Published on October 20, 2020
Erika Wollam Nichols, President/GM of The Bluebird Cafe Gives Us a Peek Behind the Curtain
Since the TV show Nashville became a global hit, The Bluebird Cafe has become known around the world as a spot so cool it has zero attitude. Tourists line up to spend an evening where Rayna James sang with Deacon, and novice singer/songwriters come to town just for the chance that their one minute audition will earn them a spot at an open mic. They all get more than they bargained for.
“I love it when I see someone come in the door without really knowing why or what we’re about, and then seeing them again, at the end of the night, after they have had the real Bluebird experience and felt the magic,” says Erika Wollam Nichols, President and GM.
“The Bluebird evolved naturally to fill a need for songwriters to have a home and a place to showcase their work. That was the foundation. When I started as a server, I didn’t really understand it either, but it quickly captivated me…to see the craft, people digging into their own lives and emotions, stripping themselves bare and distilling it into a work of art that can be shared and create a catharsis. That to me is incredible. Here in Nashville, we take it for granted because we hear music everywhere, but most people don’t have the chance regularly to see the people at the heart of it.”
Setting the stage so the magic can take place has become part of Erika’s legacy, but the Belmont philosophy and visual arts major had no idea that taking a fun job as a server during her college years would lead to a life-long vocation.
“After Belmont, I was accepted into philosophy PhD programs at Vanderbilt and in NYC and PA. I thought I was done with Nashville.”
But the Bluebird kept calling her back. Her relationship with founder Amy Kurland led to organizing festivals on a seasonal basis. Grad school was deferred, then put on hold, and when Amy retired, Erika had the opportunity to keep the Bluebird going. Her background in marketing and art along with her affinity for songwriters and music wove together in a career that was also a calling.
Alive at The Bluebird will take place in January in a COVID-safe format. Stay tuned for details!
“The music business now is different than when Garth (Brooks) got signed in the kitchen; there are many more opportunities for people to be heard than live performance, but we still provide a foothold for up and comers. That is our job. Not every show is amazing, but every show is an opportunity for writers to see their skill and craft through someone else’s eyes. In this intimate setting, you see and feel the response, and that weaves into what we are, a home for all levels. The staff, the writers, and the audience are all in it together; that is what makes it such a strong experience.”
“When you see a writer rise up from performing at open mics to writing a number 1 hit…who sees that evolution when they aren’t your own kids? It is so exciting to see someone put their heart and soul into it and make it.”
That experience is a winning formula. And while the mission won’t change, COVID-19 is forcing a fresh look at how it’s delivered. The intimate physical setting the Bluebird is known for cannot be used in the same way during the pandemic.
“In thinking about legacy, our main job is keeping the mission and experience as close to the way it is as possible. As we look at new ways to do that, as a team we are always asking ourselves, what are we doing to keep that feeling, the opportunity and the integration with the writing that drives everything. When we stream, who is it? How do we keep it a full representation of all levels of experience? It’s a challenge. We’ve spent a long time sorting our operations in one way, and now with these changes to social interaction, we have the opportunity to reexamine our values and intentions. Regardless of the changes, our focus will always be on the songwriters, the human aspect; thats makes us what we are.”
New collaborations are part of the plan to keep audience and writers together while social distancing. The Bluebird Cafe is part of a citywide coalition of independent venues that are working together to keep audiences engaged with new streaming formats. The details are still being sorted out, but excitement at working together in new ways is high.
“Now we have the ability to coalesce around a cause, and that has brought everybody together. Previous attempts never really took off, but now we have something we are pushing up against.”
“When I think about what I want in this new reality, it is to be able to continue to provide that platform where we all get to share in the experience of discovery. Artists are always thinking of new ways to approach things. Music is still being made. Publishers are still publishing. To keep connecting writers and listeners under today’s conditions is one more creative challenge for us at The Bluebird.”