*editor's note: recently, Mike Davis and Lindsay Arnold, the duo known as Last Birds were in Nashville attending AmericanaFest. Being singer-songwriters, it's been a lifelong dream for the couple to attend a live event at Music City's famous Bluebird Cafe. As recounted by Arnold, the pair realized that dream but also came away with a lot more...
Nashville, TN September 17, 2022
By Lindsay Arnold
As downtown Nashville slips further behind us, our Lyft driver explains to Mike how to get out of a breathalyzer test and a possible DUI charge by forcing the police to arrest you. It is a strange topic of conversation for a Lyft driver, especially when Mike doesn’t drink and we are counting on this stranger to get us to where we are going safely. Fortunately, the driver seems sober at the moment.
I’ll admit I am only half-listening to the discussion. I am worried we are wasting our precious time and money on a cab ride to a venue so far out of the way from everything else. It is our last day in Nashville for AmericanaFest 2022. I am fretting over if we have done enough, seen enough, networked enough and now here we are trying to get into one of Music City’s iconic venues without a reservation or adequate time to wait in line.
The driver asks if we have ever been to the Bluebird Cafe before. We haven’t. “Then I won’t tell you anything and let you find out for yourself,” he snickers.
We know what to expect. We have watched the 2019 documentary about the unassuming restaurant that accidentally turned into a songwriters’ haven, a place where the craft is honoured and where the likes of Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift have played. Tonight we are trying to get into SESAC’s Songwriters in the Round with Allison Moorer, Robby Hecht and Webb Wilder. Thanks to the success of the documentary and its popularity with tourists, our chance of getting a seat at the Bluebird is scant at best. Our AmericanaFest wristbands hold no guarantees.
I’ll admit I am also concerned that the Bluebird’s recent boost in popularity has stripped it of its authenticity.
After passing countless brick houses and tall steepled churches, the driver takes a hard left into a small parking lot in front of a dumpy strip mall. Our driver wishes us good luck as he pulls away. We spot the cafe’s humble blue awning and walk toward the line-up.
I am somewhat cheered by the size of the line. Only a dozen people are waiting. I experience a glimmer of hope until a man in a Bluebird Cafe t-shirt wandering the small parking lot steps up to us and politely explains that it is highly unlikely there will be enough seats for us.
“There are three, maybe four seats left, tops,” he says.
I can tell by his gentle yet firm tone the Bluebird staff has a lot of experience breaking bad news.
Mike asks Parking Lot Man if it would be possible to buy a t-shirt at least. “I think so,” the man says, “but you will have to wait until everyone is seated.”
A co-worker back home has been so excited for us to go to the Bluebird. His support and enthusiasm for our musical endeavours needs to be recognized with a gift.
We decide to bide our time in line. We watch with jealousy as reserved seat holders slip in the door. Another Bluebird staff steps out to let us know the best case scenario. She can let in 3 people. The rest of us shrug our shoulders and sigh but remain in line. No one is ready to give up yet.
A man armed with a folding camp chair crosses the parking lot to join us at the back of the line. We tell him it doesn’t look good for the show. He smiles and introduces himself as Josh. He is here to start waiting for the next show at 9pm.
“We have some friends in town from California. I told them to go out for dinner while I got a place in line.” Wow, this Josh is a stand-up guy, the kind of friend who would do anything for you.
Josh tells us he lives nearby and has been coming to the Bluebird since he was a teenager. “My friend’s dad was in the music business. He would get us in the door here. Back then it wasn’t just songwriters. We used to come for the rock and blues shows. Now I come here for the songs and the stories. I’ve sat next to Wynonna Judd during a performance.”
Josh asks us where we are from and what we are doing in Nashville. We tell him we are here to showcase with Canada House at AmericanaFest. He takes in our story and understands that we are not just here to see the place that was in some documentary. We are here because we are songwriters. He can smell “The Dream” on us.
“This is a special place,” he affirms, “You need to experience this. Don’t give up hope yet”.
