My first open mic night ever was in Nashville, Tennessee the summer of 2018. I had only been playing guitar for less than six months. It might be my sheer persistence that I was able to play at the Bluebird Cafe. But I did.
It started like this:
My husband suggested just the two of us go to Nashville for a much needed vacation, away from our two young boys. I’d been gradually trying to find something that lit me up again after becoming a mom. He thought “Music City” would be fun to check out since I’d been songwriting for a little over a year and had been teaching myself guitar.
While browsing options for what we might like to do, he came across a couple things that sounded like fun. First, was touring the Ryman Auditorium, which was home to the Grand Ol’ Opry for 31 years. If you haven’t read the post about my experience recording there as a part of a tour package, here it is: Two strange things happened while recording “Carry On” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
The second thing he came across was visiting the Bluebird Cafe.
Now, I hadn’t heard of the Bluebird Cafe at the time, and I asked him why he thought we should go there. He pulled up some information on his phone about it being an actual location that inspired the hit TV show Nashville, but more importantly he pointed out that it had an open mic night.
I was intrigued.
Digging further into the Bluebird Cafe website, we discovered that anyone can call in by telephone on the day of their weekly open mic night to try and get a spot. These happen on Mondays, and we’d be in town.
I got a few little butterflies in my stomach.
But not looking much further into it, I thought: Why not!
I called over sixty times to get a spot at the Bluebird Cafe’s open mic night!
Like I mentioned above, there was no guarantee I’d get a spot to play even if we drove all the way to Nashville. The only way to get one of the 25 spots was to call the day of at a specific time.
I remember sitting in the lobby of the Ryman Auditorium with my cell phone out and the Bluebird’s number on re-dial. I think I called once before the scheduled time for calling in came and got a voice message, so I hung up. As soon as the actual time came though, I quickly speed dialed the number again. But that time I got a busy signal!
I was in the game. I quickly hung up and dialed again.
Once again, I got a busy signal. Okay, this was going to be interesting and might take a while, I thought.
This is about when my husband decided to go check out the gift shop and I sat on the bench outside the restrooms, just me and my phone.
So I repeated this little phone dialing dance over and over for maybe 20-25 minutes I think, until I finally got something other than a busy signal.
I can’t remember exactly what I heard, but it was like I was in the cue as the next caller! Then, someone picked up.
I listened carefully and then heard myself say: “My name is Annie Lynn and I’d like to play a song at tonight’s open mic night.”
Then the woman said something like: “Alright Annie… we’ve got you down. You have a spot. Make sure to arrive at…”
I couldn’t believe it! I did it!! I got through! I’d be playing in Nashville with my husband’s grandpa’s old guitar I’d been borrowing for the past five and a half months.
Here I go!
I quick looked back into my phone dialing history and saw one number with over sixty calls made to it. Persistence, indeed.
A really talented person I had done a bit of co-writing with, the same person who had encouraged me to learn to play guitar, told me to just keep calling when I mentioned I’d be trying to play at the Bluebird. He said it’s not easy to get in, but it’s not impossible. So, I guess kinda knowing what to expect really helped me just keep going. I was thankful I didn’t give up.
My Dad has always said I’m persistent. I guess, it paid off.
Finding the Bluebird Cafe
The Bluebird Cafe is in a strip mall. Who knew? We were only a few miles away from our hotel, but I was really concerned about getting there in time. The lady on the phone had said to get there at a certain time and that it was important to make sure everyone was checked in and ready to go. I didn’t want to be late, or rushed.
Unfortunately, we got stuck in some rush hour traffic, and then I think we even went passed it! I believe we drove down and had to turn around next to a McDonald’s.
It does not have a big sign or anything like that. It’s really small actually, and is mixed right in with really ordinary things like a dry cleaner I think. Either way, it wasn’t that easy to spot. We got there just in time however, because a long line was forming outside. How I knew I was in the right spot was that almost everyone had a guitar.
I asked my husband to quick take my picture.
We were a few of the last people to arrive in line before they started checking everyone in and we went inside.
A really nice, fellow Midwesterner, songwriter I met named Fred took this picture of us in line:
Once inside, we saw how small it really is. Since we were near the end of the line, by the time we moved into the space most of the tables were filled up. There were some benches that looked like church pews along a wall. Those were filling up quickly and only a couple open spots near the front window were left, so we grabbed those quick and sat down.
It became apparent to me that this was going to be quite different than anything I’d ever experienced. You could just feel the energy in the room radiating with anticipation.
There was a small stage with lights, with a few microphones, and a stool set up on it. A piano was off to the side. It was cozy.
I started to feel a part of something, like I belonged. It surprised me a bit. I didn’t really feel nervous, maybe just like I couldn’t believe I was actually about to play for these people, but they were all going to play too. So we were all kinda in the same boat.
It had been years since I’d been on stage performing, about 10 to be exact. But it also became clear to me that this wasn’t about performing really at all. The lady who ran the entire open mic explained to us how playing at the Bluebird was more about our songwriting and not about how well we can play our guitar.
