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Making the Rounds on Nashville’s Singer-Songwriter Circuit

On a recent Sunday night in a Holiday Inn lounge on the fringe of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Paul Jefferson, a local songwriter with spiky hair and skinny jeans, took the stage to sing a couple of his better-known tunes, popularized in recordings by Keith Urban and Aaron Tippin. Between “You’re Not My God” and “That’s as Close as I’ll Get to Loving You,” he talked about crafting a song, finding inspiration and the hustle it takes to make it, including playing a gig at the airport on the same day he would appear on the country’s longest running radio show.

“That’s the Nashville story, from baggage claim to the Grand Ole Opry,” he joked.

For many songwriters, the road to discovery starts in a Nashville club like this one, hosting free or inexpensive writers’ nights where authors play their originals. In the past, these showcases were a way to secure publishing and recording deals, and though social media channels and televised talent shows have diminished their power as an audition channel, they remain vital forums for many of the artists who provide the words and the melodies to country music and pop stars, or who aim to become stars themselves.

“I’m old school,” Mr. Jefferson said, “but this is a great way to hone your skills.”

For music fans, songwriters’ nights provide a glimpse into Music City’s most celebrated business, as songwriters share stories about how they managed to get a track to the likes of Tim McGraw, and an opportunity to hear a hit — present or perhaps future — stripped of studio frills and distilled to its essence.

Because clubs still reserve prime weekend time for bigger acts, most songwriters’ nights take place early in the week (one exception is the club 3rd and Lindsley, which has a Saturday afternoon showcase). Arriving for a four-day-stay on a Sunday, I checked into a studio with a Murphy bed at the stylish new BentoLiving Chestnut Hill ($125) in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood, a few miles south of downtown, to attend three shows.

Though Nashville is booming — adding a new resident each hour for the past decade, according to its mayor, John Cooper, despite the pandemic — it’s not hard to tap into its frugal side when it comes to music (with the exception of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where admission starts at nearly $28). Most of the shows were free or cheap ($5 to $10 admission), and budget-friendly dining abounds, from the hearty, cafeteria-style Arnold’s Country Kitchen ($13 for a meat and three side dishes) to the burger joint Joyland from the chef Sean Brock (burgers from about $6).

John Sparkman performs during a songwriters’ night at the Commodore Grille in Nashville, Tenn.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

From novices to pros

On Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the unassuming Commodore Grille in the Holiday Inn, my first stop, hosts Debi Champion’s Songwriters Nights, a starter showcase for budding players, a proving ground for working writers and a warm home for successful veterans.

Starting at 6 p.m., the free shows introduce newer talents — sets of three share the stage, each taking turns playing their allotted three songs — and progress to more seasoned songwriters.

“The hit writer gives aspiring writers a chance to meet and talk to somebody who’s done real good. It’s motivating and encouraging,” said Ms. Champion, who, over the past 30 years, has hosted showcases in Nashville featuring the likes of Jason Aldean and Chris Young on their way up. Ms. Champion is a low-key, familial host, introducing the musicians in her gravelly drawl from a stool at the soundboard in the back of the darkened room, occasionally providing backup vocals or an accomplished whistling solo over the mic.

“We call her the champion of songwriters,” said Karree J. Phillips, a songwriter who runs a farm and raises Australian cattle dogs in Carthage, Tenn., and drives about 50 miles into the city to play the showcase a few times a month.

Over more than three hours, roughly 20 writers covered a broad range of styles, including a rousing call-and-response number from Ms. Phillips. In an early round, Alexandra Rose sang movingly about dementia. Among more seasoned writers, Ryan Larkins, who recently co-wrote a song recorded by “Whispering Bill” Anderson and Dolly Parton, strummed out the bluesy “Love Like a Lincoln,” equating the slow roll of a classic Town Car to big-hearted love. Even the novelty tunes — the writer and performer Jerry K. Green sang, “If you think my tractor’s sexy, you oughtta see my plow” — drew hoots from the audience.

Sipping a $6 draft beer, I sat between a couple visiting from California and Jerry Foster, a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member, who showed up in Nashville in May of 1967 and had a cut — or recording — with Charlie Pride by that summer. With his partner, Bill Rice, he went on to write thousands of songs. At the showcase, which he calls home, the gregarious showman, 87, played a few, including “Song and Dance Man,” cut by Johnny Paycheck in 1973, and “The Easy Part’s Over,” recorded by Charlie Pride in 1968 and subsequently by a jazz world legend. “Not many hillbillies got a Louis Armstrong cut, but we did,” he winked.

Mike Henderson performs at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

“A 10-year town”

The profession of songwriting is celebrated near downtown on Music Row, where former residential bungalows, amid more recently built office buildings, are deceptively filled with record companies and publishing houses. Here, yard signs often salute the writers of hit songs.

“We throw parties for them when they hit No. 1,” said Leslie Roberts, an assistant vice president in the creative division with BMI, a performing rights organization that collects and distributes royalties to its members over coffee at the stylish new Virgin Hotels Nashville on Music Row.

