There is enough music in this town to keep you busy seven nights a week. From Lower Broadway’s honky tonk bars like Robert’s Western World and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to the Ryman Auditorium, to just off Music Row along Division Street and Demonbreun Street, nowhere else in the world will you find a greater collection of songwriters and musicians than Nashville, doing music the way we want. The Nashville songwriting community alone has its own way of doing music. It’s something we like to call “Songwriters in the Round.” It’s just like it sounds – a group of songwriters in a circle facing each other, performing for an audience.
The first “in the round” show was held at The Bluebird Cafe on March 29, 1985, with Thom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch, Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet. “We were all performing on a regular basis at the Bluebird. Fred Knobloch, Paul Overstreet and myself were performing the late spot, and Don Schlitz was playing the early spot. That went on for about six months or so, when Fred and Don had been out drinking one night and came up with the idea and said, ‘Let’s put four chairs in the middle of the room, facing each other, turn around the lights, and see what happens.’ So we all tried it the next night, and it worked,” Thom Schuyler explains. “Later on, I think (Bluebird founder) Amy Kurland had a group of women writers try it, then other groups tried it and somehow it caught on. I don’t think we were trying to start a craze. We were just having fun, playing our music,” claims Schuyler.
The Bluebird Cafe is America’s signature songwriters venue and “in the round” is a regular practice there.”The set-up clearly has a certain dynamic to it, and I think the writers responded to that, as did the audience, and more and more folks wanted to try it. Now it’s kind of routine,” claims Erika Wollam Nichols, President of the Bluebird Cafe.
“Most performance spaces are not created for that type of performance, outside of The Bluebird or Douglas Corner. Most of what people call an ‘in the round’ is actually songwriters performing in a row on a stage. That’s different from our ‘in the round’”. explains Nichols.
“The signature status of The Bluebird is made up of so many things it’s impossible to separate the aspects of it,” explains Nichols. “Whether the ‘in the round’ played a part in its legacy is hard to say, but Amy Kurland was such a fan of the songwriters who performed here, and she was willing to take a chance on this unusual format. She was excited about what excited the writers.
“The songwriters and the audience is what made it all happen. None of this would have been possible without them. Songs have always been a huge part of how I mark my life, and to get to hear them from the ground up?! It is awesome. Running the Bluebird is great, because I get to see how songs affect people – to be able to help provide a situation where they can experience the emotional impact of a song is also exciting,” claims Nichols.
The Songwriters “in the round” tradition even has its own festival. The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) produces Tin Pan South, the world’s largest songwriter festival that hosts songwriters of varying levels. Thousands of songwriters, musicians and fans flock to Nashville every year to attend. It is only on very rare occasions that Tin Pan South deviates from the “in the round” format. “Some of the venues we use aren’t physically set up so that we can put the songwriters in a circle, but we stay as close to tradition as possible,” states Jennifer Purdon-Turnbow, the director of Tin Pan South. “Fred Knobloch, Thom Schuyler, Don Schlitz, and Paul Overstreet have been frequent participants in Tin Pan South, but typically are not on a show together. That is part of what makes Tin Pan South so special. You will often see groups playing together at Tin Pan South that you wouldn’t normally see any other time,” states Turnbow.
For 22 years, NSAI has been bringing songwriters together at the annual Tin Pan South.. This Nashville tradition originated when a group of songwriters got together to promote the occupation of songwriting through a music festival that focused on the people who write the songs. It has grown to also become an important legislative fundraiser in support of NSAI’s efforts in Congress. Although NSAI is based in Nashville, their issues are national and international, and they are the largest not-for-profit member trade association for songwriters in the world. Thanks to past efforts, Tin Pan South draws worldwide attention to the variety of songwriters who live here and definitely has made its footprint on the legacy of Nashville “in the round.”
There is also a television series about songwriters “in the round.” The local production company Songwriters in the Round has produced the series “Legends & Lyrics,” which appears on PBS stations nationwide. Distributed by American Public Television, “Legends & Lyrics” has broadcast its first season with an interesting mix of performers, such as Shawn Colvin, John Hiatt and Jessi Colter in an “in the round” performance. Kris Kristofferson, Patti Griffin and Randy Owen were also the guests in an additional episode in Season 1. Performances with artists and songwriters of this caliber expose the average American to Nashville’s way of performing, so its safe to say the “in the round” style is certainly gaining steam nationally and internationally.
Looking across the USA and the world you can see promotions of “Nashville Songwriters In the Round,” which makes sense, because Nashville leads the world in country music. You can find songwriters in the round, around the world, in places like the Songbird Cafe in St. Louis, Mo., the Balsam Mountain Inn in Balsam, N.C., and the California Beer Festival in Ventura, Calif. You can also find Nashville style songwriters’ rounds used in places like the United Kingdom Songwriters Festival, the Hague International Singer/Songwriter Festival in the Netherlands, and the Tamworth Country Music Festival in Tamworth, New South Wales, Australia.
While talking to one of Australia’s hit songwriters Matt Scullion, he claims Australia has always been influenced by the Nashville songwriting element. “I run a ‘Songwriters In the Round’ show at one of Australia’s biggest Country Music festivals in Tamworth (The Tamworth Country Music Festival) called ‘The Scullion Sessions.” I set it up very much like they do in Nashville with three songwriters taking turns singing and telling stories about their songs,” explains Scullion. “Songwriters ‘in the round’ is a fairly common practice throughout Australia. People really love the intimate setting.”
You will find songwriters in the round all over Nashville. It is a way of life for us. So we can thank those four original songwriters and that magical night at the Bluebird, back in 1985 for this treasured tradition. Thom Schuyler, Don Schlitz, Fred Knobloch and Paul Overstreet are the forefathers of “Songwriters in the Round,” but now it belongs to Nashville.
Thom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch and Paul Overstreet originally performed together in a group called S-K-O and recorded one album for MTM Records, which charted three country hits, including the number one hit, “Baby’s Got a New Baby.” Don Schlitz is a Grammy award-winning country music songwriter with too many hits to mention, and all four have been a cornerstone to Nashville’s music industry.
Thanks to these four guys, we have “Nashville In the Round,” and I imagine that new songwriters to Nashville will continue this tradition for years to come. So take in a songwriters night sometime, and enjoy the culture of our great city. When you do, you’re likely to find that songwriters are usually fine performers in their own rights, but in many cases their calling cards are specifically their songwriting talents. These are the people who write the lyrics and the music that many well-known country and Americana musicians make famous. They sit in a small circle in the middle of the room with the audience all around, and swap tales and sing songs. Whether they are Grammy-winning songwriters or not, the “songwriters in the round” performances are authentic and extraordinary, shining a light on the songsmith since 1985. Nashville has treasured this style of performance ever since. Whether we like to do things our own way or we just like being unusual – either way, “Nashville in the Round” is here to stay. Erika Wollam Nichols from the Bluebird Cafe’ said it best when she stated, “It’s not ‘in the round’ unless it’s in the round.”
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