Swallowing the Bluebird 

Nashville's finest songwriters invade Roswell

Nestled in a small strip mall on Hillsboro Road in Nashville sits the Bluebird Café, a tiny bar with a big reputation. For years, the Bluebird has been the epicenter of Music City's songwriter community, a place where legends, has-beens and wannabe's get a chance to perform original tunes to a devoted audience.

There are apocryphal tales of overnight success, nights when a newcomer to town played a song that some big-shot producer heard and picked up for their superstar act. Far more common are the ongoing showcases where established writers get together and perform their hits and try out new material. This tradition is documented on cable channel Turner South's new program, Live at the Bluebird Café.

In conjunction with the Bluebird Café, Roswell restaurant Swallow at the Hollow recently began booking a series of performances featuring Nashville songwriters performing in the round for two consecutive nights each weekend.

"Instead of the same old band stuff you can see in other places," Swallow co-owner Paul Doster says, "we made an agreement with the Bluebird in Nashville to do shows the same way they do, and they agreed to let us use their name in our ads."

Doster is proud of the success the project has achieved, and sees the format as something Atlanta has needed. "We have had some talented folks play in the past 12 shows, doing recognizable songs. When you leave here and turn on the radio, there is a good chance you will hear a song by one of the writers who performed that night."

This weekend, the Swallow's Bluebird Café nights look to be among the best yet, as three songwriter/artists from the co-operative Dead Reckoning label perform: label co-founders Kevin Welch and Kieran Kane and Dead Reckoning recording artist David Olney.

"Dead Reckoning was a groundbreaker in the Nashville music industry," Welch says. "It's very satisfying to have so many people in the community who are supportive of what we are doing. Now it's like we have a responsibility not to go out of business."

Most of the Dead Reckoners were on major labels at one time and experienced firsthand the difficulties of functioning in an industry where artists are considered failures if they don't sell half a million records with each release. Welch looks back on his two-album tenure at Warner Brothers as a learning experience that he values.

"To sell a lot of records you have to spend a lot to promote it," he says. "You also need lots of mainstream radio airplay to make it. Now that I am on the other side of the table, I have an understanding of how hard it is to market guys like us."

Both Welch and Kane have had great success as writers for other artists -- Welch's "Too Old to Die Young" for Moe Bandy and Kane's "I'll Go on Loving You" for Alan Jackson -- but it was the desire to perform their own material that led to the creation of Dead Reckoning. Kane acknowledges the differences between the mechanisms behind Dead Reckoning and the major labels, and appreciates the artistic freedom he has now. "There are two completely different businesses in Nashville. The big labels are hitmakers, and I don't pay any attention to what they're doing. We're more based on the music and whether it's a good record or not."

In addition to recently releasing 11/12/13, a live duet album featuring Welch and Kane recorded on tour in Australia, recent months have seen Dead Reckoning expanding. Acts as diverse as the a cappella gospel group the Fairfield Four, country-rockers Big House and singer/songwriter David Olney, who joins Welch and Kane this weekend, have been signed. While the label has grown beyond being simply an artist co-op, Welch says the criteria for signing artists remains a very organic process. "We don't have too much experience with it, but it's mainly a respect thing. David [Olney] is a hero of mine, and needed a different opportunity than what he had."

Olney's first Dead Reckoning release, Omar's Blues, is a concept album based loosely on a Medieval literary work, The Rubaiyat, and would likely never have been released by a major label, despite its extraordinary quality, due to its esoteric themes.

Similarly, Kane's just-released third album on Dead Reckoning, The Blue Chair, doesn't conform to mainstream standards. "I was listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duet recordings from the '50s and was impressed with the sonic quality. We recorded The Blue Chair the same way they did, live in the studio. The only overdubs were the backup vocals." Kane also painted the album's cover art himself.

According to the Swallow at the Hollow's Paul Doster, the venue plans on bolstering its Bluebird-style series with an evening of local Atlanta songwriters-in-the-round on Thursdays. He says, "We have been having really good attendance at the shows, the fans are very appreciative and it works like a concert." At the very least, it's a welcome alternative to the loud bands and late nights of intown clubs.

Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and David Olney perform at the Swallow at the Hollow, Dec. 15-16. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.; admission is $12. The Hollow is located in Roswell at 1072 Green Rd., Roswell. Call 678-532-1975 for more information.

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