Review: The SongBird Tour

By Robert K. Oermann

There’s a new moneymaking option in town for Nashville’s sizable songwriting population.

With songwriters’ royalty income plummeting, live performances have become increasingly attractive to this community. But the number of local venues willing to book songwriting talent is small. And few songwriters have either the name recognition or the inclination to go on the road beyond Middle Tennessee.

Enter SongBird Tours, a novel tourism idea that features Music City tunesmiths entertaining visitors as they ride around town. Each two-hour tour spotlights notable sites in Nashville’s songwriting history, an explanation of how songwriting and publishing works, a Q&A session and a song-swapping session featuring the city’s most talented composers and lyricists.

I decided this was worth investigating. So we boarded a vehicle about the size of a large airport shuttle bus on Hayes Street last week. The rear was outfitted with a small stage, two bolted-down stools and a large video screen.

One stool is occupied by a “name” writer. On the day I took the tour, this was prolific hit craftsman Trey Bruce. The other is occupied by a talented, lesser-known songwriter, in my case, Greg Allen.

Because of the configuration, ticket buyers ride backwards. Nobody seemed to mind.

As we headed up Music Square West, our guide pointed out spots where hits by stars such as Taylor Swift, Roy Orbison, Kris Kristofferson, Tammy Wynette and others were written. Each building or house was shown on the video screen (as well as out your window), followed by a brief video clip of the song in performance.

After we left Music Row, we headed out Franklin Pike, past the homes of Earl Scruggs, Jack White, Martina McBride and others. At this point, the tour became a song showcase. Trey sang hits like “Whisper My Name” (Randy Travis), “You Can’t Lose Me” (Faith Hill), “Amen Kind of Love” (Daryle Singletary), “How Your Love Makes Me Feel” (Diamond Rio), “Someone Else’s Dream” (Faith Hill) and other hits he’s written, accompanied by clever stories.

Songwriters Trey Bruce and Tommy Conners

Interestingly, the tourists on board responded equally strongly to Greg’s unknown tunes, including “Pictures,” “I Just Hold the Pen,” “Moonshine,” “The Good Lord Gives, the Bottle Takes Away” and “This Heartache’s on You.” All of them sounded like hits to both me and them. He was also a strong performer. I am told that other tours have showcased up-and-coming Belmont writers and new publishing-company signees as foils for the established hit writers.

Back on Music Square East, the sites included locations associated with the songs of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Dolly Parton and others (again complete with video illustrations). Throughout the tour, the historical stories related were factual. So were the explanations of how the business works. Believe me, this is not always the case on Nashville tour buses.

We had a delightful pit stop at the Music Row songwriter watering hole Bobby’s Idle Hour. The tourists used the restrooms, grabbed a quick brew and chatted with each other, our hosts and the bar patrons. “Bobby” is dead, by the way. “Lizard” now runs the legendary Idle Hour spot.

Back on board as we headed toward downtown, the songwriters resumed song swapping and talking about their lives. The guide talked about who had served time on Lower Broadway (Dierks Bentley, Terri Clark, Willie Nelson, etc.) and told us about Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Next came more songs and witty chit-chat. When they started the Q&A, the fans asked surprisingly informed questions about the songwriting process and/or the publishing business.

When we arrived back at Hayes Street, the songwriters posed for selfies and answered more questions. The host sold merch.

SongBird Tours is the brainchild of veteran Music Row personality Patsy Bruce (who was once married to Trey’s father, Ed Bruce). She says she got tired of misinformation about the songwriting and publishing communities and came out of retirement to correct it.

The bus holds 30 people at a time. Tickets are $45 per person. That means the participating songwriters certainly earn more than the 50 bucks they can usually count on for a night’s work in most Nashville venues.

There are three tours a day, seven days a week. It’s a B.Y.O.B. thing, if the fans wish to imbibe.

The tour’s slogan is “The most intimate listening room in Nashville is on wheels.” That means that you’re supposed to stop using your device and/or talking while the songwriters perform. They tell this to the riders at the outset, and everybody respected it on the tour that I attended.
Frankly, I enjoyed my afternoon on the bus. So did the mostly Canadian fans who were on board with me. I think you would, too.


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About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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