Image courtesy of The Bluebird Cafe
Whether it’s your first trip to Nashville or you’ve been here several times, chances are you’ve at least TRIED to go to a show at The Bluebird Café. That’s because it’s on nearly every list of recommended places you MUST visit while you’re here, the problem is, it just isn’t that easy. It isn’t that easy at all. You know those radio contests where you have to be a certain number caller to win tickets to a concert? You try and try, only to get a busy signal every single time. That’s about what getting tickets to any show at The Bluebird Café is like, let alone a show with names recognizable to the general public.
The Bluebird Café is a small, storefront venue that seats 90. There are a few seats reserved for the songwriters that are playing, so that narrows the field down even further for what’s available for public consumption. Bottom line is, if you get in, you are very lucky. If you were fortunate enough to attend the Buckle & Boots show of November 6, 2018 at The Bluebird Cafe, and you weren’t one of those who had a comp seat, you hit a Music City lottery of sorts.
In the round that night, was Gary Quinn, a Northern Irishman, who now calls Manchester, England home. Quinn, a five-time British Country Music Association Awards winner, most recently retained Male Vocalist of the Year for 2017. He previously earned the award for UK Songwriter of the Year and consecutive Song of the Year honors. Quinn counts several US country artists as influences, and has shared the stage with Kristian Bush, Phil Vassar and Hall of Fame songwriter, Bob DiPiero.
From where I sat, to Quinn’s right, were male/female duo American Young, composed of Jon Stone and Kristy Osmunson. American Young are songwriting powerhouses, who have written for superstars such as Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton. American Young is signed with Curb Records.
Seated beside American Young’s Kristy Osmunson, was Vicksburg, Mississippi native, William Michael Morgan, who broke out with his hit song, “I Met a Girl” in 2016. That song propelled Morgan to stardom when it marched up the charts and hit number one. Bringing back what many country fans called a more “traditional country sound”, Morgan was just what they were looking for in a time when “pop country” was flooding the radio airwaves. Morgan is part of the Warner Nashville family.
Directly next to Morgan sat Mo Pitney, who, like Morgan, filled a spot that so many country purists felt was being neglected on country radio. A true country songwriter. Pitney, who grew up in Cherry Valley, Illinois, and is currently signed to Curb Records.
As far as songwriter rounds go, this was not too shabby. As far as songwriter rounds at The Bluebird, this was, as I said, like hitting the jackpot. It could have been great, and it was. There were, however, surprises to be had that even I wasn’t expecting.
Thanks to Nashville traffic, a wreck and a last minute re-route, we arrived 15 minutes late, much to my dismay. Upon being seated, I began taking notes, which I have never done at this venue before, and I have to admit, that was very hard to do. If there’s one thing I love more than anything in this life, it’s songwriter rounds. I lose myself in them. I forget a lot about my life in them. I took copious notes, but yet, I wanted to enjoy this show at the same time. So, I made a decision to try and take notes but when a certain song from each writer really grabbed me, I would then make that song the one I would write on for this piece.
Let me begin with a description of The Bluebird Café, for the benefit of those who have never been there. I know many of you have attended shows there, so please bear with me if you’re one of them. The Bluebird, by itself, is really just another store in a strip mall. If you were driving by, you wouldn’t even notice it. It sits right in the center of this strip mall. It has a green canvas awning. You enter through typical strip mall doors. It is absolutely crammed with tables and chairs. So much so, that walking through the place is difficult, and I often think long and hard about how badly I really need to use the restroom during a show before getting up. It often isn’t worth it unless I’m very close to the back of the room. It’s small, but this little venue packs a mighty punch. It has launched the careers of numerous songwriters and it constantly brings back the people who create the hits we all know and love. It really is an “if these walls could talk” kind of place. Don’t judge a book by its cover. There’s a reason why it’s hard to get in. Hard to get as a patron and even harder to get in as a player. Be good or keep working until you are.
Photo courtesy of Earth Trekkers
Sometimes, during a round, the writers are lined up against the wall, but most of the time, they are seated in a circle in the middle of the room, and depending upon where you, yourself are seated, you will have one or more of the songwriters faced toward you and the others faced away from you. That’s just the way it works. It’s the luck of the draw whose face you can see. Not that it’s supposed to matter, it’s all about the music and the stories.
