Guitars in the Parking Lot: Nashville’s Bluebird Café

Guitarists and singers warm up while waiting in line at Nashville’s Bluebird Café . ©Laurel Kallenbach

“The best songwriters in the world pass through these doors.” So says a small wooden sign above the doors of The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee.

I never made it through the doors of this modest café, located in a small strip mall a few miles outside of downtown Nashville—but that didn’t keep me from understanding what it’s all about.

I heard a lot of up-and-coming and wannabe songwriters and performers in the parking lot, all just hoping to get inside for five minutes during Monday’s Open Mic Night to perform. My goodness, there were a lot of talented folks, young and old, who queued up during the late afternoon—all just aching to share their passion for country, gospel, pop, and folk music with other people.

The Grand Ole Opry may be the tippy-top of country music stardom, but The Bluebird Café is definitely the heart and soul of the music industry. Known as one of the world’s preeminent listening rooms, the 90-seat Bluebird Café has gained worldwide recognition as a songwriter’s performance space where the “heroes behind the hits” perform their own songs.

Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift were all discovered at The Bluebird—and you can see that dream of fame and stardom in the eyes of most of the people waiting in line. Bluebird fever hit especially hard in October 2012, when the Café made its primetime TV debut on the ABC drama Nashville. (The Bluebird figures often in the show’s plotline, which deals with Nashville’s music industry and politics.)

Monday Night Open Mic

When my husband and I arrived at The Bluebird at 5:00 on Monday afternoon, a line of people already stretched from the front doors, past the barber shop and the furniture store and the Chinese massage place, past the Porter Paints, and around the corner into the alley.

Musicians of all ages waited for hours on a hot afternoon, but their dreams were not dimmed by the heat or the parking lot setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At least a third of the people waiting for the Bluebird to open were carrying a guitar. From grizzled biker types to kids in braces, everyone looked expectant. Some women wore sleek mini-dresses; most people were in shorts, but most of them sported cowboy boots.

We took our place at the end of the line of about 140 people in the alley. More and more people kept coming. Luckily, the skies were cloudy, so instead of sweltering on the pavement, we were merely hot and sweaty.

While we waited, we struck up a conversation with 19-year-old singer/songwriter Ari Castronovo and her dad (he’s her backup guitarist). When they mentioned they’re from Chicago, the couple behind us overheard. They were from Chicago too—and so are the folks behind them. Our group quickly became chatty. Except for me and Ken, our little enclave was all here to play for Open Mic night, and the excitement and tension were high.

A 40-something guy behind us clutched a laminated piece of paper bearing the Bluebird logo stamp. Two years ago he was in line for Open Mic Night but didn’t get to play. In compensation, the Café gave him the stamp, which moved him higher on the list of tonight’s performers—he was assigned to the number 9 performance slot—although he still has to stand with us in the alley. Singer Number 9 had laminated his stamped card for safe-keeping over the years. The songwriter’s version of a “golden ticket.”

Ari Castronovo sings outside The Bluebird. We hope she knocked ’em dead when her turn to perform came. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As more than an hour passed, the camaraderie in the line grew. Everyone encouraged each other; everyone commiserated. Ari received a number in the low 30s, and when the Bluebird “bouncer” estimated that at least 40 people could perform during the two-hour open mic, her eyes got wide. She’d have to wait for a couple more hours, but she’d get her three minutes on stage.

The bouncer also explained to us that the first 90 people in line would be seated at the tables for dinner or drinks. The rest of us—performers or listeners—would have to wait outside until tables or seats opened up. This meant that a lot of the hopeful performers would stand outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot until their number was called. Then they’d wait until the previous performer was finished, walk off the pavement and onto the stage, sing their song—just one per person—and come right back out again.

As a result, the parking lot became a warm-up room. Musicians who had at least an hour’s wait ran down the street and returned with to-go food from MacDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, or Whole Foods. The singers who were up soon tuned up their guitars and warmed up their vocal cords. They sang for each other in the parking lot; they clapped for the competition.

We got private performances from Ari, from a 12-year-old from Ohio, and from a singer 15 people behind us the line whose soprano voice soared over the traffic noise from Hillsboro Pike.