“They call Nashville a 10-year town,” she said, referring to the decade usually required before a writer hones their craft and gets established. “You have to have that dedication to just persevere, because it’s not easy.”

Nashville’s reverence for music is reflected in its biggest attractions, including downtown’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, my next stop, where the original handwritten lyrics to Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone,” by Willie Nelson, were among the artifacts on display.

By midday, a few blocks away on Nashville’s famous honky-tonk strip of Lower Broadway, music spilled out of every bar. From one club’s open window, a woman sang to passers-by, belting out a cover of the Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried.” The whooping passengers of pedal trolleys and party buses loudly rolled past.

After four mostly club-concentrated blocks, Broadway ends at a greenway beside the Cumberland River where Jack Springhill, a street musician, strummed the Doobie Brother’s “Black Water” on an acoustic guitar for tips. He considers himself “the wasabi palate-cleanser” to the Broadway gauntlet, or what he called “the new Vegas,” and played his own humorous original, “Batman Loves You,” which hails the superhero who “loves to listen when you speak, it’s his favorite technique.”

Kaylin Roberson (center) performs during Song Suffragettes, a one-hour weekly, all-female showcase, at the Listening Room in Nashville.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

Changing the subject

Compared to raucous Broadway, the Listening Room Cafe, a club lodged in a former International Harvester showroom in the SoBro neighborhood just a few blocks away, is a sanctuary for songs meant to be heard, rather than shouted over. Rows of tables, filled with an all-ages audience nibbling on barbecued pork, run up to the theatrically lit stage.

“People looking for the real Nashville, if we’re lucky, they find out about this, or any writers’ room,” said Todd Cassetty, the founder of the club’s Monday night showcase, Song Suffragettes, featuring an all-female lineup of singer-songwriters.

Song Suffragettes was born in 2014, inspired by the dearth of women in the genre; only about 14 percent of songs played on country radio annually were written by women, according to research from the SongData Project, which explores music culture.

In its eight-year run, Song Suffragettes has vetted more than 2,000 applicants, inviting about 350 women to perform. Of those, roughly 75 have landed recording or publishing deals. Breakout stars include the singer Gayle, whose pop anthem “ABCDEFU” topped charts around the world in 2021.

That night, Kaylin Roberson led the quintet of 20-somethings on the homey stage with a shag rug, canvas backdrop and five mismatched chairs. Each round started with the full-throated Paige Rose, whose “Whiskey Drinker” sounded ready for radio. Julie Williams brought social realism to her songs about being mixed race, including the hummable “Mixed Feelings.” Sam Hatmaker’s takes on female empowerment were raw and urgent. Sasha McVeigh, the only first-timer, thanked the audience for being here for her “bucket-list moment.”

Artists warm up before performing in the Song Suffragettes showcase at the Listening Room.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

A sixth performer, Mia Morris, 18, is the only regular at the showcase, adding beats to each song from atop the cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument.

After the show, Ms. Roberson, the sunny M.C. dressed in orange bell bottoms and a black camisole, talked about the convention-challenging content of the Suffragettes’ songs compared with popular country music.

“Country music radio is really far behind,” said the irrepressible singer-songwriter who that night would appear in a pre-taped episode of “American Idol,” airing her successful audition for the show.

The apex showcase

The concept of a writers’ night didn’t start at the Bluebird Cafe, the legendary club in a modest strip mall five miles from downtown where Garth Brooks was discovered and Taylor Swift was recruited to a new recording start-up. But it became synonymous with them, popularized in movies (including Peter Bogdanovich’s 1993 film “The Thing Called Love”) and television (the series “Nashville”).

Songwriters continue to return to the Bluebird, which turned 40 in June, “to be recognized for the creativity and talent that they are, to be really celebrated as the people who are the bedrock of the music and as a proving ground for the song,” said Erika Wollam Nichols, the general manager of the Bluebird. “If you’re sitting in this room, up against a bunch of people’s grills, you know whether your song’s working or not.”

Aspiring songwriters audition to make the Bluebird’s selective Sunday night showcase (free admission, $10 food and beverage minimum). Other hopefuls try for a spot in the Monday night open mic (free), which has become so popular the club went to online registration.

Established writers headline shows the rest of the week (usually $10 to $15 admission). A recent show featured the Warren Brothers, Brett and Brad, who have been writing together for more than 25 years, producing a string of hits, including nine No. 1s.

“Every single time we get a chance to play at the Bluebird, we always say yes,” Brett told the audience. “It’s just a magical place.”

To the packed room of about 80 clustered at tables just a foot below the stage, the pair played a solid hour of radio hits, from the haunting “The Highway Don’t Care” to the sensual “Felt Good on My Lips,” both recorded by Tim McGraw. A woman from Florida sitting beside me liked their version of “Little Bit of Everything” over Keith Urban’s.

By the time they got to “Red Solo Cup,” a 2011 ode to drinking recorded by Toby Keith that still reverberates at college keggers, the audience was singing along, “Red solo cup, I fill you up, let’s have a party … proceed to party.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Brett interjected as they played the bouncy tune. “If that’s what you gotta write to be a hit country songwriter, I’m moving to Nashville.”

Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.

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