It’s rather dimly lit, but not so dim that you can’t see what’s going on. There’s a neon bluebird hanging on one wall. There’s a good choice of beer and wine and they do serve food. Be ready to meet a $10.00 food and drink minimum at many shows, the one I’m writing about included. That isn’t hard to do. They don’t really break your bank account over there. There are places that are far more expensive in town. The biggest challenge is getting in. If you’ve done that, meeting the minimum is not a problem.
Now that I’ve taken care of that busy work, I’ll move on to more of what you came for, the Buckle & Boots show of November 6th. Gary Quinn, the lone UK songwriter on the round, and the one to spearhead the show, was worth doing some homework on. Buckle & Boots, it seems, wasn’t just the name of this one round at The Bluebird Café. It’s an actual music festival held in Manchester, England each year. The 2019 festival’s headliners are yet to be announced, but it will be held May 24-26th. In 2018, some of The UK’s best country music artists, along with artists from the US played this very large festival that includes all sorts of food and other entertainment. This is a big deal. Gary Quinn is the ring leader. It appears they are still looking for artists to play at this year’s Buckle & Boots festival from what I can see on the website, so if you’re so inclined to travel to Manchester and you have the chops, you might inquire. It looks to me as if you have to be quite good. Keep that in mind.
Earlier, I gave you a brief summary of what Gary Quinn has accomplished in a list of awards and who he’s shared stages with. Let me just tell you, that I was not at all prepared for his VOICE. He’s a rather unassuming guy, at least from what little I could see of him from where I was sitting. Remember, I mentioned that depending on where you were seated in The Bluebird, depended on how much or how little of an artist you could see. I was seated near the window, in a raised area, which allowed me to see most of the writers, but only half of Quinn’s face. Short-cropped, blondish-red hair, and very “Irish-looking” if that means anything, I guess, is how I would describe him. I was very far away, and I have a pretty rare eye condition which makes my vision, even corrected with hard contact lenses (the only thing that corrects them, there, I gave you some medical information that you never knew you wanted or needed), kind of sketchy at a distance, so I was more or less guessing that this was a guy that would fit the description of many other guys walking down any given street on any given town.
Then, he started to sing, but as in all songwriter rounds, first came a story. In that lovely Irish accent that we Americans absolutely love, he began to speak. “I got a text at five AM. All it said was, ‘I want to write a sexy song.’ So, here’s a sexy song. I hope you like it. It’s called ‘Body Language’.”
Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country
(I need to mention that any audio or video recording was STRICTLY FORBIDDEN during this particular round. I have since seen some video recordings from this round online, but we, at Think Country, take such instructions very seriously. I did not record any audio or video at The Bluebird Café the night of November 6, 2018 during the Buckle & Boots show, therefore, there will be none from that show in this piece.)
Quinn’s voice is, and I told him this after the show, like “butter”. It’s smooth and there’s something there that’s so slick, you can’t catch it. It’s one of the ones where you don’t care what he sings, or for how long, you just want him to continue. It’s nearly perfect and I have no argument as to why his shelves are lined with awards. Was the song “sexy”? Honestly, I don’t remember. I was more focused on his voice. I was so stunned that this man, who was sitting down, but appeared to be small in stature and good looking, yet in a common way, suddenly bedazzled me with a voice that started ushering images of items that are smooth, into my brain. Butter, silk, Barry White… alright, maybe not Barry White. At least not until now. Barry White just entered my mind now, but maybe Gary Quinn is the UK country version of Barry White, at least vocally. There is zero hint of that Irish accent when he sings, yet when he speaks, you really need to listen hard, or you’ll miss what he’s saying. The accent is strong.
I enjoyed every single song Quinn played. I loved every story. I wish I could write about everything, but I promised myself, one song per writer or this would end up being longer than it will already be. Quinn ended “Body Language” by saying, “If I got too far right and made eye contact during that song it’s not good.” Jon Stone of American Young was seated directly to his right. This generated a laugh in the room and among the writers, to which Quinn responded, “Cheeky.” Familiarize yourselves with this extremely talented songwriter, especially all of you Americans. I believe we’ll be hearing more from him as time goes on.
