Willie Nelson at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge

Willie Nelson and Bobbie Bare hang out at their old hang-out — Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.  They are some of the celebrities interviewed for a TV documentary to air locally June 11.  Nelson says late owner Hattie (Tootsie) Bess “probably ran a bar tab for every down-and-out songwriter in town.”

The Tennesseen
May 8, 1995

Some Things Never Change
by Tom Wood and Mark Ippolito

When Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson went strolling down memory lane one day last December, they found the World Famous Tootsie’s Orchid lounge on Lower Broadway just the way they left it.

Frozen in time, old photographs of high-profile country music stars still cover the walls of Tootsie’s along with the yellowed picture of lesser-known entertainers.  Everywhere — on everything — there are autographs of singers, pickers and tourists from around the world.  The beer is cold, the music is loud and the place reeks of stale cigarette smoke.

Yep,some things never change.

The country music legends returned to their roots to film a syndicated TV special, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge:  Where the Music Began, which will air June 11. 

“Tootsies was always a kind of magic place,” said Nelson, who hosted the special.  “It’s like a shrine to country music.”

“Tootsie kept us going.  She probably ran a bar tab for every down-and-out songwriter in town,” Nelson said about Hattie (Tootsie) Bess.  One thing had changed for Kristofferson’s brief visit — “It was like the Wild West sometimes,”  he said, recalling the bar’s rowdier days.  But on this day, Kristofferson was soaking in the atmosphere and recalling a special time in history.

"For me, rather than any kind of violent place, it was a place where people who were on fire with ideas of songs and stuff would run into each other and bounce them off each other.  That’s what matter to me," said Kristofferson, who penned Me and Bobby McGee before embarking on an acting career.

“It was a great place to hang out and find your peers.  You know, probably like the cafes over on the Left Bank in Paris, where all the writers would hang out. 

“It’s like having a home for these homeless souls who never go home themselves.  We used to spend our every waking moment trying to pitch our songs or something.”

Also on hand were Bobby Bare, Hank Cochran, Jimmy Dean and other country music personalities, reminiscing about the days when aspiring songwriters and singers spent long hours at Tootsie’s.  Before they were stars, these up-and-cominers would pitch songs to the Grand Ole Opry stars who stopped in for a beer between Opry sets at the Ryman.

“I met Jim Reeves sitting in a booth right here,” Bare siad.  “We became friends. I met Faron Young at a table right here.  He came in and knocked my hat off.”

Although the Ryman and Tootsie’s were jut an alley apart, beteran singer/songwriter Tom T. Hall ntoed the wider gulf that exited between the two muic venues.

"I got my start at Tootsie’s Lounge.  But it was many miles between there and here"; Hall said as he stood on the renovated Ryman stage in a recent tribte to songwriters.

But Tootsie’s wasn’t for everybody.  "I never hung out at Tootsie’s, not one time in my life.  They think I have because most everybody else did.  But I never did, said Johnny Cash.

In many ways the venues were the yin and yang of country music’s roots — the bright spotlights of the Grand Ole Opry in stark contrast to the harsher, more surreal surroundings of Tootsie’s.

Nelson, whose hits include Crazy and On the Road Again, got his first songwriting job while performing at Tootsie’s.  According to old news articles, he cried on the shoulder of the late proprietor, Hattie (Tootsie) Bess, and once was so depressed he walked out the door to lie in the middle of Broadway, begging someone to run over him.

“And that never happened…. at least I don’t think it die,” Nelson laughlingly recalled on the TV special Where The Music Began.

A fond memory for Kristofferson was how Tootsie loved to chase unruly customers from the premises with a long hat pin she kept in her dress.

“She’d go around here at quittin’ time with that hat pin and she’d stick it in your butt if you ever were tardy getting out. I don’t think she ever did me.  I saw her do it to Charley Pride, though,” he said.

When asked wehtehr it was true that he used to sleep at the bar when he had no place to stay.  Kristofferon shrugged, “I have no idea wehre I was sleeping half the time in those days.”

Today, Tootsie’s  is pretty much a relic of a bygone era but still a tourist favorite to see wehre — as the special is so aptly named — the music began.

Tootsie’s opens at 10:00 a.m., goes non stop through the afternoon, picks up steam into the night and on until the wee hours of 2 a.m.  Six aspiring singers play continuously throughout the day.  And occasionaly, a surprise artist will pop in just like in the old days.

Mandy Barnett, who portrays Patxy Cline in the musical Alaways…Patsy Cline, which plays all summer at the Ryman Auditorium, said, “I just really like Tootsie’s and the atmosphere.  I sing in church, but I sing in honky-tonks, too.  I get up there and sing all the time.

“It’s kind of like the Ryamn — it has a lot of history — and everybody there is really nice.”

Adds red-hot singer Tracy Bird:  “Tootsie’s — now I’ve been there and drank a cold oen before.  It’s kind of a step back in time there.  It’s just really interesting to go into that place and check everything out.”

Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge still holds a unique and special place in the lroe of country music and the hearsts of fans. 

"Tootsie’s is part of the origin of country mjusic.  It ranks right up there with the Grand Ole Opry and the ryman Uditorium as places people must see," said Ruble Sanderson, the current co-owner of Tootsie’s with Steve Smith.

“You could spend all day in here looking at the walls,” Smit said, “and when you come back tomrorow, you’ll find something you missed.”

No trip to Nashville would be complete without a visit to the world-famous dive, and it draws fans by the busload.

“I’m kind of awed by how tourists are awed,” Sanderson said.  “The tour buses start coming in the morning, and people want ot et there potos taken in front of all the picture.  We get a lot of international tourists form Canada, Japan, Australia and Western Europe.

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