By Luke Maness

It’s hard to believe it has been 50 years since the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) began. It was 1967 when the majority of the songwriting community in Nashville set out to make songwriting a better profession. For songwriters who just moved to town, the NSAI gives them a place to call home and possibly get a foothold in this crazy profession called songwriting.

NSAI’s headquarters are in the former recording studio the Music Mill – thus the water wheel. PHOTO COURTESY OF SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT NASHVILLE/CHANDLERCAMP, PHOTOGRAPHER

The NSAI has been a part of Music Row almost as long as Music Row has been around, established just over a decade after the first recording studio opened on what is now Music Row. Before the NSAI, songwriter credits weren’t included on albums, but that fight was spearheaded by the founders of the NSAI—and the rest is history, as they say. That event launched the world’s greatest songwriters’ alliance, and it helped establish Nashville as the best songwriting networking community in the world.

The current NSAI is housed in the exquisite log cabin known to locals as the Music Mill, which is owned and operated by the NSAI. The preservation of the Music Mill ensures that future generations of songwriters will be able to enjoy a piece of music history, because the Music Mill is well rooted in the history of Music Row as well as the NSAI. Just entering the building itself creates a vibe only Music Row establishments and venues can produce, as if it comes from the soul of music itself. The Music Mill was once owned by producer Harold Shedd, and many artists, including the legendary Alabama and Dolly Parton, recorded some of their greatest hits there. “The history of strong women played a huge role in creating Music Row’s legacy, like Connie Bradley, Donna Hilley and Frances Preston, when the Country Music Association began around 50 years ago,” explained Bart Herbison, the executive director of the NSAI. “Ours was Maggie Cavender, who helped start the NSAI and was our original executive director of the NSAI.”

Maggie Cavender, NSAI’s first executive director. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASHVILLE CONVENTION & VISITORS CORPORATION SONGWRITERS FOUNDATION

Just like Music Row, NSAI has been hit by the digital era, hurting the financial ability of songwriters, publishers, musicians and record labels to continue making music as a thriving profession. The Internet has opened the door for many new music avenues but could possibly close treasured iconic music businesses in the process, unless Music Row figures out how to remain the center of the country music world. “There are just not as many record labels, publishers, and there are not as many buildings that occupy songwriters,” Herbison explained. “The fact is it’s not Music Row as we once knew it. The challenge is—how do we keep it the way it is and maybe make it grow into the prosperous place it once was?”

“I think if you were to look up the definition of Music Row in the Webster’s Dictionary, it would be ‘community,’ and there is no community like ours in LA and New York. That’s what makes Music Row the culture of our community – everyone knows each other. I think we need to figure out a way to keep our history as we simultaneously move forward, considering land values, location and the cost of doing business. I think the Row is beginning to figure that out. The city is getting involved, understanding that we need to somehow provide incentives for a thriving music industry. At the end of the day, this is going to be a commitment of the occupants of Music Row if it survives or not.”

Amy Kurland, founder of the Bluebird Café PHOTO COURTESY OF AMY KURLAND FB

Music Row and the NSAI share a history — walking together like two old friends, working together to make Nashville what it is today. Although the Bluebird Café is not on Music Row, it has played a crucial part of its history. As a treasured landmark, it is part of the long history of Nashville’s music scene. As the Bluebird Café celebrates its 35th anniversary, founder Amy Kurland can be proud that she contributed such a big part of Nashville’s music landscape. After opening the

Bluebird in 1982 and turning it into a very important piece of Nashville’s music puzzle, she donated the entire business to the NSAI so it could remain in its original form to be enjoyed by future songwriters who can indulge in its rich history. “I have a long history with the Bluebird,” explained Erika Wollam Nichols, president of the Bluebird. “and I know it means a lot to a lot of people and so many songwriters that performed here had huge careers on Music Row. You know, the Bluebird started off as a restaurant and then became the place it is – [with] the proximity to Music Row at the time with easy accessibility, and a lot of songwriters began to play the Bluebird.”

Many hit songwriters credit their first bit of success from being discovered at the Bluebird. The Bluebird can boast several artists who have gained success from their exposure at the Bluebird, including Garth Brooks and Kathy Mattea. The No. 1 hit “The Dance” was discovered by Garth Brooks himself when he heard Tony Arata performing it at the Bluebird.

 

A songwriter’s night featuring songwriters in the round at the world famous Bluebird Café. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASHVILLE CONVENTION & VISITORS CORPORATION

If you have never been there, it is a very cozy quaint place. “The Bluebird is very organic, and it’s just a place that kind of collected people,” explained Nichols. “I think it is very hard to plan that kind of venue. It wasn’t intentional – it just sort of happened. I think about the history of Music Row – I wish I could go back for one day and experience Music Row the way it was in its glory days, where songwriters could bring their guitars in and play songs for publishers and see that true sense of community that gave Music Row its legacy.”

The NSAI and the Bluebird Café also sponsor a pivotal annual festival every year, and in 2017 it will also celebrate an important anniversary. Tin Pan South has officially been around for 25 years and is the biggest songwriting festival in the world. This celebration sponsors a diverse music scene with performances by hit songwriters and future hit songwriters in local pubs and cafés all over Nashville, including in the Music Row area.

Thousands of songwriters, musicians and fans flock to Nashville every year to attend, experiencing an abundance of creativity and dreams as their first taste of Nashville. Tin Pan South brings to light the cultural heritage of Nashville and draws attention to the wide variety of songwriters who live and work here today.

NSAI Executive Director Bart Herbison, legendary performer Dolly Parton and NSAI Senior Director of Operations Jennifer Turnbow at the NSAI. PHOTO COURTESY OF NSAI

As the NSAI celebrates its 50th anniversary, Tin Pan South celebrates its 25th anniversary and The Bluebird Café celebrates its 35 years, Music Row celebrates its 60th. We all celebrate Nashville for playing such a huge part of America’s music. All of these combinations prove to be a stepping-stone for songwriters all over the world who move to our great city in hope of fulfilling a dream, and it creates hope for generations of musicians and songwriters. Herbison summed it up perfectly when he said, “Without the song, you don’t have the record. Without the record, you don’t have the record label or the radio stations, and in turn we do not have the music industry.”

The NSAI’s well-known slogan has never rung more true. “It all begins with a song.”