“Bluebird” premiered at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th, with Director Brian Loschiavo and many of the crew in attendance, including the now-retired owner of the 1,000 foot café in Nashville on 16th Avenue, Amy Kurland. Director Brian Loschiavo, a Philadelphia film school graduate, spent 10 years in Los Angeles as a freelance screenwriter and Senior Producer with Disney, ABC, and other TV networks, until signing up to be involved in the show “Nashville,” which made him into a believer. He moved to Nashville permanently and was soon tapped to film this documentary about the Bluebird Café.
The Bluebird is a small café in Music City that helps provide a place for songwriters to perform their songs and has launched the careers of megastars like Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Faith Hill. Other well-known names (Trisha Yearwood, Maren Morris, Vince Gill, Jason Isabell, Steve Earle, Connie Britton, Charles Esten) appear, but the magic of the place is that the unknowns behind famous songs—those who actually wrote the words and lyrics—have a place where they can perform and become known for their talent.
As Thom Schayler called it, “The Bluebird is a place to come and be found.” Owner and founder Amy Kurland, with her daughter Barbara, did not originally intend for the Bluebird to be a music venue. It opened in 1982, not in mid-town, not in downtown, but in a strip mall next to a beauty shop and a dry cleaners, featuring all kinds of music.
Owner Amy described it, originally, as “A place for women to come to eat after they had their hair done. Minnie Pearl came to eat at the Bluebirt after she had her hair done.” She added, “When we first opened, it was all kinds of music,” and shared that they would sometimes put on the Talking Heads at max volume to drive out those lingering over a late lunch.
Said Amy, “The goal was to hear not a star, but a great songwriter.” Over time, the proscenium stage gave way to playing in the round in the center of the small room. Thom Schuyler described it as “The most fun I ever had with my clothes on.”
Snippets of the greatest Nashville songwriters of the day are heard, performed in some cases by the artists who made them famous, but more often by the songwriters who initially poured their heart and soul into the song to create the piece. Over the years, the Bluebird became known as a place to give aspiring songwriters a chance. Said one veteran: “They nurture the songwriter as an artist. I learned in that room that being a songwriter is a legitimate job. Sometimes the performance by the writer of the song is more intimate than the famous version.”
With Open Mike on Monday nights, 60 singer/songwriters audition on Sunday night. Garth Brooks was one such aspiring singer/songwriter who had been turned down by every major label but was discovered by someone in the audience at the Bluebird. Taylor Swift was another who joined forces with her manager in that space, as he was just starting out with his own label and she was an 8th grade songwriter from Pennsylvania. (*Full disclosure: my daughter, a music business graduate of Belmont in Nashville, worked for Taylor Swift for 2 years.)
After the screening, talent producer Shawna Strasberg, who had to line up all the famous folk to appear, said that it “took six months to a year to figure out Taylor Swift’s schedule.” She added that most artists said yes “because it was the Bluebird.”
Props were also given to the elaborate set recreating the interior of the Bluebird, built for the TV show “Nashville,” which has popularized the place. The goal was to make you feel like you were in the room. Previously, as one cameraman said, “The opening scene was shot under a table, through someone’s legs with a handheld camera the whole time. It’s a challenge to shoot music.”
Founder and former owner Amy Kurland, who was present the night of the premiere, described herself as someone who grew up on Broadway musicals. She was so dedicated to having the Bluebird remain a place for up-and-coming songwriters to potentially get their shot that she signed over the café to the NSAI Nashville Music Association to make sure that it remains a launching pad for talent now that she has retired.
She looked back over her time since 1982 and said, “Those first few years I knew we were legitimate when Don Everley agreed to come play there.” Given a standing ovation by the appreciative crowd, Amy said, “I didn’t take a salary for a long time. If you’re in it to make a killing, I’d have been better off with a sports bar” to laughter.
It was the success of the TV show “Nashville” that took the struggling café from break-even to money-maker. Now, large crowds gather outside and, while approximately one-third of the café’s revenue comes from merchandise sold, there are routinely 200 to 300 people in the parking lot seeking entry to the small 90-seat venue. (A $25 cover charge is mentioned by the doorman at one point.)
Director Brian Loschiavo acknowledged during the Q&A that “The hardest decision, hands down and a great challenge, was that we had to be stewards of the story. A lot of cutting room stuff we had to lose.” With former owner Amy Kurland smiling and saying, “I really didn’t expect it to be so lively. I’m so grateful” a six-piece band onstage serenaded us as we departed.
Truly a heart-warming, entertaining, and informative film—especially if you dream of becoming a songwriter and wonder how to go about getting your big break in Music City (Nashville).