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

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


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 8×11’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.

Nelson wound up both writing for Price’s publishing company and, for a time, playing in his band, the Cherokee Cowboys. Another day Nelson pitched “Hello Walls” to Faron Young; Young ultimately took the song to the top of the country charts.

Professional break or no, what could always be counted on at Tootsie’s was the motherly generosity of Tootsie herself. She ran (and ran and ran) tabs for those who weren’t having much luck getting cuts or gigs. She made sure they got fed too. Almost as much fried chicken, biscuits and chili went on those tabs as beer.

“She loved songwriters more than she loved the stars,” Bare says. “The stars got the huge egos and they’d throw it around a lot. She had a soft spot for songwriters. And musicians. There’s no telling how much money she loaned Roger [Miller] and people, you know, who would come in broke. And feed them.”

Tootsie’s stepson believes that soft spot came from listening to Big Jeff’s stories about the leanest of lean times he and his peers endured in order to make it in music.

“I mean, if you can imagine, it was rough back then, and for you to take a gamble and leave wherever — Hoboken or Oklahoma or Texas — and take the chance to come to Nashville …” the younger Bess says, trailing off almost reverently. “And most of these guys, I mean, those old stories were true. They would get to Nashville with two or three dollars in their pocket.

“That took a lot of guts, you know. I would never have done it, I’ll tell you. And I don’t know how they were brave enough to do that. But Tootsie knew that.”

In that less scripted, less settled era, anything could happen. Tillis remembers the day Roger Miller called the Orchid Lounge looking for him and Willie Nelson, to see if they’d like to hop a plane with him right then and head down to the Florida governor’s ball where he was to perform.

“Yeah, we had on jeans,” Tillis says. “In those days, if you went to a governor’s ball you dressed up, you know. He said, ‘I’ll put ya in the light booth.’ ” In the light booth is exactly where they ended up at the ball, in jeans.

While Tootsie’s patrons might’ve been off the wall at times, she never let them get entirely out of hand. She famously enforced order with a jeweled hat pin given to her by Charley Pride. If anybody got too mean or stayed too far past midnight closing time, she’d jab them in the butt.

“Tootsie, if you caused too much commotion, she’d kick your ass out,” says Bare. “I mean, she’d punch you with her pin or something. And she kicked one guy out, he was drunk and bothering everybody. She threw him out the door. Anyway, she went back behind the bar and the guy came back and stuck his head in the door and said, ‘Throw me out! The hell, I’ve been throwed into better places than this!’ And then he ran.”

Wild and woolly exploits alone don’t win a songwriter an audience, much less a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Mel Tillis and Tom T. Hall are all in there (and one hopes Bobby Bare will be invited to join them). Their songs had everything to do with the accolades they gained. What they were writing stood out from what’d been done before. It could also be argued that what they were writing stands out from a whole lot of what’s been done since.

Hall was struck in the early ’60s by the distinctive style of one Nashville songwriter who’d beaten him to town. He says, “I was in Indiana working in a club, quote unquote, and I heard a record on the jukebox and I turned to one of the guys in the band and I said, ‘Hey, there’s a new songwriter in Nashville.’ I go over to the jukebox and I’m watching the record going around and around, and I read, ‘Willie Nelson.’ He had written ‘Hello Walls’ for Faron Young.”

Eventually Hall’s own clear-eyed, literary story-songs — like “A Week in a Country Jail” and “Homecoming” — started eliciting a similar response around town. “Somebody would say, ‘That sounds like a Tom T. Hall song,’ ” he says. “I heard that and I thought, ‘Hey, well, there must be such a thing as a Tom T. Hall song, because people are comparing these other things.’

“That was a defining moment for me, kind of an epiphany of some sort. I said, ‘Ah. Now I have an identity, a style. I’m not just wandering around making up tunes. There is such a thing as a Tom T. Hall song.’ That was my greatest compliment.”

Kristofferson, too, heard something fresh out of Nashville that caught his ear. In his case it was Miller’s “Dang Me,” a jaunty self-appraisal of a poor excuse for a husband, punctuated by Miller’s irresistibly goofy scatting licks. Said Kristofferson during the 1995 Willie Nelson-hosted special Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge: Where the Music Began, “The first time I ever heard Roger on the radio, I was in the Army in Germany. And after one line, I knew there was another one of them out there, one of them loonies.”

Once Kristofferson was out of the Army, trying to get somewhere as a songwriter in Nashville — a habit he supported with several varieties of low-paid gruntwork — he made a powerful impression himself on Fred Foster, founder of Combine Music and Monument Records, when he showed up to audition for a $50-a-week publishing deal.

