As emerging singer-songwriters, they showcased their talents at one time or another at the Bluebird Café, the “accidental” Nashville landmark that has altered the course of music history. Bluebird, the documentary feature, had its world premiere at SXSW in Austin this past March.
Described as part church, part living room, the Bluebird is a tiny oasis where singer-songwriters come to bare their souls and a lucky few patrons who can squeeze into the tiny space in the suburban strip mall café, come to pay their respects and show their reverence. (The venue also became a leading ‘character’ in the hit series Nashville that ran for six seasons first on NBC, then CMT. But more on that later…)
One of the many legends of the Bluebird is that Brooks and Hill essentially signed handshake deals in the hallway after their performances. PEOPLE sat down with Erika Wollam Nichols — one-time Bluebird waitress, current Café manager of 12 years, and a producer on the film — to get the scoop.
“No, that is the real thing. Lynn Schultz [from Capital Records] took Garth into our kitchen and said, ‘Come tomorrow and we’re going to sign a deal.’ I know it’s amazing. And people ask me, ‘So, does it still happen that way?’ And no, it doesn’t happen quite that way because our industry is different now,” Nichols says. “There are so many more avenues and it isn’t an immediate discovery, but I don’t say that doesn’t happen.”
Swift was 14 when she invited record executive Scott Borchetta to see her play at the Bluebird in 2005. Nichols recalls how Swift proved with that performance “how she can actually work a room” and hold her own against three older male writers with whom she performed. “And the songs… Scott could tell we’re going to hold up in time,” Nichols recalls. Swift was promptly signed to Borchetta’s newly created record label Big Machine Records and the rest is history. Thank you, Bluebird. (Swift returned to the venue in 2018 for a short set.)
Besides interviews with and performances by Swift, Musgraves, Brooks, Hill and Morris as well as Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, Connie Britton and Charles Esten, the film follows rising singer-songwriters as they chase their dreams and test their talents in front of peers, locals and fans from all over the world, thanks again to the success of the TV show Nashville.
Nichols admits it’s been a balancing act to stay true to the premise of the Bluebird as an intimate and sacred space for new and old musicians alike while being able to make money, keep the doors open and accommodate the new fan base.
“We must continue to deliver,” Nichols says. “It’s something that’s concerned me from the minute the television show happened — how do we stay real and not be a facade of ourselves? And I always tell our staff, because there are now a million songwriter places, we just have to be the best Bluebird.”
Nichols adds, “We have to be a real living part of the music industry instead of just a facade, a tourist attraction, a presentation place. We have to be where the industry is coming in and listening and meeting. And the writers are meeting each other and building their community. The Bluebird’s become a celebrity in and of itself — people come in and they have no idea why they’re there except to take their picture at the Bluebird. And some people don’t get it. But often people will come in with no expectation except being there and it changes them. And they walk out and they’re like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that’ or ‘I’ve never heard music like this. This is amazing.’ And that’s gratifying.”
The film, directed by Brian Loschiavo, was the brainchild of Nichols, who — from the day she took over running the Bluebird after the original owner Amy Kurland sold it to the Nashville Songwriters Association International in 2007 — saw that the Café had tremendously rich stories that needed to be told and captured.
“There are so many people who were foundational to building this place up to what it’s become — their story hasn’t been told and we’re losing people. I was really afraid of not being able to tell the story about the Bluebird I knew when I was young,” Nichols admits.
“I worked with a couple other different filmmakers probably eight years ago, to get a start of a documentary. And the evolution just didn’t happen. But then something just clicked and it was perfect because Brian and Jeff (Molyneaux, co-producer) are like my brothers. They reacted immediately with the treatment and ideas of funding — all the timing was just perfect.”