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Making the Rounds on Nashville’s Singer-Songwriter Circuit

On a recent Sunday night in a Holiday Inn lounge on the fringe of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Paul Jefferson, a local songwriter with spiky hair and skinny jeans, took the stage to sing a couple of his better-known tunes, popularized in recordings by Keith Urban and Aaron Tippin. Between “You’re Not My God” and “That’s as Close as I’ll Get to Loving You,” he talked about crafting a song, finding inspiration and the hustle it takes to make it, including playing a gig at the airport on the same day he would appear on the country’s longest running radio show.

“That’s the Nashville story, from baggage claim to the Grand Ole Opry,” he joked.

For many songwriters, the road to discovery starts in a Nashville club like this one, hosting free or inexpensive writers’ nights where authors play their originals. In the past, these showcases were a way to secure publishing and recording deals, and though social media channels and televised talent shows have diminished their power as an audition channel, they remain vital forums for many of the artists who provide the words and the melodies to country music and pop stars, or who aim to become stars themselves.

“I’m old school,” Mr. Jefferson said, “but this is a great way to hone your skills.”

For music fans, songwriters’ nights provide a glimpse into Music City’s most celebrated business, as songwriters share stories about how they managed to get a track to the likes of Tim McGraw, and an opportunity to hear a hit — present or perhaps future — stripped of studio frills and distilled to its essence.

Because clubs still reserve prime weekend time for bigger acts, most songwriters’ nights take place early in the week (one exception is the club 3rd and Lindsley, which has a Saturday afternoon showcase). Arriving for a four-day-stay on a Sunday, I checked into a studio with a Murphy bed at the stylish new BentoLiving Chestnut Hill ($125) in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood, a few miles south of downtown, to attend three shows.

Though Nashville is booming — adding a new resident each hour for the past decade, according to its mayor, John Cooper, despite the pandemic — it’s not hard to tap into its frugal side when it comes to music (with the exception of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where admission starts at nearly $28). Most of the shows were free or cheap ($5 to $10 admission), and budget-friendly dining abounds, from the hearty, cafeteria-style Arnold’s Country Kitchen ($13 for a meat and three side dishes) to the burger joint Joyland from the chef Sean Brock (burgers from about $6).

On Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the unassuming Commodore Grille in the Holiday Inn, my first stop, hosts Debi Champion’s Songwriters Nights, a starter showcase for budding players, a proving ground for working writers and a warm home for successful veterans.

Starting at 6 p.m., the free shows introduce newer talents — sets…

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