It was a nice consolation prize, because we decided by 7:00 that we were tired and hungry. Ari offered to share some pizza with us: she wanted us to hear her sing, and so did we, but the truth was that even when we pressed our noses up to the café’s window, we could barely see or hear the performer.

We watched Singer Number 9 from Chicago walk in, strained to hear an occasional lyric over the speakers, and watched him come out, flushed with adrenaline and excitement and hug and kiss his wife. It made our hearts pound in empathy.

A young singer/songwriter stands poised to walk inside The Bluebird—and into the spotlight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Regretfully, we abandoned our place in line, feeling a little like traitors, and headed back to our car. While eating our salads over at Whole Foods, we wondered how all the singers were doing on their night to shine—and get seen—at the legendary Bluebird Café. We, alas, would never know.

Would it have been better to have gained admittance to The Bluebird? Yes and no—but ultimately we wouldn’t have traded our “back scenes” glimpse of the excitement for the actual performance. Sure, it would have been nice to sip a beer and enjoy a burger at the table, but getting to know the aspiring talents outside was something we’ll remember much longer. And after all, there’s always next time…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted November 2013

Ascending to Parnassus Books, the Literary Heart of Nashville

Parnassus Books in Nashville is a must-see for anyone who loves to read. Author Ann Patchett highlights her favorite titles on this shelf.

Making a literary pilgrimage while traveling is always a grand thing. If you love to read, I highly recommend touring an author’s house—like I did at Voltaire’s manor house in Ferney-Voltaire, France.

It’s also fun and meaningful to take a trip to a place you read about in a book. For instance, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun inspired me to visit Tuscany and to spend four days in her village of Cortona.

While I was in Nashville, I had to make a literary pilgrimage … to a very special independent bookstore. Parnassus Books is named for a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived—and it’s known as the mythological home of music and poetry, so you know it’s got to be good.

Parnassus isn’t just any bookstore, it’s one that’s owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who opened it in 2011 right when independent bookstores—and even bookstore chains—were dropping like flies.

Ann Patchett’s books at Parnassus. I wanted to buy one of her titles, but I own them all. In retrospect, I should have bought an autographed copy of “Bel Canto” and given away my old copy, but I was overcome by the riches in the store and couldn’t think straight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ann is probably best known for her incredibly gripping Bel Canto and her most recent bestseller, State of Wonder. (Yes, I think of her as “Ann,” a friend and kindred, bookloving spirit—even though I’ve never met her).

By becoming a bookseller, Ann wanted to prove that people still love to read—and love to buy books in a place where they can interact with other book lovers and authors. She was concerned by how many good books were going out of print and wanted to start a store featuring the books she cherishes. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly well-connected with boatloads of fantastic authors.

Between the Covers

Located in one of Nashville’s more classy strip malls along Hillsboro Pike, Parnassus isn’t large, but it’s thrilling! I was so excited walking up to its display windows filled with new titles that I could barely contain myself. (I suspect more than a few visitors display this giddiness as they walk through the door. Are you one of them?)

The Greek temple is a fun entry into the whimsical children’s section at Parnassus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside, the walls are lined almost to the high ceiling with wooden bookshelves. I felt wonderment, felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt at home.

I browsed for a while, drawn especially to titles that Ann recommends on her blog. There’s also a special “Ann Recommends” shelf that displays her current favorites.

A cheerful bookseller asked me if I had questions, and before I could say “Kurt Vonnegut,” she was bubbling over about the books she loves most, and offered a few of her own suggestions and other titles popular with Parnassus regulars.

How would I describe Parnassus Books? A clean, well-lighted place (to coin a phrase from a Hemingway book). ©Laurel Kallenbach

With five books in my arms, I sat down in a leather chair and read a few pages of each, just to get a sense of them.

I wanted to buy them all—but alas, I would have exceeded the 50-pound checked-suitcase weight limit had I done so. So I pledged to go home to the Boulder Bookstore (another fabulous independent shop) and buy them there instead.

