A love letter to the bluebird cafe with Erika Wollam Nichols

A Love Letter to the Bluebird Cafe

Crafting an intimate look into the venue that launched the biggest names in country music

Creative COW’s Hillary Lewis sits down with Erika Wollam Nichols, waitress turned general manager and president of The Bluebird Cafe, now producer of her debut documentary, Bluebird.

Erika Wollam Nichols’ debut documentary, Bluebird, is the love story of the iconic Bluebird Cafe, tiny cafe where massive stars are born. Out of this 90 seat venue next to a dry cleaners in Nashville, TN comes a staggering amount of legendary country artists: Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, Maren Morris and more.

Bluebird reveals a raw, intimate side of these artists, before and after their fame, that you won’t see on any other stage. The film takes a heartfelt, deep-dive into the history since opening in 1982, the perseverance and passion of the Bluebird staff, and the magnitude of why auditions and performances at The Bluebird have launched so many iconic careers.

Premiering at SXSW 2019 in Austin, TX, this documentary hit me right in the feels. Even without knowing the cafe, you walk away with a nostalgia for this beloved venue and an unexpected appreciation for a music genre you don’t have to be familiar with.
Not only will you see live ‘In The Round’ performances of artists that were discovered at The Bluebird, but also see the songwriters take to the stage.

Creative COW’s Hillary Lewis sat down with Erika Wollam Nichols, the powerhouse behind the venue for the last 12 years after founder, Amy Kurland, retired. She talks on how she rose through the ranks from waitress to president and general manager, the obstacles she faced keeping The Bluebird Cafe alive amidst a dying breed of dive bars, and how she took on the massive project of producing a documentary with little to no experience in production or post.

CreativeCOW: Tell us about your personal journey from waitress and bartender at The Bluebird into running the entire day-to-day operations.

Nichols: I was a philosophy major at Belmont University. I loved music and had played guitar but never thought about the music business, but I worked at The Bluebird the whole time I was at Belmont.

After I graduated from Belmont in 1988, I went home to Massachusetts and got accepted to Vanderbilt for my PhD in philosophy. I kept deferring my admission while working in my studio there, and Amy [Kurland], who founded The Bluebird, was my roommate and we were very good friends. She hooked me up with a big festival in Nashville that was looking for somebody to book the talent.

She was like ‘Well you’d be great!’ But I didn’t know one thing about it. I didn’t know there was a musicians’ union. I didn’t know what back line was. I had no idea. But I faked it, and I did that job for five years.

It was a big festival, kind of like ACL fest, where there are stages all over downtown. It was a very low budget, $100,000 for 300 acts and everybody got paid musicians’ union scale, which I didn’t know anything about at the time either.

It introduced me to the entire Nashville community. Because we had dance schools and the theatre and the symphony, and all of these pieces of the creative community. And I got to know everybody while also bartending at The Bluebird.

All of a sudden I deferred my admission to grad school [indefinitely] and realized ‘Well I guess I’m in this now.’

From there, I was doing the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival for five years and then I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and ended up as their Vice President of Marketing.

And then The Bluebird came along when Amy decided to retire. I thought, ‘Well I’ll just book the talent, do some of the brand development, this will be great.’ And then suddenly I was in charge of everything.

Eventually I wanted to make a film about The Bluebird. Because it hadn’t been done, the story hadn’t been told. I was so taken by the fact when I was first there, people like John Prine and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt would all come in the back door and they were my heroes. 

I thought to myself, “What is this place? What does it mean to people?” And I saw through the years what it does mean to people and how songwriters responded. How Amy created that kind of development for up and coming songwriters. And what a unique place The Bluebird was.

And so I started on that journey of putting it out there. We need to make a movie. What are we going to do?

We had a couple of people who’d come in, shot footage, put together some teasers, but nothing really stuck until I met up with Brian Loschiavo and Jeff Molyneaux. I had no idea how to make a movie, just like I had no idea how to book a festival. But I had the best partners in those guys.

From left: Erika Wollam Nichols and Brian Loschiavo

How did you find your crew and what were you looking for? Was it important for them to have a passion for The Bluebird?

