Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene For a Song

By Beverly Keel

AUGUST 11, 1997:  At precisely 5:30 p.m., 35 sweaty, determined songwriters burst through the just-unlocked door of the Bluebird Cafe. It's open-mic night at country music's most famous listening room. The men and women--with guitar cases in one hand and designer water bottles in the other--each hurriedly grab a slip of paper at the bar, scribble their names down, and drop the pieces into the appropriate baskets. Only then can they relax and enjoy the air-conditioning.

This weekly ritual has been a part of Music City's folklore for a dozen years. A decade ago--long before his name was routinely mentioned on awards shows--Garth Brooks was among those hungry tunesmiths anxiously waiting to be called on Monday nights. In fact, he was discovered here by a Capitol Records executive while unveiling several of the songs that went on to help him sell 62 million records. Kathy Mattea and Sweethearts of the Rodeo also signed record deals after playing the Bluebird. Alternative country favorite Kim Richey was a cook here; she got her chance to hit the stage after a performer canceled at the last minute.

The Bluebird, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this summer, has emerged as one of the premier music rooms in the nation, alongside New York's Bottom Line and The Troubadour in Los Angeles. (It has also become a mecca for fans of the late River Phoenix because the club served as the centerpiece for The Thing Called Love, the last movie Phoenix finished before his untimely death.)

In fact, only in Nashville does the Bluebird get criticized; some locals feel it has become a country-music clich. "It's very painful to be doing the same work I've always done and trying just as hard as I always have, trying not to take it all for granted while becoming a target," says Bluebird owner Amy Kurland. "The press writes trite things with this attitude they've gotten.... I guess no one is a legend is his own town."

In what has become the big business of country music, the Bluebird is one of the few places that still has a feeling of intimacy and even honesty. While nearby Music Row has become a corporate star-making factory, the songwriters who play the Bluebird embody country's dreams and its spirit. On a weekly basis, they come from around the country, hoping that the right person will hear just one of their songs. Just as Thursday's concert in Central Park marks a pinnacle in Garth Brooks' career, playing the Bluebird's open-mic night is a major milestone in a songwriter's life.

Open-mic night has only three rules: The songs must be original; songwriters are limited to two songs or eight minutes (whichever is shorter); and the lyrics must be suitable for all ages. Songwriters line up at 5 p.m., names are randomly drawn at 5:45, and the show begins at 6. Since the show ends at 9 p.m., not everyone will get to perform. Those who fall victim to time constraints--roughly 15 to 20 dejected writers--are guaranteed a slot on next week's show.

"Open-mic is the greatest thing happening in Nashville because if you are somebody who just moved here from wherever--Cleveland or Boise--and if you can't get out and play, then you might as well not have come here," says Kurland. Many of these out-of-towners, she says, leave everything behind in their quest for the great country dream, only to find that they must sleep in a car or on a river's edge while waiting for their turn on the Bluebird's stage. "An open-mic gives these songwriters a chance to get out and play their songs so they can see how the audience responds," she says. "It also lets them meet other songwriters.... It's the way they establish a community."

Kurland estimates that only 10 percent of the Monday-nighters will eventually sign music-publishing deals. "Open-mic is not at all about being discovered," she says. "Getting discovered in Nashville is much more of a process than a moment. It's about playing open-mic and getting invited to another writers' night and having a publisher come see you. It's more of a boost. It's not necessarily a step over the top, but it's a push in the right direction."

On this particular night, the crowd is equal parts young and middle-aged, equal parts male and female. Baseball caps outnumber cowboy hats 4-to-1, while Dockers and Levi's vie as the most popular attire. An early standout is 23-year-old Blake Alan Smith, a handsome, shortly cropped blond who wears a white shirt, black Levi's, brown roper boots, and a black Stetson. A delicate gold hoop adorns his left ear, and a guitar pendant dangles from a thick gold chain around his neck. The UPS worker regularly makes the 20-minute drive to the club from his Lavergne home; he's always accompanied by his mother, Joyce.

"I've been doing this awhile," he says. "I want to be rich. I want to be a star--" "They're going to write that, and you're going to feel stupid," his mother interrupts. His ambitions put in perspective, Smith continues, "This is just what I've always wanted to do. It's like an obsession, I guess. It's my dream."

Smith is followed by George Sisk, a 45-year-old air-conditioning equipment salesman, and his corporate-travel-agent wife, Nelda, also 45. They sing an unnamed cowboy song and a swing song, "Something's Gonna Happen Tonight." Nelda is "always nervous," even though the duo has performed here a dozen times. "They are always friendly," her husband says of the crowd. "The enthusiasm varies from performance. It's a very polite, supportive crowd. You get a feel for how well your songs go across."

Caleb Lim, the only person of color in the club, soon takes the stage. The 48-year-old Thailand native moved from California to Nashville two weeks ago. "It seems like every third person in Nashville is a songwriter, so I thought I'd join in. This is my first feeble attempt at songwriting in Nashville," he says. He launches into a song, crooning in a voice that's shaky and not very country.

Pleased with his performance, Lim vows to continue his new hobby as long as he receives positive feedback from the crowd. He's not deterred by the evening's lack of diversity. "I guess I'm the first different one," he says. "It's a non-factor. In music, there's just one race."

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