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

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