What does it take to become a part of country music history? Normally it takes incredible talent, drive, determination, a dedication to the road, a certain “something” that sets you apart, and the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.
Then again, sometimes all it takes is a little dumb luck and a quick pen.
For those who know Nashville and country music, all you have to say is Tootsie’s. For the rest of the world, it is known as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. One-time hangout of every star that had a hand in putting the Grand Old Opry in the center of the country music universe. And while some may call her a fading icon, country music stalwarts and a handful of Nashville’s finest who take time to remember the Opry’s heyday, still stop in for a quick drink and a memory.
Tootsie’s sits right behind the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. Ninety-four steps from one historic icon to another. It is a must on any country music fan’s itinerary. Shoot, where else can you go and have a local show you the spot where Hank Williams got drunk and passed out while trying to get across the alley to the Ryman to play? Where else can you go out front and see where Willie Nelson got so depressed about his career, he lay down in the street in hopes of getting run over. Ask a local and they might even show you where Roger Miller became a drummer.
As the story goes Faron Young approached a young Roger Miller one night at Tootsie’s and asked, “What’s the matter with you boy?” Roger said he didn’t have a job. Faron Young said, “Are you a drummer?” Roger said he wasn’t, but asked when the country star needed one. “Monday,” was the reply.
“OK,” Roger said, “Monday, I’m a drummer.” He worked as the drummer in Faron Young’s band for a year.
In the early days of country music the stars waiting to take the stage at the Opry would tune up and wait in the famous “back room” while patrons had a drink or two in the main lounge area. Stars like Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Hank Cochran, Mel Tillis, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings, Harlan Howard, George Jones, and Patsy Cline were regulars. And it wasn’t unusual for Tootsie herself to slip a $5 or $10 in a singer or songwriter’s pocket when they were down on their luck. But that’s just the beginning of the Nashville landmark’s story.
The building itself has a tale to tell.
The walls, tables, posts, and any other surface within reach are a permanent museum in themselves, because every surface is covered with autographs.
Thousands of autographs: Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Tex Ritter, Minnie Pearl, the list is not endless, but it is extensive enough to cover everything in sight. It is a monument to the bedrock of pure country.
About 25 years ago, I was in Nashville for a conference. The last night I was in town, I met one of the folks who was going to sing at Tootsie’s that night. She was paying her dues. Working hard to make a name for herself. Backup work, session work, demos, showcases, singing in all the clubs, and hoping for the right break. That, and being a waitress.
That night her guitar player (that’s accompanist for you city folks) didn’t show up, so I filled in. Then between her sets I played a few impromptu sets of my own. Although I had been playing nightclubs for a few years, there was a feeling in that room I had never felt before and haven’t felt since. I have played bigger places and played for more people, but I’ve never captured that particular kind of lightning in a bottle since.
And I may never capture it again.
I played licks that night I’d never been able to pull off before, and hit a few notes I wouldn’t even attempt today. But that was then, and this is now (catchy, ain’t it). I’ve been back a few times since that night. Never to play. Just to listen.
And to look for something
It’s right there in a secluded corner, under the corner of a poster, under one of Jerry Reed’s autographs. A less well-known signature. The signature of someone who stumbled into a dream.