tony” because he “travels like an old woman,” I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but everyone laughed, including Arata. It was all in good fun. And he got each of them back, as the night went on. It’s not surprising that Arata is a quick-witted wordsmith, given that this born-and-bred Georgian studied journalism before moving to Nashville.

Knobloch, who actually suggested the idea for an “in the round” at the Blue Bird, is a gifted musician and a very funny man. He went through song after song, with all the nuance of the polished performer that he is after thirty-five years in the music business and having worked with singers such as Ray Charles and Lorrie Morgan. Throughout the night he had the audience in stitches, with his stories of playing in crazy places around the country, including one about an outside venue in the sweltering heat.

Schuyler regaled the audience with a hilarious song about a Hummer. Here’s one line: “Way too rich, little son of a bitch, who needs a Hummer now,” and a comical version of “My Favorite Things,” entitled “My Least Favorite Things.”

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

For me, the most memorable retrospective was Tony’s story about how he came up with “Face to Face,” a song recorded by Garth Brooks. He recalled how there had been a bad boy who would beat him up in the school yard, and how, thirty-five years later, he got back at him by writing this song, which he thinks about whenever he puts groceries on the table. Arata delivered on every song that he perfomed, and I was glad I bought his CD so that I could listen to him again and again, and let our friends know to get his music, too.

Knobloch delighted the audience with a story about the humming birds around his “Faith Hill” patio before he sang “If My Heart Had Wings.” I picked up his CD as well, to add to my budding Nashville collection, which included the harmonic sounds of Jelly Roll Johnson. 

In regards to Jelly Roll Johnson, I saw why he didn’t talk much. He didn’t have to. His harmonica playing said it all. 

The night we were there, Rand Bishop also took the stage and sang his hit “My List,” which was recorded by Toby Keith. Bishop said that he had written it while he was inventorying the local prison for a federal census, which generated laughter from the crowd.

One word stuck with us after that evening: true. Hearing these guys play is a privilege. We enjoyed a sophisticated jam session with a bunch of musicians for whom songs are like oxygen. They effortlessly carried us into their world, and although we didn’t know an iota as much about music as they did, they made us feel as comfortable as they are with it.

The night ended with a rousing rendition of “Gonna Feel Like Mississippi,” by Knobloch. Great lyrics, great imagery, great delivery…and in the end, it did feel like Mississippi. But it also felt like Nashville, too.

NewsLinda Marie Fischer