The Roots of Country Music

The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tenn., is hallowed ground for aspiring singers and songwriters. Performers are only allowed to sing songs that they have written. The venue is a showcase for the unknown but not unsung writers in the country music industry. Everyone from Garth Brooks to Vince Gill have performed there.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

In Nashville if you're trying to make it to the big stage like Garth Brooks, you got to start on the small one, preferably at the Bluebird Café.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GARTH BROOKS (Musician): (Singing) Sometimes late at night, I lie awake and watch her sleeping...

CORNISH: For 25 years the Bluebird has built a name for itself by honoring the writers behind those chart-topping faces. Garth Brooks himself was discovered there. Four times a year they hold auditions to find new voices for their weekly Sunday writers night performances, and I stopped in a few weeks ago to check out the talent.

Unidentified Man: What's your name?

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: Now, when you first pull up to the Bluebird Café it's not that impressive. It's nestled between a dry cleaners and a hair salon. I mean, it's basically in a strip mall. And the awning that might have been blue once upon a time is pretty much a battered gray. What it is, is hallowed ground for songwriters here in Nashville and people line up from two to three hours before the open auditions that happen four times a year just to get a chance to play here.

Ms. LYNLEE WOLFGRAM (Singer): I'm Lynlee Wolfgram(ph) and I got in line around 9:00.

Mr. KENWARD COOPER (Singer): Kenward Cooper from Las Vegas. Been standing in line since 8:00.

Mr. DAVID SEGER (ph) (Singer/Songwriter): Oh, I'm David Seger. I'm a singer/songwriter from Knoxville, Tennessee.

CORNISH: Now, why stand in front of the Bluebird this early on a Sunday morning?

Mr. COOPER: For a chance to be heard and for a chance to play a legendary venue. You know, the other day I found online a copy of Garth Brooks's audition form where he came and stood right here an auditioned exactly like I'm doing. You know, and Vince Gold played here the 14th.

Mr. SEGER: There aren't very many places that somebody like me at the beginning of his career can go and stand on the same stage like these guys.

CORNISH: The Bluebird is miles away from the downtown strip of country western bars. It's on the other side of town from Music Row, a street where all the record labels have offices. Technically it's a restaurant, but most people can't remember what they've eaten there. They can tell you who they've heard.

One night a week a handful of the city's published singer/songwriters are invited to sit in the middle of the café and sing for the audience. They sit in a round facing each other. The only rule is that they can only sing songs they've written.

People waiting in line here this morning are hoping to get into that circle. That would mean something to Jason Whitten, a construction boss from Houston.

Mr. JASON WHITTEN (Construction Boss): I think at some point we all kind of want some validation, you know, to know that we're at least on the right track, you know, and we're working towards kind of the same goal as, you know, to put stuff out there that people can relate to, you know, with their everyday lives and knowing that it just came out our heads and our hearts to know that, yeah, hey, you're doing, you know, you're on the right track. I think some validation is definitely something that we're all probably looking for.

CORNISH: When the original owner retired, the Nashville Songwriters Association International took over the café to keep up the tradition and build its membership. Manager Erica Wyle Nichols says music publishers, producers, pop stars, talent scouts, they're always going to Bluebird shows to discover new writers and new songs. That's why she says these auditions are so important. But each hopeful only gets a minute on stage.

Ms. ERICA WYLE NICHOLS (Manager, Bluebird Café): Obviously a minute worth of songs is very, very hard to portray, you know, what you're doing with a song. But within that first minute you can tell whether somebody's kind of got a handle on rhyme, a handle on painting a picture with his song, a handle on basically where they are in their career.

CORNISH: Once the auditions start the nervous chatter dies down. Nichols starts calling them to the stage from a row of church pews in the back of the restaurant. Remember Kenward Cooper from Las Vegas?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COOPER: (Singing) We need a better way to live a secret life, (unintelligible) cheat us without getting cut...

CORNISH: Here's Lynlee Wolfgram from Minnesota.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLFGRAM: (Singing) Heaven knows it ain't everything, Lord, I loved him just the same...

CORNISH: And David Seger got his moment on the same stage as country hero Garth Brooks.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEGER: (Singing) I was running on (unintelligible), air condition blowing (unintelligible) too cold. Days of trust...

CORNISH: So, I hope you were paying attention because you might have heard the next big country hit.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEGER: (Singing) Well, it's (unintelligible) loving...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SEGER: Thank you.

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