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How Tootsie's Orchid Lounge helped change country music and Nashville, in just 50 years

Purple Reign

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Tootsie's Orchid Lounge is world famous. So proclaims gold block lettering on the Lower Broadway bar's street-level windows. So confirm waves of tourists who make a point to stop in for a beer after visiting the Ryman, its back-door neighbor across the alley.

In recent years, Tootsie's geographical presence has expanded to three purple-walled locations in all, the other two being in Nashville International Airport and in a bustling commercial strip of Panama City Beach several hundred miles southeast. Each offers the bona fide Music City USA honky-tonk experience. That is to say, if they're open, and the band's not on break, it's all but guaranteed somebody with a guitar will be up on stage covering Loretta Lynn, or Jason Aldean.

But now that country music has had its Garths, Shanias and Taylors, and Nashville has become universally known as the genre's headquarters, it's easy to forget how different the relationships once were between the music, the industry and the town. In that era, Tootsie's (or Tootsies — the apostrophe is still a matter of some debate) wasn't so much an archetypal honky-tonk as an unassuming hub for a singer-songwriter scene — a place where creative types, who just happened to be phenomenally gifted, would hang out, size each other up, and maybe pitch a song, if the opportunity presented itself.

Nobody really expected that this new breed of singer-songwriters would, in organic fashion, help elevate the artistry and the range of a burgeoning genre and a still-forming music industry. Or that they would become Nashville's most admired generation of tunesmiths and the subjects of powerful nostalgia. But these things happened all the same. And the world's most famous purple room played an important role.

An all-star affair at the Ryman this Sunday, Nov. 7, will mark the Lower Broad mainstay's 50th anniversary, with a guest list featuring some of Tootsie's celebrated denizens, past and present, and other current country acts lending their support. Twenty years ago, in the district's darkest days, there would not have been much to celebrate.

Back then, Lower Broad wasn't a place most respectable tourists wanted to be. "When I went there in '92, there was a peep show two doors down from me, there was a pawn shop next door to me," says owner Steve Smith, who bought Tootsie's in the early '90s. "There was homeless people living in the street on Lower Broad. There was prostitutes and drug dealers everywhere."

The club was in scarcely better shape. Vagrants made up much of its clientele. When it rained, water poured from the ceiling and collected in 50-gallon garbage cans. Of the Orchid Lounge's legacy, Smith says, all that remained was the sight that still draws tourists by the thousands every year: the walls whose every inch is covered with photographs, where some of the century's biggest names sit alongside yellowed 8x11's whose subjects are lost to time.

"There were still a couple tourists that came in there that would look at the walls with BIC lighters," Smith remembers. "Something told me that maybe I could bring this place back to life."

The rest is history — or rather, an amalgam of memory, impression, embellishment and legend. On the occasion of Tootsie's first half-century, the Scene spoke with some of the folks who were there.

When Tootsie's opened its doors half a century ago, it wasn't in Music City — not officially; not yet. Back then, the Orchid Lounge set up shop in the Athens of the South, a city whose elite social classes would have preferred it be known for higher culture — more for opera than the Opry.

Take, for instance, the first impression of Tom T. Hall when he moved to town in 1964. The first thing the unparalleled singer, songwriter and storyteller noticed, much to his chagrin, was there was no live music.

"Nowhere — not anywhere in town," recalls the onetime Tootsie's regular, who now focuses his energies on bluegrass with his songwriter wife Dixie. "And, you know, being in the country music business, I got here and I said, 'Where can I go hear some pickin'?' They said, 'You can't.' "

One of the only exceptions was the Opry. A decade later, the venerated country-music revue would relocate to posh new suburban digs, and take the lion's share of the Orchid Lounge's business with it. But in the early '60s, it was still at the Ryman. Between and after shows, drinking and carrying-on would commence across the alley, in the narrow little joint run by Big Jeff Bess and his wife Hattie Louise — also known as "Tootsie."

Big Jeff had already had quite the hillbilly music career, traveling with tent shows and performing several sponsored radio slots each morning on WLAC. Tootsie, too, came to play a comic role in the show. When radio work dried up, the couple turned to running nightclubs. Big Jeff's Country Club on Franklin Road and an early Tootsie's location on Clarksville Highway preceded the Orchid Lounge, which had been known as Mom's under the previous owner.