Usually I hate waiting in line and struggling to make small talk with strangers but there is a friendly feeling among us here outside the Bluebird. Josh has proved to be pleasant company. The line buzzes good-natured chatter and laughs. The evening is warm but not hot. The Bluebird staff have thoughtfully placed a cooler of water outside the door. Biding our time here comes easily. We hear the show start inside so we lower our voices.
A staff member steps back out to say the venue is full. Mike takes the opportunity to ask if we can buy a shirt. She agrees so we quickly step inside.
The room is dark and hushed. Christmas lights twinkle around the perimeter of the room. I notice the cedar shingle overhang and the neon light I recall from the documentary. The floor is packed with chairs, all facing a small space in the middle of the floor which is lit like an altar. Three musicians sit in a circle with their acoustic guitars. Only the songwriter performing makes a sound. Everyone’s attention is focused on one point in the room. We quickly pick out a large t-shirt and pay while taking in the intense emotional vibration of the room. All too soon, we are back out the door.
The people in line cheer for us. We got our friend a t-shirt. Our mission is not a complete bust. Mike holds up the shirt and a sinking feeling washes over me.
The shirt is definitely too small.
“Are you sure?” Mike asks.
A staff member pops her head out. There is one seat available. The woman next in line enters. Mike asks the Bluebird staff if he can get an XL instead. She takes the shirt inside to exchange it. Again, we wait.
A few moments later, the door opens. We expect it to be our shirt delivery but instead it is the woman who took the last seat. She is walking away. The man who was standing next to her in line stops her.
“What is wrong? Why are you leaving already?”
“I don’t have the money for a ticket. I don’t have a wristband. I didn’t know you had to pay to listen.”
This could be the man’s lucky day.
“No” he says “Get back inside! I will pay for your ticket. You waited this long. You have to see it.”
The woman objects politely but the gentleman insists. He escorts her back in, returning a few minutes later with a smile.
“This was her first time outside her apartment in weeks,” he explains. “She has only been in the United States for 3 months. I couldn’t let her miss this.”
The few of us left outside the Bluebird soak in the good feels of this random act of generosity. The world is still full of good people.
The minutes tick by. We continue to wait for our XL t-shirt. The generous man and his party give up and move on leaving Mike, me, a pretty woman with lovely red lipstick, and Josh under the blue awning. We discover Ms. Lipstick is Sarah King, another artist in town for AmericanaFest.
In a tone that is both playful and downright serious, Josh asks “So, when y’all moving to Nashville?” He knows a musician who has spent nearly a week in Nashville has entertained the thought.
“I would love to get to a point where we are spending blocks of time here, but so much of what we do, what inspires us, is our home,” is my official response.
Sarah agrees. “It would be nice to have the best of both worlds.”
Josh smiles. I can tell he is not convinced. He has lived in this town long enough to know the siren song of opportunity.
The door opens and a woman rushes out. Her emotions spill over as the glass door closes behind her. Despite the hand over her mouth, heart-wrenching sobs escape.
“Sorry” she says, ashamed of showing her emotions so publicly.
Although I was only inside the Bluebird briefly, I get it. “It’s understandable” I murmur as she hurries across the parking lot, never to return. I wonder what song, which writer touched her so profoundly. I secretly wish to write a song that powerful.
A seat is open now and Sarah is let in, leaving just Mike and I outside with Josh. I keep forgetting we are actually waiting for a t-shirt, not a seat. We are officially next in line.
We continue to chat with Josh. We joke and pour ourselves a cup of “Bluebird water” from the big orange cooler. Josh takes a few pics of us in front of the venue. So close, we laugh, but not quite there.
Around the side of the building, a woman with a paper bag in her grip walks toward us with apologies. She turns out to be the manager of the Bluebird.
“I’m so sorry to make you wait. I looked and looked but there wasn’t a single XL in that style”.
We ask her if there are any XLs in the bag and she fishes one out, which happens to be the original style we wanted but wasn’t available in a large. Mission accomplished. We have our XL t-shirt. It is getting close to 7pm, an hour into the show. The time for waiting is over. I pull out my phone to book a Lyft to East Nashville so we can catch Megan Nash’s set at the 5 Spot with lots of time to spare.
