How to Get a Spot at Nashville's Most Iconic Open Mic Night — and What It's Really Like to Perform There
When I visited The Bluebird Cafe for the first time, I was 19 years old. My dad drove me from New Jersey to Nashville for a vocal audition, and we decided to swing by the venue to see if I could perform in their famous Monday Night Open Mic. It was 2011, and the setup was a little different than it is today. When we arrived, I put my name in a jar that was packed to the rim with other songwriters’ names scribbled onto pieces of paper. If my slip was chosen, I’d have the chance to perform that night — and if it wasn’t, I had to come back the next. Unfortunately, my name wasn’t called, and we had to leave the following morning. As we drove away from Tennessee, all I could think about was getting on The Bluebird’s stage during my next trip to Music City.
Fast forward seven years: I’m still pursuing music, and I have no plans of stopping. Since I’m hoping to make the big move to Nashville soon, I wanted to visit the city so I could explore it a little bit more. So, I bought a one-way ticket to BNA for the first week of July 2018, and set some rough goals for the trip. While I was there, I wanted to explore some neighborhoods, have a songwriting session or two, and, most importantly, perform at The Bluebird Cafe.
After doing some research, I learned that the process of performing at The Bluebird’s Monday Open Mic was much different than it was when I visited as a teen. In order to get onto the list, songwriters now have to call the cafe between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. CST on the Monday they want to sing. Then, the first 25 callers who get an employee on the line are able to secure a spot. Let that sink in: Only 25 callers out of everyone in the city who calls the cafe with hopes of performing gets a chance. It seemed impossible, but I had a bizarre plan: I’d call the cafe at promptly 11 a.m., but I’d get my friends and family to call for me, too. The more chances, the better… right? (FYI, I didn’t know if this tactic was even allowed, but I was willing to take the risk.)
Surprisingly, I didn’t even need the extra help. It was five to eleven on the day I chose to perform, and everyone got their keypads ready to go. My parents — who were all the way in New Jersey — put the phone number on their screens and got ready to call. My friend (who I was visiting Nashville with) sat next to me and got his phone ready, too. When it was time to call, we rang The Bluebird one at a time. Unsurprisingly, the line remained busy for a solid five minutes straight. After a while, I started losing hope.
Then, it happened. Someone answered my call, and I panicked.
The Bluebird Cafe employee on the line must have known I was overjoyed to have gotten a hold of someone, because she giggled after confirming my spot on this list. At that moment, I couldn’t believe it; I was finally going to perform at The Bluebird Cafe.
There were a few specific rules I was told before the night began: I should have one or two songs prepared, and I was only allowed to bring one guest. After spending the afternoon practicing my favorite originals and warming up my voice, my friend and I called an Uber to The Bluebird. We were all the way in East Nashville, and the cafe is in Green Hills — so it took about 20 minutes to get there.
We arrived around 5:15 p.m., and there was already a line of musicians standing against the building. The artists were young and old; some held guitars, and others had ukuleles. Most people were holding umbrellas, too, because it was that hot out. In fact, the sun was shining onto The Bluebird so aggressively, the staff set up a water cooler out front for musicians to drink from. (I guess that’s what you get for visiting Nashville in July.)
After about 20 minutes, a Bluebird staff member walked down the line of eager artists and checked everyone in. When she was finished, the front door finally opened up, and songwriters (including myself) flooded into the tiny building. The cafe only fits 90 people — including the guests who come and watch the Open Mic — so we were all encouraged to share tables with one another. That forced everyone to talk among themselves and share stories about their music careers, and I became inspired by those around me.
When the big night officially began around 6 p.m., all the musicians were assigned a number that ranged between one and 25 — and naturally, I was number two. Upon getting my number, I felt an incredible rush of nerves and excitement. The room was packed to the brim with talented songwriters, and I was looking forward to sharing my stories with an audience that actually cared about the lyrics. Coming from New York City, that was (and still is) hard to find.
Before hitting the stage, I took a deep breath (and, of course, another sip of my red wine). I walked onto the platform, adjusted the mic, and put my acoustic strap around my neck. The room was silent, and I could feel the crowd staring at me. I let the moment sink in, and then began strumming. I wound up playing one of my favorite originals, “Get in My Way,” and everyone in the room didn’t take their eyes (or ears) off the stage. I can’t even explain to you how appreciative I felt that people were silent during my performance, and that the crowd continued being respectful throughout the night. Whenever someone told their story, sang their song, and played their instrument, everyone listened. In case you didn’t know, that means the world to musicians. All we want you to do is listen.
Everyone only got to play one song during the first round of performances — and if they were lucky enough, they got to play two. In order to determine who got to play twice, the host randomly selected a set of numbers from her phone. The people whose numbers were called again got to end their night with an encore, and I was bummed that my number wasn’t chosen.
Even though I wasn’t picked to perform a second time, my experience at The Bluebird was definitely one for the books. Sure, it was a little tricky to get into (it only took seven years) — but I highly suggest giving it a try. When you’re in the city, call once (615-383-1461). Then, call again. Keep calling and don’t hang up until you get someone on the line. It’ll be worth it when you’re on stage pouring your heart out for an audience of like minded-artists who appreciate what you’re doing.
If you don’t get into The Bluebird Cafe during your visit, don’t fret. There are plenty of other open mics in Nashville that are easy to be a part of. If you’re there on a Tuesday night, you can visit The Legendary Kimbo’s Pickin’ Parlor, Douglas Corner Cafe, Cafe Coco, or Phat Bites. If you’re hoping to play on a Thursday, stop by Puckett’s of Leipor’s Fork or The Bowery Vault. Of course, these are only a few options — but Music City is flooded with opportunities for musicians to perform. Before you start exploring, though, mark The Bluebird off your list.