I was so happy to hear that!
I’d only been playing for less than six months, and had never played an instrument in front of an audience like this before, let alone while accompanying myself singing at the same time!
Everything we were to play was to be original, and nobody was to record anything unless it was with strict permission from the artist performing. She went on to give everybody a number and we got started.
Sitting at our table in the Bluebird Cafe
I was number 16 of 25 songwriters.
They wanted us to be ready to go when it was our turn, so I started keeping track of what number we were on by writing marks on my napkin.
It was kinda nice not being right at the beginning and not right at the end. We were all given the chance to play one song. If there was time, we were told we might get a chance to play another song if our name was drawn at random.
I bumped over table tents at the Bluebird!
While waiting, a few things happened that brought attention to some jitters I was having. First, I broke the zipper off my purse and had to pry open my purse to get my phone out. Second, I knocked a whole row of plastic table signs over that were set up on the ledge behind me where I was sitting! It was like a domino effect. One after the other they started tumbling over to the right towards the stage. If you look in the picture above, you’ll see them.
Seriously, Annie?… I thought. I was hoping to myself that that was it.
There was a lady at a high-top table to my right, closer to the window, that chuckled and smiled at me when she saw my surprised reaction. It was like a scene out of I love Lucy!
I looked back at my husband who quickly helped me pick them up. Fortunately, it happened between someone playing and didn’t disrupt anyone’s song, but I hoped this wasn’t anything like how my turn would go.
My turn to go
When it was my turn, I climbed up on the stool, which was way higher up than I was used to playing. I had only been practicing sitting in a chair and always with my feet on the ground. I hadn’t yet figured out how to play standing. The guitar I was using was considered a jumbo, and it was really too big for me. But, it’s all I had at the time and I worked around it. I found it really tricky though to get comfortable on the stool, and I remember not being sure if the microphone was aimed right.
I’d never done this before and the lights were, bright. I couldn’t really see anyone, but they felt close.
“I’m Annie Lynn, from Minnesoooota” I said in a Midwestern accent. A few people laughed. (This was the summer before I moved back to Wisconsin where I grew up.)
And then I played Carry On.
Playing Carry On at the Bluebird Cafe
It was about the songwriting and not about my guitar playing
It didn’t go as well as I had hoped, as far as how well I played my song technically on the guitar. I had to pause and pick it up again a couple times. It was humbling making mistakes in front of other people and pushing onward. But I didn’t stop.
At the time, I remember kinda laughing nervously because I was thinking how my song is called “Carry On”. It literally was helping me to keep going as I was singing and playing it. But because the host had also reminded us ahead of time that this was a songwriting open mic and not about our guitar playing, I tried to focus on that instead.
I’m proud of myself for just keeping on going and even laughing at myself a bit, but it was hard. I had come from calling myself a “performing artist” for so many years and being super used to being really well rehearsed. Now I was feeling like I was attempting to do something that didn’t feel all that polished.
When I was done playing
When I came back to my seat, the lady who saw me knock over the table signs told me she really liked my song. I also got nice remarks from Fred, who I had met in-line from Chicago and who had taken our picture.
On our way out, a mother of a really talented girl with a blue guitar said she liked my song. She said that it took such courage to go up there and play. I had mentioned at the end of playing my song to the audience how I’d only been playing guitar for less than six months, which is what I’m guessing she was commenting on. I was really appreciative that someone would tap me on the shoulder to say something so nice, it kinda made the moment memorable.
I guess I didn’t realize until then, that it could be looked at as courageous either. I’ve always loved being in front of people and taking risks to challenge myself since I was a kid. I went to school for music, theater, and dance performance and performed many times on stage. But this felt so different. For the first time I felt like I wasn’t acting as someone else on stage. I was myself, Annie Lynn, singing a song I wrote about my grandma.
I felt satisfied.
There was so much talent in that room and I knew my journey was completely different than everyone else’s. I would have loved a second chance to play another song, but they ran out of time to give everyone a chance.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I decided I’d try to play at the Bluebird, but after I did I knew I’d just accomplished something I’d never forget.
The Bluebird Cafe has lots of stories, my story is only one.
There’s a documentary out about the Bluebird Cafe. I highly recommend it. It does a great job telling the story behind its history, and all the various people that have both played there and gotten their start in music there. Google it and you’ll see a whole list.
I literally had no idea at the time about the history behind this place in Nashville. It wasn’t until I got home that I looked into it more and began to realize how lucky I was to get to play there. But now I understand why people truly believe there is something magical about the place. I loved it, and it continues to inspire me to keep striving to pursue my dreams and become the very best songwriter I can. I’m incredibly thankful for that.
The song I played at the Bluebird, Carry On is the first song I’m releasing as a single March 20th.
Is there a place you’ve visited that truly inspired you? I’d love to hear your story. Leave a comment below.