Bluebird Café is an iconic club that has launched an array of country music and pop artists and songwriters, from Taylor Swift to Garth Brooks. It was founded by a woman and remains led by a woman.
Founded by Amy Kurland in 1982 and now run by Erika Wollam Nichols as President and General Manager, since Kurland sold the iconic club to the National Songwriters Association (NSA) in 2008. Nichols was Director of Development at the NSA when Kurland, her roommate from back when she waited tables at The Bluebird (while preparing to get her Ph.D.) told Nichols she was going to retire after 25 years and asked for advice on selling the now-iconic club to the National Songwriters Assn. The rest, as they say, is history, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Under the leadership of these two women – in a male-dominated music genre – The Bluebird Café made giving a spotlight to female artists and songwriters a priority. In the club’s early days, when songwriters started sitting in the middle of the room jamming their new material, which was ultimately dubbed “in the round,” the female songwriters noticed that the performers were all men and were not happy about it. “The women came to Amy and they said, ‘Hey, what about us? Why don’t we create a women in the round?,’ and it really became a thing and people were setting their clocks around coming to see Pam Tillis, Karen Staley, Ashley Cleveland, and Trisha Walker, who wrote songs for Faith Hill. And, they became the ‘women in the round,’ ” Nichols recounted in an exclusive interview on Electric Ladies Podcast live at the club. Taylor Swift, debuted there at 14 years old too.
“Nashville is a songwriter’s town and we are so lucky to have that foundation of music in this town, because it’s an entire culture, all its own. The writers have, as you know, stories to tell. They come to their writing sessions bearing their souls, which then become all of our stories,” Nichols said.
“And that’s, I think what makes The Bluebird such a special, special place, is those stories speak to not only the people that you’re hearing, but to each one of us. And it really kind of captures the heart and soul, I think, of humanity.”
Part of that “humanity” is an environmental and social consciousness – even in a small space
“I’m from Massachusetts originally, which is the recycling capital of the world because, in my tiny town, we all had to recycle, we all had to sign up to go to the dump, to recycle and work on the recycling. So, I have a lot of consciousness about that,” Nichols said, as she shared how they have made sustainable business practice a priority even in such a small space. “We have staff members who are very, very conscious of sustainability. One of our servers does our recycling and they keep the cans and they put them under the bar and we’ve had to really step into how can we find space for those kind of things, even composting,” Nichols added.
They keep asking, “How can we do a better job with that?,” Nichols said. “Obviously (as a restaurant) we have food waste, but our kitchen is not much bigger than the bathroom here. It’s very, very tiny and cramped and we have three people working in there. So, the available space is always the question for us in everything we do.” So, they find a way.
They even re-evaluated their merchandising strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. “I would also add that we went from, we were doing our merchandising partnership with Gaylor and that partnership worked out great on many levels, but it was all imported. It was all coming from China,” she explained. “So, we looked around and we found a local partner here in town who prints in town and buys local and buys national product so that we’re able to feel like we’re building community as opposed to just importing community. So that has been a really great thing for us too, in the designs and being able to work locally with all of that, that’s something that we’re really proud of too.”
Here are ways The Bluebird keeps their environmental imprint down and more aligned with their social principles too:
· Recycling: The Bluebird collects and recycles all their cans, bottles, cardboard boxes and other recyclables and one of their staff drops them off at the recycling center.
· Merchandising strategy: The club deliberately chose a new merchandising partner who is local in Nashville to both reduce the carbon emissions of the need to transport product to the venue, and to serve the community by keeping their dollars local.
· Composting: Even in such an intimate space, The Bluebird makes composting a priority and one of their staff takes it to local gardens.
· Lighting: To reduce their carbon footprint, the club also uses LED lighting. These bulbs also reduce labor costs, because they last a lot longer and, therefore, don’t need to be changed often. It frees staff up to do other work too.
And, of course, making sure to give women a spotlight with “Women in the ‘round.”
For strategies for eco-conscious company holiday parties, to align with your firm’s environment, social and governance values (ESG), read my Forbes article here.
To listen to the full interview with Erika Wollam Nichols on Electric Ladies Podcast, click here.
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