American Young. This was my first encounter with this duo and where have I been?! Obviously hiding under a rock. With Kristy Osmunson on fiddle and Jon Stone on guitar (and his back completely facing me), I was all but blown away by their harmonies and the emotion put into their songs. Each one was wonderful, but it was “Love Is War” that really set my sails. I was downloading it the minute they finished playing it. I wanted to listen to it again on the way home to see if the recorded version lived up to the acoustic live version. Of course, as someone who lives and breathes for songwriter rounds, not much ever does live up to anything I see and hear in a round, but this was one that came pretty close. According to Osmunson, the song was actually first played right there at The Bluebird Café, “It was the day Jon fell off his motorcycle, we were working on harmonies for this gig.” As Stone put it, “I was wearing flip flops on the highway, on my bike. Glad I didn’t die that day.” Added William Michael Morgan, “I am too bud.”
Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country
As they went into the song, Quinn was nodding his head, just drinking it in and Mo Pitney was listening intently. There was no question, this was a song that spoke to everyone. Lyrically and melodically it was powerful. The fiddle spoke loudest when it needed to, just like a third voice. I think the title of the song tells the story best. “Love Is War”. It can be. Not all wars make sense, but the ones that do, are worth fighting until the end, every single battle. This song spoke to me that way. You may not win every battle, but if you keep fighting them and you are victorious at war’s end, even after years of constant bloodshed, the purpose can be grand. It’s a heavy tune. I think this should be done with a whole damned orchestra someday. Maybe shoot off a few cannons. All this comes out of my mind from a songwriter round. I need therapy.
Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country
William Michael Morgan. Now we’ve moved into the “household name” portion of this round. At least in the country music world. If you’re one of those people that heard about Buckle & Boots coming to The Bluebird and you saw exactly when tickets were going on sale and you parked yourself in front of your keyboard ready to hit “Purchase Tickets” at the very moment they went on sale, it may have been because of this guy, William Michael Morgan. After all, he’s had a number one hit with “I Met a Girl”, he’s had songs on country radio like, “Missing” and “Vinyl”. He currently has new singles out digitally, “Tonight Girl”, “Brokenhearted” and “Talking to a Girl”. People generally know who he is.
Morgan played some songs that were lesser known, his big number one, “I Met a Girl” because people are always waiting for it and then, he dragged one out that I had never heard before. It was called “Second Hand Smoke”. I’ve known Morgan for quite some time and this one, like real second-hand smoke, wafted in, hit me in the face and almost knocked me off my chair. Gaining my composure, because I was so taken aback by this great new song that seemed to have been hiding in his back pocket, I stopped taking notes and just listened. I have never reviewed anything Morgan has done before, and there’s a reason for that. I have declined to. He’s a friend. I would call it a conflict of interest. This show, however, was a slightly different animal. This was really Quinn’s round and Morgan was his guest. I was asked to cover the round and with three other writers that I had never seen before, he was, for a lack of better words, “collateral damage”. I am typing that with a smile on my face.
I was happy then, to at least, be able to hear a song I had never heard before. Better than that, I had never even heard OF the song before. That made me feel much better about reviewing something Morgan was doing. I felt like I was going in with fresh eyes and ears. Morgan’s voice is, and always has been, to me, one of those comfortable ones that remind me of things I love best. Worn jeans, leather jackets, fleece blankets. There’s nothing I need to “break in” when I listen to Morgan sing. It’s all there from the first note. This isn’t “Willie’s friend” talking. This is Patti McClintic, Think Country Contributor, talking. Guess what though? Just Patti, “Willie’s friend”? She would say the same thing. That’s what it is.
Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country
As for how he WRITES, that might be a whole different thing. That might be where I shouldn’t be allowed to touch anything, but I was. As I listened to “Second Hand Smoke” I listened to Morgan’s usual relaxed vocals, and I wished I was sitting in front of my fireplace with my boots kicked off, sipping wine, but I was really listening to the story in the song. I had all but dropped my pen and I was just lost in the whole thing. Like I am at every other songwriter round. Dishwasher on the fritz at home? Forgot about it. Laundry piled up? Forgot that too. Yes, Mr. Morgan, you had my attention. I was imagining, in my mind, just what put you in the frame of mind to write that song? The song, to sum it up quickly, is about a guy who is in a world of pain seeing the woman he loves in a new relationship. Pretty basic country music stuff, I know. The song was beautiful though. I loved it. I would have liked to know more about it, but I just kind of dreamed up my own scenario and that was the end of that. Morgan did mention, however, that he was planning to record the song eventually, which made me happy because I think it has the potential to be one of his best, if not his very best, ever. That’s not the friend saying that, that’s the reviewer saying that.
