By Michael Willard
It was after midnight in Nashville town when I strolled down 4th Avenue to Broadway. Curiosity and a gentle rain pulled me into Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where a guy in a big black hat played to a crowd of one, Tootsie.
It was an old Hank Williams tune that was never released by Hank, and I can understand why. It wasn’t his best, maybe his worst. His boy, Junior, did record it.
There’s a tear in my beer
’Cause I’m crying for you, dear
You are on my lonely mind.”
Tootsie’s seemed a rather lonely place mid-week, except of course for Tootsie Bess with her plain dress and modest bee-hive hair-do at the end of the long bar.
She was perched on a stool reading a newspaper, the Nashville Banner. She wasn’t paying much attention to the singer in the cowboy hat as he packed up to leave. She had seen real stars come through her saloon.
The walls were covered floor to ceiling with signed album covers, yellowing news stories and all sorts of notes paying homage to the bar and to the lady who was its queen.
One day, my story about Tootsie — which was sent around the world — would go on that hallowed wall, though at the time I had no premonition or even wish. I just wanted a cold, long-neck beer after a night shift of writing hum-drum stories.
I had been inclined earlier to head home. I had filed my last UPI radio report at 12:30. It had also been a slow night at the bureau, and I was restless, not at all tired.
Tootsie’s was an afterthought a few blocks away. It was the summer of ’72, as I recall.
So began my fascinating couple of years writing a country music column for the wire service, interviewing folks like Dolly Parton who, at the time, was a year younger than I and still teamed with Porter Waggoner.
I was smitten by her vanilla ice cream beauty, and that she was so country-girl nice she reminded me of my cousins in rural North Mississippi. I could almost smell fried okra and collard greens in her perfume.
Tootsie motioned me to join her at the bar, after all I was her only customer. I knew a little about her, having read “The Nashville Sound” by Paul Hemphill. I knew she kept a wicked hat pin to threaten rowdy patrons.
She walked me over to a booth in the corner.
“It was right here that Roger Miller wrote ‘Dang Me,’ and she finished the line with a lilt, “Gotta get a rope and hang me.” She had eye-opening vignettes of many Grand Ole Opry stars, with nary a word of gossip.
Next door to Tootsie’s was the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry for many years, and her back door opened up to an alley next to what has often been called “the Mother Church of Country Music”.
Other than Miller, some of Tootsie’s early customers were Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings to name a few. Supposedly, Nelson received his first songwriting gig in the Tootsie’s.
In a lengthy career that has taken me around the world, I have made it back to Nashville occasionally, primarily to shoot commercials with friend and former Bob Hope USO stage manager, John Sprague.
Each time I would go to Tootsie’s, have a beer or three, and search the wall for the story I had written about the famous lady and bar many years earlier. I usually found it, though it always took a while.
However, the article was no longer there. Neither was Tootsie who died in 1978. Tootsie’s fell on hard times in 1974 when the Opry moved out to the Opryland Hotel complex and theme park on the edge of the city,
By that time, I had another career as press secretary to the US Senate Leader Robert Byrd. However, there was no escaping Nashville. Byrd was a country fiddler and was asked to perform at the new Opry.
I joke that I was a roadie for the Democratic Leader of the US Senate, which wasn’t far off. I enjoyed my lowly status to no end.
Today, I hear Tootsie’s has been reborn, and its a happening place many nights. But I no longer have a desire to go there. Once you experience a rhinestone, you don’t get excited about a plain old rock, even a colorful one.