ARTICLE: TOOTSIES 50th Anniversary

After 50 years of fostering and honing the chops of singers and songwriters in Nashville, Tootsies finally got the celebration it deserves. Revered as a breeding ground for Nashville’s music machine, the venerable honky tonk on Lower Broadway simply teems with character and legend. And all of those who gathered to celebrate at the Ryman had a story.

Terri Clark played her first gig at Tootsies during Lower Broad’s rougher days. She used to tie a shoestring to her guitar case, so no one would snatch it on her way to a show. One of the most memorable experiences was when a man had a heart attack and dropped dead in the middle of her set.

Country music in Tootsies is just that real. Randy Houser stumbled through Tootsies’ purple doors during his first week in town. He idled up to the bar next to a burly man in a cowboy hat. The man asked where he was from and offered to buy him a beer. Ten years later, Toby Keith signed Houser to his record label. Talk about full circle.

One time, Mark Chesnutt was playing the Opry at the Ryman and—just like Hank Williams and many others before him—Chesnutt popped into Tootsies in between sets for a few cold ones. The next day, news had spread—even in the media—that Chesnutt got in a fight in the alley out back. The story had absolutely no merit. “I thought that was the funniest thing,” Chesnutt said. “Look at me, man. I can’t whoop nobody.”

Others were a little blunter about their Tootsies habits. “I think my liver died at Tootsies,” former Trick Pony member Ira Dean said. “I remember going in there, but I don’t remember leaving.”

The Grascals’ Terry Eldredge had similar experiences. “I never get thrown out, but I got rolled out a few times,” Eldredge said.

Joking aside, all the artists that gathered at the Ryman were there to pay their respects through song and entertainment. The stage was set up “Opry-Style” with a purple front-door backdrop and artists performed one-by-one in tribute to the place they got their starts. For the most part, classic country was undoubtedly present as several performers harkened images of some of Tootsies’ early patrons. “King of the Road” was sung by Dean Miller (Roger’s son), while Joanna Smith—Columbia Nashville’s latest signing—delivered a powerful performance of “Stand By Your Man.” Fittingly enough, Smith was discovered at Tootsies after playing there regularly for four years. “You have people from all walks of life in Tootsies—not to mention all four corners of the world,” Smith said. “You learn how to be a universal entertainer and I think that is something that’s going to be completely invaluable to me for the rest of my career.”

Clark stuck with the classic theme as she performed solo acoustic versions of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and even “Folsom Prison Blues.” She, too, gained valuable support from Tootsies.
“I remember people coming up to me and telling me I could make it,” Clark said. “Those people kept me going.” Well, if she wasn’t sure if she made it, all doubt was removed when she got the privilege of introducing songwriting legend Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson—who once allegedly resided with Willie Nelson in the back of Tootsies—eased into a can’t-miss medley of “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” and “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” Perhaps the seed to one of those classics was planted while contemplating life on a dusty mattress within the walls of the Orchid Lounge.

Other seasoned entertainers like Mel Tillis and Little Jimmy Dickens fondly remembered Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess—the lady who ran the bar back when it was known as Mom’s. “None of us in the history of country music could forget the nice times and joyful times at Tootsies,” Dickens said. Tootsies also helped shape the careers of current critic darlings. Towards the end of the show, Houser and buddy Jamey Johnson teamed up for Hank Jr.’s “Dinosaur.” Johnson—who wasn’t featured on the bill—closed out with his hit “In Color.”

The tradition lives on. The breadth of performers with their similar and intertwining stories, illustrates Tootsies’ cultural impact on Music City. “(Tootsies) definitely has a page in country music history,” current Tootsies performer John Stone said. “Just to know that I have a small paragraph on that page means a lot.” Every success story has to have a beginning. And for the select few that have made it in Nashville over the last 50 years, that starting point has been Tootsies. “This celebration has been long past due,” Dickens said.

(REPRINTED: Pierce Greenberg

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