Steve Bess — son of Big Jeff and stepson of Tootsie — guesses that part of the startup capital came from the second Elia Kazan film his dad acted in, the TVA-themed Wild River. Contrary to legend, he says, orchid was by no means his stepmom's favorite color. It only graced the exterior of her bar — which she kept running on her own after her marriage broke up — because the painter decided to mix various shades of leftover paint he had on hand.

Since Tootsie and Big Jeff already knew plenty of folks in the business from their performing and bartending, and their then-teenage son Steve was playing drums in Ray Price's band, it took no time at all for musicians to start showing up at the Orchid Lounge. "A lot of that got started by Ray's band, mainly Jimmy Day, the steel player, and myself," Steve Bess says. "We would get a few other musicians and she would let us jam in the back room."

Mel Tillis, the countrypolitan singer, songwriter and humorist whose career spans six decades — he still plays 100 dates a year and just released his first comedy album, You Ain't Gonna Believe This ... — vividly recalls the goings-on.

"It'd be four or five steel players, Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day and Lloyd Green, all of them was up there pickin' at one time," Tillis says, chuckling heartily. "It was something else. And they'd want to play jazz. It'd be all that damn bebop stuff. That's how musicians are."

The clientele blossomed from there: "It was musicians first, and then songwriters next," Bess says, "because they knew that a few artists would be down."

That some of the Opry performers used to duck out the Ryman's backstage door between shows, slip across the alley and have a few beers in Tootsie's industry-only back room would've been enough to earn the bar a place in country music lore. Beer was, quite literally, the only option, as it wasn't yet legal to sell liquor by the drink in Nashville. But it would get the job done.

"That second Opry show, there were some beer drunks on it," jokes Bobby Bare, a Tootsie's regular who went on to his own stellar country singing and songwriting career.

But catering to the likes of Faron Young, Webb Pierce and Patsy Cline was only part of the story. The Orchid Lounge made the biggest difference to a group who weren't stars, at least not yet — the songwriters. When Bare got into the music business in the late 1950s, they received little attention.

"People would like the song," says Bare, who's shown a discerning ear for country and folk material from others' pens, "but they had no idea who wrote it."

Despite the present-day preponderance of professional songwriters — not to mention bartenders and baristas with songwriting aspirations — there were precious few trying to make it here in those days. By Tillis' count, when he moved to Nashville in 1957, "there was only about eight or nine writers that were of any importance." Their numbers hadn't swelled much by the mid-'60s, when Tootsie's was bustling.

"If they had dropped a bomb on Tootsie's at that time," Bobby Bare says wryly, "the music industry would've gone hungry for songs for a while."

Some writers, such as Tillis and the brilliant, motor-mouthed Roger Miller, had gotten to town early enough to be regulars at one of Big Jeff and Tootsie's pre-Orchid Lounge establishments. Others, like Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran and Bare — who'd become friends when they were all living in L.A. — made their way to Nashville by the midpoint of the '60s, joined by the likes of Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury.

Half of them — Howard, Cochran, Miller and Newbury — are gone now. At the time, though, gathering at a laid-back watering hole like Tootsie's helped take the edge off the lone-ranger feeling, the result of trying to carve out a career for which there wasn't much of a model, or much respect.

"They're kind of inventing it as they go — the guitar pull, all these things that we think of now as part of the culture of Nashville songwriting," says Robert K. Oermann, the country music historian and critic who moved to town in 1978. "That was when and where they invented it. It was all flying by the seat of your pants.

"When you're working in an area that is spat upon by the larger culture and the city you're living in, you're going to cling together and you're going to try and show each other what true and beautiful things can be written in the country idiom. Because only you and your peers are going to appreciate it."

The writer with nerve might be rewarded at the Orchid Lounge. One night, Miller cornered a pinball-playing Buddy Killen, who was running the fledgling Tree Publishing, and got himself a meeting. Another who made out like a bandit was Willie Nelson. Letting Tootsie know he was a musician and brand new in town, Nelson was allowed into the back room where Steve Bess, Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons were jamming. Before all was said and done, they'd discovered he could fill in plenty capably on bass, heard a few of his songs, and promised to put in a good word for him with Ray Price.

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