Explore Nashville

Welcome to Song Town

Folks in New York, Los Angeles, Austin and even Atlanta can argue over whether Nashville deserves its title of Music City, though the depth and breadth of the Tennessee capital’s new century successes—the rock of Kings of Leon, Jack White and the Black Keys, the pop of Sheryl Crow and Ke$ha, the blues of ‘Keb ‘Mo, the crossover triumphs of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, a Grammy-grabbing symphony and umpteen country, blues and jazz notables—point to Nashville as a beacon of cross-genre creativity. But what seems indisputable, even in these disputable days, is that Nashville leads the world in songs-per-capita.

Every day in Nashville, more songs are written by noon than are written all week in any other city. Each morning, hundreds of us get up and write. By 10 am, Music Row publishing houses are bustling with guitars, keyboards, laptops and songsmiths, but the action isn’t confined to the Row. We write in living rooms, kitchens and home studios.

Taylor Swift constantly speaks ideas into her smart phone’s voice-memo app. Kieran Kane, whose songs are sung by Alan Jackson, Emmylou Harris and many others, still uses a cassette recorder. And I can drive up I-65 while scrawling on a notepad affixed to the steering wheel. It’s a talent.

Once written, many of these songs become tourists, traveling freely across oceans, into homes and cars and earbuds and people’s lives. Other songs are homebodies, and a bunch of them are hermits that stay to themselves and don’t say a peep.

When we write them, sometimes it’s hard to tell what the songs are going to do, and what they want to be. That’s where live performance comes in. Jon Vezner and Don Henry’s “Where’ve You Been” wound up winning a Grammy for best country song, but it wouldn’t have been recorded had it not been for performances at
The Bluebird Café that stunned audiences (in a good way) and convinced a record producer that the song had appeal.

“The first time I saw a writers night was at (the since-shuttered) Cantrell’s, and it was Thom Schuyler,” says Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Matraca Berg, whose “Strawberry Wine” was a Country Music Association song of the year. “He played (future hits) ‘16th Avenue’ and ‘Old Yellow Car’ and they hadn’t been recorded yet. I wanted to go home and quit that night, but I was also inspired, so I went home and tried to play like him. I have frequently used The Bluebird as a testing lab for new songs. It’s always been a pretty good way to tell if your songs are worth (anything) or not. I played ‘Strawberry Wine’ there first, and pretty much all of them.”

Located in a little strip mall, at 4104 Hillsboro Pike, The Bluebird is the most famed of Nashville songwriter venues. It’s also home to the “in-the-round” format, in which four writers take turns singing songs and telling stories. Now a Nashville staple, the in-the-round deal began in 1985, when Schuyler, Don Schlitz, Paul Overstreet and Fred Knobloch performed in the middle of the Bluebird floor, facing each other with the audience circled around them. More than a quarter-century later, most nights at The Bluebird feature an in-the-round.

The Bluebird is a lousy place to visit if you’re wanting to chat and eat, with music as the background. It’s known for a strict no-talking policy, and on several occasions I’ve seen patrons ushered from the room for behavior that in other clubs would be tolerated or even encouraged. But the no-talking deal makes it an ideal place to visit if you are out with folks with whom you’d rather not interact (!), or if you’d like to observe fine and successful writers performing their songs, unadorned, in the most intimate of settings. I love playing there: There’s no battle to win the audience’s attention, and there’s a “we’re-in-this-together” feeling that I rarely find elsewhere. Things work at The Bluebird that don’t work in other joints, and what would be an easy crowd-pleaser somewhere else will fall flat at The ’Bird. I’ve seen standing ovations there after a poignant, five-minute ballad, and I’ve seen people yawning distractedly at the cutesy, up-tempo ditties that are preferred in many venues.

Another of my favorite Nashville rooms is
Station Inn, a club in the city’s “Gulch” area that is devoted to the harmony-drenched, almost-always-acoustic music known as bluegrass. The Station Inn is the world’s premier bluegrass club, though it occasionally also hosts shows from country and Americana artists. Almost every major figure in bluegrass history, from Bill Monroe to Alison Krauss, has been on the Station Inn stage, and the club is open seven nights a week. Especially on weekends, it’s good to arrive early (club opens two hours before showtime), as all tickets are sold at the door, first-come-first-served. When I’m not onstage there, I try to grab the comfortable chairs at the back wall near the door; the seats were salvaged from bluegrass legend Lester Flatt’s tour bus.

While there is great music to be found along tourist-heavy Lower Broadway, those clubs tend to favor cover bands rather than songwriters who are trying out original works. Thus, getting to songwriter-friendly venues can require a car ride or cab trip, but that’s seldom a problem: It rarely takes more than 15 minutes to get from one Nashville locale to another.

When my friends come in from out of town and they’re looking to hear superb songwriters, I offer them a few basics:

1. Check the local papers to see if there are any benefit shows going on: Many of the world’s great musicians are good-hearted people, and they’ll gladly gather to raise money and attention for worthy causes. No one ever leaves a Nashville benefit show thinking, “Too bad they couldn’t get any big names.”

2. Don’t worry if it’s a weeknight, something wonderful is going on: Many of us tour on weekends but are in Nashville during the week. Wednesday nights, The Loveless Barn plays host to an often-astounding show called Music City Roots, which has featured Emmylou Harris, Tom T. Hall, Patty Griffin, Bobby Bare and hundreds of other bigwigs. Grammy-winner Jim Lauderdale is the regular host, and I fill in when Jim’s not there. The Family Wash (try the shepherd’s pie), The Listening Room, The Rutledge, Puckett’s, Douglas Corner, the aforementioned Station Inn and Bluebird and other clubs regularly feature extraordinary songwriters most nights of the week.

3. If it’s a weekend, check the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which regularly offers daytime performances and seminars from some of the world’s most impressive writers.

4. If you don’t recognize the names of performers on any given night, take a few minutes to do some quick Internet searches. The writer of your favorite song may be playing, and you may not know his or her name.

5. If you can, sit up front and pay attention. You’ll likely be repaid, in spades.

6. If any of these people are playing, go: Kevin Gordon, David Olney, Jon Byrd, Don Schlitz, Janis Ian, Pat McLaughlin, Mike Henderson, Elizabeth Cook, Tim Carroll, Todd Snider, Amy Speace, Tim O’Brien, Tommy Womack, Darrell Scott. Just trust me on this, and thank me later.

Again, welcome to Song Town. I invite you to explore, with open ears.

(Peter Cooper is a Grammy-nominated producer, singer, songwriter and recording artist who tours both as a solo act and as a member of duo Eric Brace & Peter Cooper. He also writes a music column for Nashville’s daily paper, The Tennessean, and teaches country music history at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. For more information, visit www.petercoopermusic.com.)