I did purchase one light volume: the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I definitely wanted to do my bit to support Parnassus—and to take home a piece of its literary magic. Long live Parnassus Books!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. If you’re visiting Nashville, you should know that Parnassus Books is just up the street from Bluebird Café, another not-to-be-missed site for music lovers and songwriters. Read about my unique experience at the Bluebird: “Guitars in the Parking Lot.” 

Originally published in November 2013

 

Oregon’s Sylvia Beach Hotel Is for Book Lovers

If you’re a literature lover, allow me to introduce you to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon (a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Portland). A quiet place on the coast, this 20-room inn sits atop a bluff right above the surf and offers a literary pillow to readers and writers.

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

If you can set aside your book or the manuscript of your magnum opus while staying at the Sylvia Beach, you can enjoy strolling on the beach or taking a (chilly!) dip in the ocean. You can also explore the artsy, historic Nye Beach neighborhood with its lovely mix of bookstores, cafés, bistros, galleries and the Yaquina Art Center.

Ken and I stayed in the Sylvia Beach Hotel 20 years ago, and on this year’s trip to Oregon’s central coast, we stopped by to see how the place is faring. Its literary theme is as whimsical as ever: each guest room is decorated in a style and with mementos of a famous author.

Literary Magic

The door to the Tennessee Williams room where we slept two decades ago still says, “Stella!” (a famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire), and the double bed is still draped with mosquito netting (ala Night of the Iguana). The Edgar Allan Poe room still has a stuffed raven to commemorate “The Raven,” and a metal pendulum hangs over the blood-red bedspread, an eerie reference to Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or young at heart.

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or the young at heart.

You can also indulge your inner child in the Dr. Seuss room, decorated in homage to One Fish, Two Fish, The Cat in the Hat and other works of juvenile genius.

There are no TVs, radios, telephones or Wi-Fi at the Sylvia Beach, yet it’s still an English major’s delight. The rooms aren’t grand, but what they lack in luxury they make up for in literary spirit.

Tables of Content

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious things served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious dishes served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Meals are a time to be social at the Sylvia Beach—even if you keep your nose in a good book during the rest of your stay. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and guests sit at tables of eight in the “Tables of Content” dining room. (I think group tables are a great, no-stress way to get to know other literature lovers!)

Dinner, served at 7:00 p.m. each night, is another chance to enjoy pleasant conversation with a bookish bent. The food is served family style (with a choice of four entrees) and the evening’s icebreaker is game of Two Truths and a Lie. Essentially, you introduce yourself to those at your table with two biographical facts and one whopper of a fib! Then your fellow gourmands guess what part of your tale is a lie. Coming up with a lie gets your creative juices flowing, and when I played, it was fun recalling unlikely trivia from my past.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

Rooms at the Sylvia Beach

All the hotel’s rooms are themed according to an author. Here’s a sampling:

Classics: Rooms directly over the surf with fireplaces and decks. They include Agatha Christie, Colette, and Mark Twain.

Best Sellers: These rooms have an ocean view with panoramas of the coast and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. In this category are rooms devoted to Alice Walker, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Lincoln Steffins, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Virginia Woolf.

Novels: These rooms have no ocean view, but they’re still cozy and fun. Here you’ll find Gertrude Stein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Who Was Sylvia Beach?

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

In case you were wondering if this ocean-overlook hotel was named for a beach called “Sylvia,” let me put your questions to rest. Sylvia Beach was an expatriate American who dominated the literary scene in Paris between WWI and WWII with her English-language bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Company. James Joyce fans will recognize Sylvia Beach as the publisher of the Irish author’s famous book, Ulysses (1922).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted on May 15, 2016

Out yourself as a bookworm and let readers know of other literary getaways they shouldn’t miss. Just leave a poetic or prosaic comment below!

Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

March 2018: I’m re-posting my piece about glorious Old San Juan, which I visited in 2014. Yes, Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, but in San Juan, beaches have been cleaned up, and most hotels and restaurants are open. So if you’re craving sunshine and tropical color, Puerto Rico beckons, and your tourism dollars help our citizens in the Caribbean!

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico: