Nashville's nuances

What's the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the phrase "behind the music" ? Most likely it's VH-1's addictive sex/drugs/redemption celebrity series. But when you consider who's literally behind the music -- especially today's country and roots music -- you've got to look at singer/songwriters.

These people tend to live double lives. They get record deals of their own and subsequently show up on the stages of local bars and clubs. But they also have vital lives offstage, pouring their hearts out onto lined notebook paper, well out of the spotlight. Often they earn their living by being employed with big publishers and penning the snappy hits that are sung by groomed and choreographed stars.

Since it opened in 1982, Nashville's Bluebird Cafe has been the mecca for singer/songwriters wanting to make their mark on Music City. This spring you can get a glimpse of the remarkable performers who frequent this little, unassuming club, thanks to the Disney Institute's free Bluebird Cafe Songwriters Series, which features installments in March and April.

"The big country-music boom that started around 1987 -- basically with Garth -- was in fact brought to us by the singer/songwriter," says Amy Kurland, the Bluebird's owner and booker. "It was the most interesting thing going."

Years ago, performers and songwriters were two separate entities. Nashville in particular worked (and still does work, to some extent) on the songwriting-factory system; office buildings full of people with guitars and typewriters churned out hits for the preordained stars. The slash that combined "singer" and "songwriter" breathed life into that system. "People started performing their own material," says Kurland, "and it was a better, more emotional connection that people made with an audience."

The results? Think Lyle Lovett, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan and Gillian Welch.

The Disney Institute series is modeled after the Bluebird's "In the Round" nights, in which several performers sit together and offer renditions of their songs. The Saturday, March 18, event features Gretchen Peters (who wrote Martina McBride's "Independence Day" ), Joe Venzer ("Then What," recorded by Clay Walker) and Gene Nelson ("Against the Grain," recorded by Garth Brooks). The Saturday, April 15, show features Jim Photoglo, Vince Melamed and Gary Burr, whose credits include Patty Loveless' "I Try to Think About Elvis."

For her part, Kurland is pleased that the Bluebird is extending its reach. "For years Nashville has appreciated the singer/songwriter, and that it's an important art form," she says. Now the rest of us have a chance to witness the craft that leads some performers to the top of the charts.