Waiting for cabaret in Nashville is a lot like waiting for Godot. In this city of singers and songwriters, it’s bound to come along eventually – and with the growing legions of young musical theatre artists (and their mentors) it would seem an art form that has a natural place here in Music City.
The problem is that we don’t have any venues like Metropolitan Room, the Iridium, The Duplex for Don’t Tell Mama’s where cabaret can happen. In particular, you will be hard pressed to find a club with a piano in it. This here’s a guitar town for sure.
But wait – does Nashville have cabaret and we just don’t know it? As our friend Ted Swindely remarked to me today “Isn’t the Grand Ole Opry just a big ole cabaret, with it’s legendary blend of singing and comedy in the down home country style?”
Even more to the point, for every cabaret show that goes up in NYC this week, there will be a corresponding “writer’s night” down here in Nashville. This is where our aspiring singer/songwriters go to strut their stuff on a weekly basis, and every place from clubs to schools to churches gets in on the act. You will find performers ranging in age from the 20 year old Belmont songwriting majors to the 70 year old roadies who have toured with Willie Nelson and been on stage with Dolly and Reba.
The format of the writer’s night harkens back to the origins of cabaret in Paris in the 1890s. Artists are drawn to one particular venue or another, so each writer’s night tends to have it’s own style and ambiance. Of course you can buy drinks, but here there is no cover and no two drink minimum. The honky tonk spirit rules.
The general procedure is that the songwriters sign up for a round. Generally three writers share a round, doing three songs each, one at a time, one after the other. Naturally there is patter, generally very spontaneous, sometimes with the most amazing stories of being on the road or in the studio with one major star or another. The feel of any given round of a writers night very much approximates the 45 minute cabaret set you’ll find in the New York clubs.
Sometimes all the writers in a set are from the same generation and have been kicking around music city for 40 or 50 years and have shared the stage together many times. Sometimes you get three new comers from three different generations who are onstage together for the first time. This will be a very bonding experience for these artists.
The most legendary of these writers nights are the Monday night gig at The Blue Bird Cafe, which has been made even more famous thanks to the Nashville TV show. One die hard destination is the Commodore at the Holiday Inn next to Vanderbilt University and I have found myself at several great events at The Listening Room in the SoBro area downtown. But if you go into any music venue here and ask around, you will discover the myriad write’s night from Broadway to Franklin that attract Nashville musicians and music lovers.