Tootsie’s 50th Anniversary: Celebrating a Page in Country Music History

Pierce Greenberg | November 8th, 2010

Tootsie's 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.

Tootsie's 50th AnniversaryFor 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.

  1. J.R. Journey
    November 8, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I had no idea this was even happening. Sounds like I missed a great show, and a chance to honor one of country music’s best traditions: getting lit before the show.

    Here’s to another 50 years in that little old purple building that always seems packed to the breaking point every time I try to visit.

  2. Leon
    November 8, 2010 at 10:11 am

    I have passed through Nashville three or four times and went there on purpose once last spring.
    Tootsie’s is the only bar I got to.
    Seems like it was the right choice.

  3. Jon
    November 8, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Yeah, the history is great, etc., but I have to say, working at Tootsie’s – or, really, any of those Lower Broadway places – always sounds like it’s going to feel better than it actually does.

  4. Sam G.
    November 8, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Very cool recap, Pierce, you lucky so-and-so. Out of morbid curiosity, what did Colt Ford sing? Er, rap?

  5. Pierce
    November 8, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Sam,

    Colt “sang” “Chicken + Biscuits.” Eh.

  6. M.C.
    November 8, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Nice piece. You might want to rethink the Hank reference though. It would have been hard for Hank Williams to visit a 50-year-old bar when he died nearly 58 years ago.

  7. Barry Mazor
    November 8, 2010 at 10:58 am

    It was already a bar before it was “Tootsie’s”..which is why there are related stories that are more than 50…

  8. Noeller
    November 8, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Lemme tell ya, our little Canadian girl from Medicine Hat was VERY stoked to have been a part of that show. Tootsie’s was one of the single biggest reasons she became a star both north and south of the border.

  9. Rick
    November 8, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Speaking of Canadian artists, let’s not forget that Crystal Shawanda also got her start in Nashville at Tootsie’s even though Top 40 AirHead Country Radio quickly forgot about her. Is Crystal one of the most recent Tootsie’s regulars to get a major label record deal (even if it didn’t pan out) apart from Joanna Smith? I don’t expect that to be very common any more since Tootsie’s patrons want better than pop-rock crapola…

    Tootsie’s actually started their own record label to feature John Stone, and as Elizabeth Cook is known to say, has likely earned “tens of dollars” for his effort! (lol)

    Sounds like a great concert! This is exactly the kind of show GAC should be recording for broadcast! Something this special shouldn’t be a one shot deal that disappears into the ether. Sure would be a lot more interesting than the CMA Awards pop-culture schlockfest. Oh well…

  10. Pierce
    November 8, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    Rick,

    The concert was recorded by a professional camera crew. They never mentioned what it was being recorded for, though. Strange.

    Also, not sure how I feel about the Tootsies patrons not going for the pop-rock-country. The finale of the show was four different current Tootsies performers singing Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.” *cringe*

  11. Charles Murphy
    November 8, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    Seems now, instead of Tootsie’s being run by people who actually care about the singers, players and patrons that come into their bar, like the late “Tootsie” Bess actually did…It is run by those who could care only about strong arming others to make a profit. Please notice how uncomfortable the owner becomes when asked questions about his alleged mafia connections…You can only put perfume on a pig for so long.

    http://www.newschannel5.com/Global/story.asp?S=13441109

    http://www.newschannel5.com/Global/story.asp?S=13448856

  12. idlewildsouth
    November 9, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Yea, I don’t spend a lot of time on Broadway, but most of what can be heard in a lot of those bars is exactly what can be heard on the radio. I mean, there’s obvious exceptions to that (Roberts, especially) but Broadway’s hardly anywhere you go in town to really have your mind blown revolutionary music, or performances, for that matter.

  13. Noeller
    November 9, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Rick — it’s a shame that America is missing out on Shawanda, as I think she has one of the most powerful vocals of any Canadian female in CanCoun history. Her debut album did fairly well, and the sophomore is on the way, led by a pretty solid single called “Beautiful Day”. She’s a dandy!

  14. Jenna Vercher
    November 9, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Love this article!

  15. bob
    November 11, 2010 at 8:36 am

    I’ve been going to Nashville for over 25 years,Tootsies was the best place to go,with Steve as owner it is more of a rock n roll joint,if you want to hear what Nashville is supposed to be about go to Roberts down the street,WAY BETTER MUSIC,and friendlier people.

  16. David Spradlin
    November 18, 2010 at 9:38 am

    First time I was at Tooties, with my wife Linda, Joe Nichols and our son Brian Spradlin took us. They had never sung up on the stage so I ask if they could. This was before Joe was signed. Of course they were asked back anytime they wanted to sing…a little bit of history….

  17. Jon
    November 18, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Brian’s a dandy!

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