The door opens again and a woman emerges with a mixture of disappointment and concern on her face. We ask if she is leaving already.
“My daughter can’t stay. She is just settling up the bill but she has to leave. We were seated in a back corner and she started to panic. She can’t handle confined spaces.”
You can tell by the sadness in her voice, there is more to the story. After a pause, she goes on to explain.
“She was at the concert in Las Vegas. She was at the shootings. Her friend was killed. She can’t be in a place where she feels trapped anymore.”
The daughter emerges from the Bluebird visibly shaken. Her eyes are big and on the verge of tears but she smiles bravely at us.
“It was really great. I wish I could stay but I just can’t. But at least I can say I was there”.
There are now two seats open; but we do not celebrate. We stand quietly. The reason for our opportunity weighs heavily on our minds.
As expected, the door opens.
We are guided through the dim room to a corner by the front window. The room is even smaller than it looks in the documentary. We share a table with an older and, I am guessing, retired couple. They don’t greet us with more than a smile. Their attention is focused on the triangle of artists in the centre of the room. As I settle in to my seat, the male half of the couple lifts his phone to take a photo. Unintentionally I see the lock screen on his phone. It is a picture of the woman seated beside him.
The waitress takes our food and drink order in whispers then leaves us to listen. Webb Wilder finishes up a tune and turns the performance over to Allison Moorer. Allison is lovely and graceful, glowing in the way talented people do. She says for the next song she will be asking her singer-songwriter husband, Hayes Carll, to join her. Mike and I exchange glances. A bonus Hayes Carll performance! He rises from his seat in the audience.
Hayes introduces the song with a story about a house he knows where the Christmas lights stay up all year round. Music dating no later than 1968 blasts through loudspeakers. The house is frozen in time. The homeowner’s son left for Vietnam over 40 years ago. She promised her son she would leave the Christmas decorations up until he returned. He never did.
Hayes and Allison start to sing. I am blinking as fast I can, trying to control my tears. I fail miserably. I take comfort in being at the very back of the room so no one can see me weeping. I’ve been in the room for a total of 5 minutes and I am already touched to the core.
The next hour is one story after another, one emotion after another. From tears to laughter to peace to joy, the songwriters weave magic around and through us. There are sometimes false starts to a song. A lyric is forgotten. A harmony missed. There are no virtuoso guitar players here. A pitch perfect performance is not expected. In fact, the evening’s charm rests in the imperfections.
At one point Mike leans over to me and whispers what I was thinking.
“This is where I want to be.”
I know he is speaking as an artist. We are songwriters. We want our stories to be heard and understood. We have spent the last four days hearing all kinds of bands in loud pubs and bars. We attended the Americana Music Awards show at the Mother church of country music, the Ryman. We performed in a great space, InDo, for our showcase. However, the Bluebird is the first place in Nashville where we experience reverence for the songwriter.
Before my bottom or back can start to complain about the hard chair, the show is over. It is time to file out.
As the room decompresses we visit with our table mates. The couple is from Scotland and here because they wanted to see the place in the documentary. They are all smiles. The Bluebird did not disappoint.
We see Josh once again as we file out the door. He is grinning and genuinely happy to see we got what we came for.
“You did it,” he says. “Wasn’t it great?”
Yes it was.
As we hop into our Lyft and speed off to East Nashville, I replay our evening at the Bluebird Cafe in my mind. The venue may be famous but it hasn’t lost its purpose. The Bluebird, inside and out, is about stories. I recount the ones from the evening in my mind:
The DUI-ducking Lyft driver
The good host with a passion for music
The newcomer to America and the generosity of a stranger
The woman who left in tears whose heartache is left unknown
The working artist trying to make it bigger
The daughter living with the scars of gun violence you can’t see
The eternal Christmas of a mother’s grief
The retired couple still in love
Two middle-aged dreamers with an XL t-shirt