Do you ever just want to walk into a music venue not knowing anything about the musicians there that night, and listen to them tell you their story through their songwriting instead? No preconceptions, no expectations, no former knowledge of them at all, just an open mind? That was my night at the infamous Bluebird Cafe.
An unassuming unit in a strip mall in Nashville, TN, The Bluebird doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s what takes place inside that counts. With only 90 seats in the house, it’s an intimate, up-close-and-personal kinda space, where you have the opportunity to hear songs performed by the songwriters themselves – often some which have topped the charts with hotshot artists – and hear the music from a new, raw and acoustic perspective. (It’s also a core location for ABC’s Nashville, of which I am OB-SESSED. But we’ll put that fangirl back in her box). It definitely lived up to that end of the bargain on this particular night, with performances from artists that were humorous, thought-provoking, heartfelt, and at times downright soul-wrenching.
Four extremely talented artists managed by Chris Keaton – who appeared to be somewhat of a legend himself – took turns in the round to strum their songs, and after the first go around had the captive audience under their thumb in hushed appreciation. Heather Holland, Mike Cullison, Jim Reilley and Justin Weatherbee chatted lightheartedly with the crowd from the centre of the floor in between songs, but their lyrics took on a wholly different mood when their time to shine came around. Each had a story to tell, whether it was about love and heartbreak, a fondness for whiskey, or always being the butt of someone’s jokes, and each told them with authenticity, soul, and a warm Southern charm – a common theme I’m noticing in my short time here in the city.
But there was one story in particular that seemed a little darker than the rest, which made its delivery all that more evocative, and that was alternative country singer Justin Weatherbee’s. At 29 years old, Justin sings like a man who has lived a hundred years, with brutally honest lyrics about battling drug and alcohol addiction and fear of death that both kick you in the gut and have you enthralled in his journey at the same time. A recovered IV heroin user, at times his songwriting can make for uncomfortable listening, especially during the powerfully visual ‘Brown Sugar’ which describes the internal struggle between attempting to kick the addiction and being dragged back in, over and over again. But the deeper his words cut and the more uncomfortable they may seem, the greater your admiration builds for the courage it takes to be able to convey that honesty through his words, giving you a window into a world that’s completely alien to most of us.
What made his performance doubly as hard-hitting was the presence of his parents at the show, who had turned out to watch him play live for the first time in nine years. After watching Justin put himself through hell for most of his life, it’s hard not to be moved watching them react as their son lays bare his innermost thoughts about death and loneliness, knowing that it most definitely wouldn’t have been an easy ride along the way for them either.
Speaking to Justin after the show he confides, “I must admit, it is uncomfortable knowing my parents are in the same room while I’m singing about personal subject matter which evokes emotions that most people don’t want to face, much less acknowledge. However, that is something that’s already difficult in any setting while playing live and expressing intense honesty through song. It is encouraging to see their emotions and to have their support. I believe that it’s bitter-sweet for my family to hear the songs that I write. At the end of the day, I’m sure they’re happy to have the opportunity to see their son alive and doing what he loves the most!”
It’s amazing what you can learn about someone through just watching and listening to them performing their craft, and that’s exactly what Justin – as well as the other super songwriters in the round – made you feel. His writing makes you feel included, like he trusts his listeners so much that he’ll give them access to the darkest workings of his mind, even if they don’t fully understand what he’s been through.
If anything, that Wednesday night at The Bluebird was concrete proof that you don’t have to know everything about a person to be completely captivated by their world.
Want to find out more about any of the artists mentioned? Check them out below and let me know what you think!
PS. You’ll have to excuse the fuzzy phone snaps in the middle there – my camera’s too loud for the Bluebird!
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