First there was the visual. “It’s a good thing,” Foster says, “that I never had preconceived notions what people should look like, because Kris did not look like what a lot of folks would think a good songwriter looked like. He was pretty scruffy and he had on a pair of old cowboy boots, and the sole had come loose on one of them and it was flopping every time he walked. I had a couple of these big wide rubber bands on my desk, so I just went over and said, ‘Let me fix that for you,’ and I wrapped them around it.”

Asked by Foster to play four songs, Kristofferson offered up “To Beat the Devil,” “Duvalier’s Dream,” “Jody and the Kid” and “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” three of them works of depth and eloquence and the fourth clever and hip. Thus commenced a rather well-known exchange.

“I said, ‘OK I’ll approve your deal, on one condition,’ ” Foster recalls. “He said, ‘What’s that?’ ‘That you agree to record for Monument.’ ‘Hell, man I can’t sing,’ he said. ‘I sound like an effing frog.’ “

One doubts Kristofferson opted for such a softened curse, but still. The technical shortcomings of his rough-throated singing didn’t worry Foster in the least. “The feeling just rolled out of him like Niagara Falls,” Foster says. “I couldn’t imagine anybody not thinking he was gonna be a success. But most people didn’t. I didn’t care.”

Then again, Foster was a serial risk-taker who made inspired decisions about who he wanted to work with; a Roy Orbison who hadn’t yet reached his full potential, an unproven Dolly Parton, and a good many more utterly distinctive singers and songwriters, like Kristofferson and Tony Joe White. (Fittingly, the Nashville Songwriters Association International recently gave Foster the Maggie Cavender Award of Service.) He even cut some Monument sides on Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran — including a Cochran rendition of a Howard number called “Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge” — even though neither songwriter was known as a singer.

Those sorts of distinctions were made often in country music. That’s not to say there were no performing songwriters whatsoever — Jimmie Rodgers was one, and so was Hiram King Williams. But mostly songwriters stuck to writing songs and singers to singing them. That began to change, during the ’60s and early ’70s, when many of the Tootsie’s habitués who’d been supplying others with songs started finding success as recording artists.

Hall, for one, hadn’t planned on making albums. Jerry Kennedy, a producer at Mercury, more or less scared him into it by predicting his autobiographical story-songs songs would meet the fate a songwriter fears most: “He said, ‘If you don’t record these songs, nobody’s ever gonna hear them.’ Well, that was kind of an alarming wake-up call. I said, ‘OK, I’ll do an album.’ ” He made several, in fact, many of them hits, and people did hear the songs, done his way.

Around the same time that singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan were amassing socially conscious collegiate fans in the urban folk revival, country music got its own crop of singer-songwriters, who — it should be pointed out — were well aware of what folkies like Dylan were up to. Just ask Tillis, who’d gone from penning honky-tonk and pop hits to a socially conscious, lyric-driven song like “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town)” in the course of a decade.

“Yeah, well, you know, Kris Kristofferson and I were big buddies and we were trying to write some songs like Bob Dylan,” he offers by way of explanation. “We loved Bob Dylan, and still do.” Tillis adds that he was going for a Dylan-esque waltz feel when he wrote “Mental Revenge” — though Waylon Jennings delivered the song with more rhythmic punch, and just this year Jamey Johnson recast it as ominous blues.

Bare was covering early Dylan songs only a year or two after Dylan recorded them, songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “It Ain’t Me Babe.” He recalls being summoned one night on tour by a security guard bearing a message: “There’s a hippie out there who wants to talk to you.” The hippie turned out to be Gordon Lightfoot, and Bare decided on the spot to record one of his songs too.

When Kristofferson started hitting the road in the early ’70s with his ragged-but-right band, he wasn’t playing to country fans so much as Dylan’s crowd. He drew movie stars like Dennis Hopper to his shows at L.A.’s Troubadour, hit it off with countercultural blueswoman Janis Joplin, and landed on the cover of the Life-like Look magazine.

If the makers, marketers and fans of more urbane pop had once pegged country music as simple and rustic, these Tootsie’s regulars were defying expectations and turning out the sorts of songs that people couldn’t help but take seriously. Hall and Kristofferson, in particular, had come to songwriting under the equal influence of literature and downhome music. Kristofferson was a Rhodes scholar; Hall studied writing in college and sharpened his skills churning out radio copy.

“I think somebody said that there was a time in Nashville,” Hall says, “when me and Kristofferson were the only two guys in town who could describe Dolly Parton without using our hands.” This recollection gives way to a chest-rumbling chuckle.

In addition to his command of adjectives, Hall naturally took up topics and perspectives that defied narrow-minded notions of what country music was and who country fans were. The honky-tonk blues and sentimental tunes that were popular in country at the time weren’t really his thing. “I wasn’t very good at that,” he says, “because I had been studying to be … the Great American Novelist.”

