A Nashville Songwriter’s Survival Guide

The Basement hosts a weekly series called New Faces Night every Monday.

“When we opened,” remembers Bluebird founder Amy Kurland, “it was toward the end of the “urban cowboy” phenomenon. People like Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis were starting to have some success, and they brought basic-sounding country back into popular culture. That’s the people’s music. You can listen to those songs and say, ‘Hey, I can write that. I don’t have to have fancy arrangements going on.’ Those kinds of writers can present their material at the Bluebird in a way that’s so convincing, in front of a crowd that listens for the lyrics and the heart of each song.”

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Book an appearance at the Bluebird Cafe, and you’re virtually guaranteed to perform in front of a maximum capacity crowd of 100 people. The venue has always been a popular spot, but its notoriety skyrocketed after Nashville aired its first episode in 2012. As a result, the Bluebird’s audience tends to be pretty tourist-heavy, meaning there’s less of a chance that you’ll perform in front of your next manager or A&R rep. On the other hand, tourists buy CDs, something that Nashville residents don’t tend to do.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing to tourists, locals or songwriters. Networking is everything, and every new fan can turn into a new opportunity. Just remember to follow Jim Lauderdale’s advice: don’t be a difficult person to work with.

“If I’m considering taking a road job, I’ll think about how well I enjoy working with the people I’ll be traveling with each day,” says Kyle Everson, a multi-instrumentalist who’s toured with everyone from Chris Young to Jake Owen. “After all, you’re gonna be seeing them more than your family and friends.”


“Your email pitch has gotta be concise,” says Mike Grimes, who books more than 100 bands a month at The Basement. “Basically, I need a link to your music, some previous show history in Nashville, and a small bio. Honestly, it really helps if you say, ‘We can get a lot of people to come out and drink at your bar,’ because we make most of our money off of bar sales. There are some great bands that are hardcore Christian rock acts, and if I know that ahead of time, it’s kind of hard to book them, because they’re not gonna draw people that are gonna hit up the bar.”

Landing shows in Nashville doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Start small. Fellow songwriters can be your greatest allies, so hit up weekly hangouts like $2 Tuesday and New Faces Night, where networking and beer-drinking go hand in hand. Play the open-mic nights, meet the other writers on the bill and offer your services as an opening act. Every gig can lead to another gig, so you won’t be stuck doing writers’ rounds forever.

It’s always a good idea to bring along your merchandise, too … although you’re likely to hand out most of your CDs for free. In Nashville, merchandise can be a tough sell.

“Your audience is full of poor musicians who have access to great music every night,” Grimes explains, “and they’ve got friends who play great music every night. Sometimes, they’ll need to go see two or three shows per evening. That’ll eat up their money pretty quick. Since Nashville is the epicenter of music in this part of the country, a large part of the musical fan base in this town is musicians. And they’re probably trying to buy guitar strings or something.”

Having a song on the radio can help attract a booker’s attention, too. No station pays closer attention to Nashville’s songwriting community than Lightning 100, a Triple-A station that’s independently owned and enormously popular. Every Monday night, the station dedicates an hour of airtime to local music. The program is called “the615,” and it’s become a stepping stone to bigger, better things for many Music City acts.

“Years ago, there was this idea that you couldn’t play a lot of local artists on Triple-A radio,” says DJ Wells Adams. “It was supposed to kill your ratings. We figured out that wasn’t true at all, whether that was due to the fact that we’re surrounded by amazing songwriters in Nashville, or the fact that our listenership is smarter than your average audience.”

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