The Bluebird and Beyond: Where to Hear Great Songwriters

There’s no Nashville experience more authentic that hearing songwriters perform in listening rooms. No frills. No drum solos. No pyro. Just pure poetry set to music. They’re a draw for both locals and visitors, especially in-the-round performances featuring three or more songwriters swapping songs and stories.

I asked artist/songwriter-on-the-rise Lockwood Barr to make a list of some of her favorite listening rooms. (That’s Lockwood with her trusty banjo above at the Bluebird.)

Below are some of her favorites, plus a few extra I added at the end.

Bluebird Cafe’

Yes, the TV show “Nashville” made the Bluebird an international star. But long before that, it was a jewel, a loosely kept secret among locals, a cozy little listening room that has launched the careers of both songwriters and artists. Because it received monumental exposure via TV, it’s become insanely popular with tourists making it difficult to secure a seat. You might get lucky–but if you don’t, there are equally worthy options of the same calibre.

The Kitchen

Unless someone invites you to a living room concert, you won’t find a more intimate venue than The Kitchen in East Nashville. It did indeed start in a kitchen in the back of book-and-music store Atomic Nashville . Now it can welcome a few more music lovers to the space it shares with Relik Vintage at 943 Woodland Street. New location but the rules remain the same: no mics, no amps, no hype.

Douglas Corner Cafe

The room itself is a tad worn–that’s okay because the venue is more than 30 years old. Besides, you come for the music, not the decor. And its stellar history guarantees that you’ll hear some of the top songwriters in town. Tuesday is open mic night but there are a lot of hungry writers eager to snag a spot. The website provides details as well as a calendar of upcoming shows. At 2106 8th Ave. S.

Belcourt Taps

Located in Hillsboro Village, this cozy little burger and beer joint opens its doors each week to songwriters (and stand-up comics). It’s big with the Vanderbilt/Belmont college crowd but everyone’s welcome.

Bobby’s Idle Hour

Bobby’s is the last bastion for live songwriter performances on Music Row (and here’s hoping they find a new home because the place is gonna get leveled). A highlight is “Pros on the Row” held on Tuesday nights hosted by Kelly and Troy Walls (aka Carvin Walls).

The Listening Room Cafe

(NOTE: Some websites point to their former location on 2nd Avenue, S.; the current address is 618 4th Avenue, S.) If you’re downtown, this could be your most convenient club because it’s just six blocks off Lower Broadway. The owners are respected by songwriters so respected songwriters are often on the bill. Every Monday night a crew of ladies take the stage. The Listening Room also takes its food seriously so you’ll find finer fare than some of its cohorts.

Commodore Grille

Commodore Grille, one of the more active listening rooms

Yes, it’s in the Holiday Inn-Vanderbilt but you won’t find cheesy lounge acts here. In fact, it’s one of the city’s busiest venues for songwriter showcases.  Music veteran Debi Champion hosts “Live in the Round” (actually it’s a straight line) on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 7-11pm. All told, you’ll probably hear 9-12 writers in the course of an evening. There’s an open mic set at 10:30 with sign-ups starting at 8pm. On Friday & Saturday night, 7-11pm, it’s “The Stewarts’ Songwriter Showcase” hosted by Rick and Tammy Stewart. While I’m running down the week, “The Tuesday Night Jam at the Commodore” is all about jazz with a featured artist, followed by a come-together of A-list players. The most up-to-date talent info on the Commodore seems to be on their Twitter account.

The Basement

Not strictly a songwriter hang, it’s primarily a small concert hall featuring solo artists and bands. But they don’t turn a deaf ear to local songwriters as you can see by checking out the club’s calendar. It has a reputation for being one of the best-sounding rooms in the city and musicians consider it a cut above many other clubs. Located about a mile south of downtown on 8th Ave. S.

The Basement East

Success breeds success so these folks hopped across the river to create an East Nashville location. (Same website for both.)

Tin Roof–Demonbreun

Not to be confused with their Broadway location, it doesn’t cater to country fans like its sister venue. Its Tuesday night series called Revival Nashville is a songwriter’s haven, a stone’s throw from Music Row. OMG, I’m a Songwriter takes the stage Thursdays at 7pm.

The Crying Wolf

Up front it’s a bar; in the back is a music venue with a stage that is all of 18″ off the floor. Think intimate. On Tuesdays at 8pm, you’ll find “SongNest Live,” home to an eclectic showcase of songwriters. Admission is typically only $5.

3rd and Lindsley

Can’t stay up late? Here’s your solution: Backstage Nashville. The doors open at noon Saturday for a VIP experience including a concert with four writers, a meet-and-greet with the writers, photo ops and bourbon sampling. Busy on Saturday? Try their less-expensive Big Stage Mondays. Two hit-making songsmiths hand-pick a pair of up-and-comers to create an in-the-round foursome at 2:30pm. The folks at 3rd & Lindsley are big on giving back so they host a lot of charity events including occasional writers’ nights with some pretty high-calibre talent.

This list isn’t comprehensive and you might find songwriter nights at practically any club, coffeehouse or restaurant. Do some sleuthing; there might be one right around the corner from where you are.

Avoid embarrassment with this tutorial: How to Enjoy Songwriters in Nashville’s Listening Rooms.

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