Finally, Mo Pitney. I was excited to see Pitney sing something live rather than on video, which up until The Bluebird show, is all I’d been able to catch. I love his voice and his work, so I was hoping he was going to live up to everything I’d watched on YouTube. He did, and then some. He was really funny and so grounded. He could have talked and not played anything and I would have been alright. It’s always good when someone who also qualified for that “household name” status comes off as really authentic. He calls himself a true country boy, and I don’t know if he’s a true “country” boy or not, but he’s TRUE. He’s real. You know how you “just know”? I’m not always great at reading people, but after living in this town for a while now, I’m getting much better at it.
Photo courtesy of 90 Easty Photography and Think Country
I had the hardest time of all choosing a favorite when it came to the Mo Pitney songs, because really, they were all my favorites, so it came down to what I could find out online. Yes, I had to pick a song that I could find the correct title to online. I didn’t want to mess that up. So, I ended up with this one. “Little Boys and Their Daddies” was a tremendous song (as they all were), and it was one that I thought quite a few people could relate to. Co-written with Bobby Tomberlin, another songwriter that has a resume that goes on longer than my arm, it should be a hit, if not for Pitney himself, for some megastar out there. It’s one of those life songs that makes you think of Kenny Chesney’s, “Don’t Blink” or Tim McGraw’s, “Live Like You Were Dying”. The kind that people add to very important playlists. It’s a thinking song and the title might lead you to think one way when it really takes a different direction. It’s about family relationships and how they can get tangled up sometimes. It almost brought me to tears, and if I had sons or been in a more emotionally fragile state, it would have for sure.
We’re all just here trying to live the American Dream with who we’re dropped on Earth with. They’re trying to live with us too. It’s like we’re all just cards dealt out to one another when we’re born. Some of us get nothing but Royal Flushes and some of us get a bunch of nothing that goes together. That’s the visual I was getting during that song. That’s a real country song. In the end, if you’re going to call yourself a real country boy, you’d better write real country songs. Mission accomplished with “Little Boys and Their Daddies”. Go find it (I found it on YouTube) and if you’re not on the Mo Pitney wagon, as so many already are, jump on.
Not every review has an “epilogue”. Really, I doubt there is such a thing, so I may have just invented it, but let’s try it. Before leaving Buckle & Boots that night, I wanted to accomplish three things. I wanted to introduce myself to Gary Quinn, as he was the key reason I was even there, I wanted to TRY and quickly say hello to Mo Pitney because I thought he was great and say I was a loser for never seeing one of his shows before and I wanted to get to the restroom as I was sure I’d never make it past the parking lot if I didn’t. That was all.
Change of plans. I got stopped. William Michael Morgan stopped me and we chatted a bit, so I complimented him on “Second Hand Smoke” and asked why he never recorded it yet. He said they planned to soon. He then told me the story of how he got the idea for it. He said it was quite a while back, around four AM when he went outside to smoke and he was looking at the smoke from the cigarette rolling in the air against the street light. He thought it looked really cool, “like in a movie”. He then thought about how cool it looked, but how the smoke would eventually kill him slowly. He went into his write with Jim Beavers later on that day and he told Jim about that early morning moment and there’s where they started the song. I thought that was a great little backstory to the song that he didn’t include when he sang it in the round.
I then said something about how I loved country music because the songs could all be interpreted differently by different people. That I thought it meant something completely different, and it was cool to know it actually was based on something I never would have thought of. At which point, he laughed at me, and simply said, “Yeah, and you know what? You’d be right.” I said, “So, you’re saying you think that my interpretation of that song is correct?” He paused for a minute and smiled and said, “Let’s just say, your interpretation would be 95% correct.” I said, “Well, when I write this, I’m just going to leave it at that.” He smiled and said, “Okay, make sure Bill sees me before y’all leave.” Off to the ladies’ room I went. Ladies and gentleman, that’s Nashville.
Group photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country
Gary Quinn can be found:
American Young can be found:
William Michael Morgan can be found:
Mo Pitney can be found: