WATCH | It's true that the Bluebird Café hosted a teenage Taylor Swift when she was "discovered" and it's had some memorable moments on TV's "Nashville," but Circa's behind-the-scenes tour reveals why legendary singer-songwriters have been flocking there for decades.
Erika Wollam Nichols, the general manager of the Bluebird Café since 2008, has witnessed the impact its signature performance-in-the-round setup has had on rising stars and established talent alike.
The place where a 15-year-old Swift was discovered
"This right here, as a matter of fact, was where [Swift] was when she met [music executive] Scott Borchetta, who was sitting over at Table 20," Nichols told Circa.
"This is where he first heard her. This is where he spoke with her about her future... A few days later, [the] Big Machine label was created, [and she] took over the world, basically."
Nichols continued: "If I get a chance to talk to [Swift], she always has such a fond memory of where she came from in this place -- because above and beyond, first and foremost, Taylor Swift is a songwriter. That's what she loves."
WATCH | "Faith Hill was singing backup with Gary Burr's band," Nichols recalled. "[Burr] had all these label people that came to the Bluebird. [One told him], 'Oh, yeah, it was a great set. Who's your backup singer?'"
Why Garth Brooks loves the Bluebird (and its kitchen)
"Garth had been in Nashville," Nichols said. "Worked as a backup singer, sold boots, did all kinds of things. Didn't get a deal, was passed on by every record label. Lynn Shults from Capitol Records was sitting at the bar, saw Garth's performance, saw the audience reaction to him, and just said, 'Whoa!' Took him into our kitchen and said, "Garth, come to my office tomorrow. We're going to sign you to a record deal.' Boom! Yeah. It's a great story because our kitchen is really tiny."
WATCH | Some stars like to keep their Bluebird cameos covert. "Toby Keith will sneak in the backdoor and sit in one of the [audience] pews nondescriptly," Nichols said. (Of course, he'll perform there from time to time, too.)
WATCH | Adding to the venue's lore is the role it plays on the prime-time drama "Nashville." The pilot episode of the series closes with a stirring performance of "If I Didn't Know Better" in the Bluebird Café.
Rebuilding the Bluebird (for the magic of television)
"The ['Nashville'] pilot is the only thing that they ever filmed here in the room," revealed Nichols, who's appeared on the show herself.
"Once the pilot was filmed, we waited. ABC picked up the show.
"That's when everything started. They came in. The whole set-deck people came in and measured and took color samples, took every picture off the wall that you see and scanned it and put it back exactly."
The evolution of the Bluebird
How'd the venue become a coveted Nashville destination for musicians and fans? In 1982, it opened as "a lunch and dinner café with a little bit of music added on," according to Nichols, who started working as a waitress there in '84.
"Amy Kurland, our founder, decided to do a songwriters night, a fundraiser. When she did that, next morning, when she checked the register, the sales were through the roof, so she said, 'Yeah! Let's keep doing this songwriters thing.'"
The decision to host performances in-the-round set it apart
A couple of years later, staffers decided to move performances from a tiny stage to a mish-mosh of mics and chairs in the middle of the dining-room floor. That move "infiltrated the culture," Nichols said, and changed the entire dynamic.
"We don't have a green room," she added. "Everybody's all in this together. It's [a] very emotional way to listen. You can hear the air go out of the room sometimes with an amazing song."
WATCH | She added: "[If] people are on their phones or yawning, maybe that song's not working.
"But if you come in here like Kathy Mattea did... and you see the entire room bursting into tears, wow, you've got a powerful song there."
"I think that's the power of this room: It's a listening room. Songs matter. And people connect."
—Erika Wollam Nichols, GM of the Bluebird Cafe
"You hear a song that just blows your mind and you tear up," Nichols added. "You tear up, that person tears up, and you have a relationship.
"You'll never know their name, you may never meet them, but all of a sudden something has knit you together that matters and it brings out your humanity."