Like the building itself — a small cafe in a strip mall in suburban Nashville — the documentary film "Bluebird" has humble beginnings. At first it seems like a simple story about a vital gathering spot for songwriters in Music City. But then Garth Brooks shows up. And then Taylor Swift pops in. And finally the prime-time ABC TV show "Nashville" becomes part of the picture.
It's been an impressive run for the classic listening room that Amy Kurland opened 37 years ago, giving songwriters who holed up by day working in Music Row offices a place to try those songs out at night in front of audiences. Playing the Bluebird also became a goal for aspiring songwriters coming to Nashville from other places; we hear from some of them in director Brian Loschiavo's 90-minute film as well.
Mostly what works in "Bluebird," which got its world premiere at the Paramount Theatre Thursday evening as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival, is the pastiche of smaller stories that paint a larger picture of the venue's importance. After an early overview of the Bluebird's history — it began more like Austin's Hole in the Wall before the staff sort of accidentally stumbled upon the songwriters-in-the-round format that became its hallmark — the film moves into vignettes with artists who have had meaningful experiences in the room.
Bluebird employee Mark Irwin recalls how he was still working at the bar when he co-wrote a song with Alan Jackson that became Jackson's first country chart-topper. Jason Isbell remembers his fellow in-the-round artists complimenting him on a line in his song "Streetlights" where he sang words out of order because he was nervous, but he carried forward the changed lyric into the subsequent recording of the song. Kathy Mattea relates the touching story of a tear-jerker her husband wrote about family members that became the 1991 Grammy winner for Best Country Song ("Where've You Been").
All of that builds to the Swift cameo, and her story of how she got a record deal from playing the club while still in her teens. "It was the most amazing offer somebody could give to an eighth-grader at Hendersonville High School," she deadpans. By the time the TV show "Nashville" entered the picture in the venue's most recent decade, Kurland had retired and entrusted the venue to the Nashville Songwriters Association Nashville; today, it's a major tourist attraction thanks to millions of viewers who've seen scenes filmed on a set that painstakingly re-created almost every detail of the actual room.
Wednesday evening at Esther's Follies, a handful of songwriters gave a go at re-creatiing that vibe in Austin for an official SXSW Music showcase. We caught the second of two in-the-round (really this was more in-a-line) sessions, with Ashley McMillen, Luke Laird and Barry Dean taking turns playing songs that mostly had some connection to the venue. All three songwriters are in the film, which balances the star-power of Swift, Vince Gill and other luminaries with the presence of the writers behind the marquee names.
McMillen performed the song that got her into the Bluebird when she was almost nine months pregnant, while Laird sang "Space Cowboy," a Grammy-winning song he co-wrote with star singer Kacey Musgraves. Dean, who provides some of the best color commentary in the film, finished the round with a song he and Laird wrote specifically for the film, "The Songs We Sing."