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How the small but mighty Bluebird Cafe builds an enduring brand

The television show ‘Nashville’ brought national attention to the venue, but Erika Wollam Nichols explains how the cafe is true to its local community.

How the small but mighty Bluebird Cafe builds an enduring brand
[Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images]

The Bluebird Cafe was founded by Amy Kurland in 1982 and is now led by Erika Wollam Nichols, president and general manager. The Bluebird Cafe is an intimate “listening room” in Nashville, Tennessee, where undiscovered singer-songwriters are always welcome. It’s also one of the most venerable institutions in country music, having helped launch the careers of everyone from Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift
 to Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum. Wollam Nichols, who previously worked as a waitress at Bluebird, has inspired the next generation of Bluebird artists and fans through such initiatives as Bluebird-curated concerts in places like New York and London, and collaborating with the hit television show Nashville to transform the brand from a celebrated venue into a celebrity itself. Most notable of all, she’s managed to expand the brand’s reach to new audiences while staying true to Kurland’s long-term personal ambition to cultivate a unique space where the door is always open to singer-songwriters and patrons alike.

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You worked at The Bluebird more than once over the years. Can you walk us through your journey here, there, and back again?

It all began with music. I’ve always loved music since my childhood, but it took me a long time to figure out its power and the comfort it gave me.

In high school, I started singing and loved it. My first husband was a guitar player, and I used to sing with him. When I started working at The Bluebird as a waitress in 1984, I was going to Belmont University [in Nashville], studying philosophy and visual arts—lots of conceptual things.

I applied for the [waitress] job at [The Bluebird] because David Grisman, a famous mandolin player, played [there], and
 I was a huge fan. After I applied, I didn’t hear anything back for two weeks, so I took a job at a Mexican restaurant. I was supposed to start there on a Tuesday, but the day before—that Monday—Amy called me and offered me the job at The Bluebird. I was like, “Nope, I’ve already got a job.” Click. Then a little voice in my head said, “Turn around and call her back, and take that job.” And I did.

So that was the beginning of my first stretch at The Bluebird Cafe, which lasted from ’84 to ’88. After I left in ’88, I remember being sad because I’d gotten really attached to the music and the writers. I was going to go to Temple University to get a doctorate in philosophy, but as it happened, Amy ended up referring me to a job booking musicians at a music festival. Well, I took the festival job, and then I wound up coming back to The Bluebird to supplement my income by bartending. It was during this time that things started to align for me. I deferred my enrollment for a year, then I deferred it again the second year. 
I had fallen in love with music.

After five years at that first music festival, I went on to work for another—the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival— which I produced for five years. From there, I moved on to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which was amazing. At the Country Music Hall of Fame, I got to create the programming for their new museum. By 2008, I was working with the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI)—”the world’s largest not-for-profit songwriters trade association.” And that’s when Amy came to me and said, “What do you think about the NSAI taking over The Bluebird?”

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So it was, once again, that life brought me back to this little strip mall in the suburbs—this one-of-a-kind, creative place, this “accidental landmark.”

What did Amy say to you that convinced you to accept the responsibility and take over running the brand?

Oh, I understood immediately. It just made sense. She knew that if NSAI took over, there would be an umbrella of protection for The Bluebird, and the venue would not be subject to commercial interests as opposed to that of the songwriting community. It would continue in the spirit Amy intended it. Which was great! She understood. I understood.

Except then it was on me to run this legendary brand. How was I going to uphold that legacy? Was it even possible for me to take on something I loved so dearly—to take this organic, spiritual place that Amy created and be responsible for keeping it alive? That was the challenge I faced.

ABC’s hit show Nashville debuted in 2012, and The Bluebird took on a life of its own within the program. How did regularly appearing on TV in homes all over America change things?

Everything changed when ABC and Lionsgate reached out. I got a call from my friend Steve Buchanan, who ran Opry Entertainment, and he said, “Hey, we’re doing this TV show about Nashville, and we want to put The Bluebird in it.” There was no money in it, but we would get the exposure. On one hand, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share this special place with the world and to have a weekly commercial on national television. On the other hand, there was the risk that it would bring the world to our door. Well, I went ahead with it, and—for a while—both came true.

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Within the first three or four months, it was like an explosion. People were everywhere. If you went over to The Bluebird during the day, at any time, there were people. It was like a landslide, and we had no idea how to handle it at first.

The merchandise we sold doubled, and so did our wait list. We had to switch gears again, from just trying to get people in to just trying to control the onslaught of people turning up at our door!

At the same time, we could see that it was our opportunity to share our way of treating music with a wider audience, because the people that come into The Bluebird are changed by what they see and hear. It’s a little room but a huge experience.

At one point, you were doing Bluebird shows with the Grand Ole Opry in New York and London. How did that happen, and how did you ensure they were “Bluebird experiences?”

The Grand Ole Opry opened this venue—which is now closed—called the Opry City Stage, in New York City’s Times Square. I felt our brands aligned. I trusted the venue would be the right partner for us to create an expansion, and they delivered.

We created a series spotlighting songwriters from Nashville and New York and everywhere in between, all in the style of The Bluebird Cafe. This means we put the shows together our way. Originally, the Opry suggested that they create the lineups, but a Bluebird show is put together by The Bluebird, not anyone else. That is important to me as a way to protect the brand. As I said, we don’t participate in anything that we don’t oversee. We know what writers work together and what groups create a strong performance. We know the audiences, and we know when a certain artist is a good idea or isn’t. It’s important for our brand that we stay consistent with the experience we’re able to deliver—whether it’s in Nashville, New York City, London, or wherever else we may be.

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What advice would you have for someone trying to build a brand as enduring and iconic as The Bluebird Cafe?

One thing I’d say is pay attention, like Amy always did, because 
I don’t always think people pay attention to external forces and situations. To connect with people and build something that will last, you have to really understand what’s going on around you, not make suppositions; I mean really listen. After all, that’s what makes The Bluebird Cafe special. We make people listen to each other. In fact, if Amy hadn’t listened to people herself over the years, The Bluebird would never have added a stage or introduced our “in the round” format. Both of those ideas came from listening to others’ suggestions.

I’d also say support what you love about your community by getting involved. Be an advocate. Take part. Of course, you can’t do this if you’re not willing to jump into the middle of things. Influencing change and making an impact require getting out there and participating. In my case, one of the best things I ever did was to get involved at The Bluebird Cafe. Over the years, I’ve developed countless relationships here, and it’s because of that community that The Bluebird is still here today. Amy’s enduring ambition lives on because all types of different people—from our Bluebird staff, to the team at NSAI, to the folks at Nashville, to our songwriters and patrons, and even the clientele who sponsored our chairs—were willing to get involved and support something they believed in.

Mark Miller is the chief strategy officer at Team One, a fully integrated media, digital, and communications agency, and the coauthor of Legacy in the Making (McGraw-Hill Education). He is a regular contributor to Fast Company.

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