At first, following his instincts led to an uphill battle with his publisher. “I’d sing a song I’d written,” Hall says, “a story-song of some kind. They’d say, ‘You better get off that stuff and write some real songs. We’re paying you 50 dollars a week.’ “

All that changed with “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a story-song about a single mom who takes up for herself in the face of small-town hypocrisy. It became a huge country and pop hit for Jeannie C. Riley, and even spawned a movie.

“When I wrote the song and it hit to the extent it did and became a sort of cultural byword thing, that sort of astounded me,” says Hall, “because I tapped into something: We all have our vices and shortcomings. Social status doesn’t have anything to do with it, or money, or anything. That was really a wake-up call. And it was probably the novel I had intended to write. … ‘Harper Valley’ was probably where I was going with my writing in my head to say something that would connect universally.”

Kristofferson made his own forays into territory that had been more or less off limits in country music, including nonchalant references to sex (“Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “For the Good Times”) and drugs (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”).

“He opened up that door,” says Bare. “He made it OK to take it in the bedroom. ‘Come and lay down by my side, put your warm and tender body next to mine.’ … ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ everybody knows what that was. And [Johnny] Cash made it OK to say ‘stoned’ [when he cut the song]. It was just honesty. Kris was writing about his lifestyle.”

Over a beer (or five) at Tootsie’s, camaraderie gained in the songwriter scene. But that wasn’t the only environment where song ideas and creative energy were thrown around.

“So we’d hang out at Tootsie’s and we’d drink beer,” Hall says, “but Tootsie’s wasn’t the only place. There were some after-hours places, mostly people’s houses and things. You know, pickers traditionally stay up all night. So when they’d close the beer joints or Tootsie’s, we’d sort of call each other on the phone and they’d say, ‘Well, so-and-so’s cooking some chicken or making some barbecue,’ and we’d just all wind up there and have these famous guitar pullings.”

“Pull” — or “pulling” — is an apt term. There was an element of mutual stretching and challenge to the act of passing the guitar around and hearing what songwriting peers were coming up with. Says Tillis, “We’d hang around and we would try to impress the other writers, you know.”

Bare fell into the habit of instigating guitar pulls before he moved to town. “I’d come down here from the road, from California or whatever, and I’d bundle up a bunch of songs,” he says. “I’d have five or six that I’d written. And I’d get a room at the Andrew Jackson [Hotel] at the time. I remember distinctly getting a room with a big washtub, galvanized washtub full of ice and beer, and Roger and Willie and Harlan and a whole bunch would come up and we’d start passing the guitar around singing songs.

“By the time Willie and Roger and all of them sang their songs, I might wind up with one that I thought was brilliant enough to sing. And then it would be ‘See what you guys think of this.’ Because I was in the big leagues then.”

The idea of a gang of gifted outsiders is powerfully appealing, almost a classic tale of underdogs making good. But, as Hall points out in his patient, perceptive way, it’s also a tad idyllic.

“We all knew one another, right?” he begins. “But it might be romantic to say we were all big pals or we were the Rat Pack of the mid-’60s or whatever. We were competitors, you know. We sort of kept an eye on one another. Like prize fighters circling in a ring, metaphorically speaking.”

Given the shadows the Tootsie’s faithful still cast, and the lasting impact they’ve had — one need look no further than Jamey Johnson’s brooding country singer-songwriter opus The Guitar Song, which features Tillis and Kristofferson covers, a co-write with Bare and nods to Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran — it’s tempting to imagine that they’d aimed to leave such a mark all along. Of course, the narrative surrounding the songs, the writers and what was in the air in that time and place has grown with the benefit of hindsight and generations of journalism and scholarship.

“The first myth,” says Hall, “is that we came to Nashville to change it. That’s the first myth. The second myth is that we enjoyed it. We were just trying to stay alive. We were trying to find enough money to buy a beer or rent an apartment or put some gas in the car. We were professional songwriters and there weren’t very many of us. When we first got to Nashville they would not let a songwriter have a telephone. You had to make a deposit if you were a songwriter. You couldn’t just sign for a phone and they’d send you a bill. You had to pay in advance in case you skipped town.”

Still, hearing how Hall reacted to a song of Nelson’s — and Kristofferson to one of Miller’s, and so on — it seems they sensed they were doing something new, even if they gave no thought to how important it would be. It also seems that they fully expected, and expect, the changes in country music to continue, to not simply stop with their contributions.

And things are indeed different now. Songwriters aren’t the flight risks they once were; the most successful among them make very nice livings. Also, everybody knows this is Music City.

A lot of this came as a surprise, if not to the architects of the modern country music industry, then to the relatively small number of folks who were beating the streets, writing the songs and downing the beers at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge some 50 years ago.

“No one — I don’t care who — no one,” Steve Bess says, “could have ever guessed that that place would be as famous as it is today, had they been down there then.”

Special thanks to senior historian John Rumble at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Nashville Scene