It may not look like much from the outside—and it sure isn’t in the “touristy” part of town, but The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee is the place legends are born. However, that wasn’t the original plan (like you could actually plan giving birth to legends). Founder Amy Kurland was aiming for an upscale restaurant in the Green Hills area of the city, miles away from Music Row and everything that made the city’s reputation. She chose a spot in a strip mall—a space that had been everything from a game room to a sewing machine store, with a seller of oriental rugs thrown in for good measure. A stage was added at the last minute to accommodate any musicians who might occasionally perform . . . because, I mean, it is Nashville. But you know what they say about the best laid plans . . .
Instead of the upscale restaurant Kurland had envisioned, her dream slowly morphed into a smoke-filled, noisy nightclub where the occasional live music became nightly performances. Two or three years in, someone scheduled an evening in the round where songwriters would entertain as opposed to full-fledged bands, and with that event The Bluebird Café found its true purpose. Some of the most recognizable names in country music would launch their careers there—and find the music that would help make them famous.
It was almost three years later that songwriter Tony Arata was rehearsing for the evening’s show. He had a new song he’d just completed and as he began to play, a struggling young singer rehearsing with him listened intently to the lyrics Arata had so beautifully crafted. As the music faded, he told Arata he wanted that song. When he got his record deal (not if, but when), he wanted that song on his first album.
Not long after that encounter, that same struggling singer performed as a last-minute fill in for another songwriter. As Fate would have it, a representative from Capitol Records saw the show and the next day, that struggling singer had a record deal with the label. It would be three years before his debut album was released. Three years during which Arata tried to sell the song without finding anyone who was interested. It wasn’t upbeat. The tune wasn’t catchy . . . not one you walked around humming all day. And the words . . . the words were so deeply thought-provoking. And nobody seemed to want their thoughts provoked. So when Garth Brooks called Tony Arata to see if the song he’d claimed three years earlier was still available, it was. And that’s how The Dance became the tenth track for his debut album and a song that’s considered to be one of his signature hits.
When you think about a song as popular as The Dance, don’t you wonder why it was still up for grabs three years after it was written? Could it have been that no one realized the impact a song like that could have on those who are struggling to express the emotions conveyed in its lyrics?
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance
If you pay close attention to Tony Arata’s words, you’ll realize the person speaking has come to the end of something important. Perhaps it’s a relationship, perhaps it’s some monumental life event . . . perhaps Life itself. Whatever the circumstance, that ending has been a painful and permanent one. But had they chosen a different path, one that would allow them to avoid the pain, they would also have missed the beauty and joy that came before.
And that, my friends, is the magical power of music and the stories woven by its melodies and lyrics. On your happiest of days, there are songs that allow you to celebrate. And in the darkest of times, there are those that give a voice to your pain, and freedom to your tears.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.