Brian, our producer and director, is a songwriter and his reaction right off the bat was to say ‘We’ll invest in this with you. We’re not going to come in as work-for-hire and you write us a check every week… we’re going to be in this together.’

And that’s what carried through the entire project. Everybody wanted to be there. They were all people that understood The Bluebird.

I’ve worked with a lot of crews. People want to film at The Bluebird all the time. But in order to film in there you have to have a particular sensitivity to how it flows. I’ve had crews come in and just bully their way through that room. And they’re like ‘Little lady, we know what we’re doing.’ [motions a pat on the head] Well, you don’t know what you’re doing in this room.

It would really irk me. This is my place and if I’m asking you to do it this way, it’s because it’s the right way to handle this room. And so Jeff and Brian absolutely got that right from the first moment.

Do you believe any of those attitudes came because you’re a woman?

I wouldn’t say no. I would never say no to that because it happens for all of us, for all women to be taken seriously. Maybe we’re more aware of it, but I do feel like they’re patting me on the head like ‘You don’t really know what us guys know about running a film crew.’

Most crews are men behind the camera, so it was very significant to work with Brian and Jeff who never said that. They had an understanding right off the bat of ‘let’s figure out the best way to shoot this.’

Jeff has crawled under tables to get the right angle. Because you really have to physically feel the place and take the audience into consideration. Their experience is really important. And capturing their experience on film was really important, to be able to show what it feels like to be in that tiny room and how it can capture you physically.

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Was it a challenge finding the right storyline with all the live performances you filmed specifically for the documentary and mixing that with past archival performances?

It was definitely an evolution of the project. So, Brian had created a very loose story line and pieces of it just fell away. I mean we did all of these shoots and then came back to the fact that they were too peripheral. It wasn’t telling the story of this place.

And so we talked a lot about what’s the story we’re telling. And Brian would revise scene structures, or we’d just talk about where this scene really belonged and so it was a real education for me into how you create a story flow when it’s episodic.

Yeah, it seemed like each performance is its own story. It was interesting to see how you tackled that while telling the history of The Bluebird and adding in all these performances that were filmed specifically for this documentary.

Yeah and some that weren’t. You’ll see that we did a show in partnership with CMA. And it was songs that were either nominated or received a CMA Song of the Year award, or Songwriter of the Year. But Steven Lee Olsen’s performance of ‘Blue Ain’t Your Color’ wasn’t something we intended to put in.

The Warren Brothers did a song called ‘Without a Song’ that I loved and thought this song has to be in the movie. So, we filmed their show. It was great and yet when it all came together it wasn’t the song that made it into the film, it was ‘Highway Don’t Care’. Because it worked more with the narrative.

There are songs that are quintessentially Bluebird songs. ‘Sixteenth Avenue’ that opens the show, sung by the songwriters. ‘The Dance’, of course, because Garth Brooks first heard ‘The Dance’ at The Bluebird Cafe.

‘The Gambler’, Don Schlitz’s song, Don plays once a month too, he’s one of the founders of the In The Round format and very significant to The Bluebird’s development. So, those songs had to be in there.

Besides striking the right tone with the storyline, what was the biggest challenge in the making of this film?

Brian and I really wanted an original song for the movie. We wanted an Oscar-material, original song, from a voice in the Nashville community. We wanted it to be very specifically directed to the film. 

I asked Luke Laird and Barry Dean to do it. They were so involved and had so much history, and they write together a lot. So, it’s like these guys came up through The Bluebird and their experience made them the perfect guys to write our original song.

But I refused to show them the film beforehand. I didn’t want them to direct their song towards the movie, I wanted to have their experience in song and what it felt like for them, what they saw The Bluebird as, and the way they wanted to talk about it. So we didn’t get the song until after we did our first rough cut.

So that was an interesting challenge. We went back and forth a lot on where this song would live now. We thought, ‘How do you interject something really significant and powerful into what you’ve already got in your brain as a rough cut?’ So we really juggled things around and found the spot for it, which is in and around the auditionees. And it works great. It’s perfect.

Bluebird screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival – Tuesday, April 30 at 5:45pm PT (Triangle Theater 8) and Thursday, May 2 at 12pm PT (THE LOT Theater 2)

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