Bluebird Cafe gets new owner after 25 years

Founder/impresario and a local nonprofit have structured a deal to secure the venue's future

The Bluebird Café, the 25-year-old restaurant that became a music landmark, is being acquired by the Nashville Songwriters Association International.

Café Founder Amy Kurland is selling the listening room, but will remain involved as an advisor to the new owners. NSAI will take the reins Jan. 1. Financial terms of the deal were not revealed.

Today's formal announcement of the Bluebird's transfer was another milestone for Kurland and her creation, as well as for Nashville.

In reporting news of the ownership change this evening during a broadcast from Nashville, CBS News anchor Katie Couric likened the Bluebird to the Ryman Auditorium in stature, noting that if the Ryman is the "Mother Church" of Country music, then the Bluebird is surely "the temple of Country's pure soul."

Couric introduced an interview with Kurland about the handover of the Bluebird. "I want to make sure that the Bluebird is in the best possible hands, so that it can have a life beyond me," Kurland said.

Soon after Kurland opened her restaurant in 1982, she imposed the listening room's no-talking protocol, which she imported from similar venues in the vicinity of George Washington University, her alma mater. Georgetown's Blues Alley may have been the model.

Kurland has often proved resourceful: To build awareness of the Bluebird, Kurland partnered for several years with Turner South, later bought by Fox Cable Networks, to produce "Live from the Bluebird Café" series for cable television. She also launched the Bluebird's current venue within SecondLife.com, a 3-D cyberworld that offers streaming video of Bluebird performances.

NSAI Executive Director Bart Herbison told NashvillePost.com this afternoon that assuming control of The Bluebird amounts to "a sacred trust" and NSAI plans no changes in the venue's programming, operations or decor. He said he expects current staff to remain aboard, as well.

NSAI has for some time conducted songwriters "in the round" events at the Bluebird, with proceeds supporting the NSAI Legislative Fund. NSAI's legislative and regulatory efforts have targeted copyright law, royalty payments, illegal internet file sharing and other issues.

Herbison described the deal with Kurland as "a contribution on her part," adding that Bluebird revenue will help fund NSAI programs and services. Couric of CBS characterized the transaction as a "donation."

Neither Herbison nor NSAI's outside counsel, Denise Stevens of Loeb & Loeb, would discuss financial details of the transfer agreement with Kurland.

Kurland will be NSAI's landlord under an initial five-year lease for the 1,785-square-foot space. The property is part of a commercial condominium at 4104 Hillsboro Road in West Nashville.

NSAI's deal with Kurland is reminiscent of the nonprofit's recent acquisition of Songramp.com, a Nashville-based online community for songwriters. NSAI took over Songramp from Bondware Inc., a Nashville software and internet hosting firm, with which it now shares revenue from the site.

NSAI is heavily weighted toward country and acoustic music constituents, while Songramp is intended to appeal to songwriters in every genre.

Herbison said NSAI members and guests are scheduled to convene at the Bluebird this evening for a formal announcement of NSAI ownership. Among artists scheduled to perform is singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson was among the first members of 40-year-old NSAI, Herbison said.