Tootsie helped keep struggling performers alive

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It was 47 years ago today that Nashville, Tenn., landmark Tootsie's Orchid Lounge opened.

Tootsie's is one of the legendary nightclubs in Nashville, Tenn. The club backs up to Ryman Auditorium, which is the winter home of the Grand Ole Opry.  Special
Tootsie's is one of the legendary nightclubs in Nashville, Tenn. The club backs up to Ryman Auditorium, which is the winter home of the Grand Ole Opry.

The building on Nashville's main drag had been a business called Mom's when Hattie Louise "Tootsie" Bess bought the place in 1960. She named it after the purple orchid paint that some anonymous worker decided to use on the outside.

What made Tootsie's a success is that it backs up to Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-74 and still used as the Opry's "winter home."

Because Opry artists at the Ryman had to make two appearances on early and late Saturday night shows, many would walk out a side door of the Ryman, cross an alley and walk in the back door of Tootsie's to have a drink or two between appearances.

Tootsie drinkers included Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Charley Pride, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings and a ton of struggling songwriters trying to pitch the stars some new songs. Among those struggling songwriters were Hank Cochran, Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.

The same year that Tootsie Bess opened her nightclub, Mr. Nelson moved to Nashville from Texas and began pitching his songs. Mr. Young soon had a hit with Mr. Nelson's song Hello Walls in 1961, and Cline had a hit with Mr. Nelson's classic ballad Crazy in 1962.

In those days, you could pitch a song directly to a country star without having to go through their personal manager, record producer, road manager, publisher, pastor, accountant and attorney.

There is a true story that Mr. Nelson, still fairly broke, on a visit at Tootsie's tried to sell the royalty rights of Hello Walls to Mr. Young for $500. Mr. Young, instead, loaned Mr. Nelson the money he needed and told him to keep the rights because it would be a hit.

When Hello Walls shot up the music charts to No. 1, Mr. Nelson headed for Tootsie's, saw Mr. Young, walked over to him and kissed him right on the mouth.

Mr. Nelson has continued to repay his gratitude to Tootsie's over the years by serving as the host of a DVD in 1995 called Tootsie's Orchid Lounge: Where the Music Began.

The lounge has been seen in several movies, including Coal Miner's Daughter and W.W. & The Dixie Dance Kings.

Steve Smith, the current owner of Tootsie's, in 2005 implemented "Midnight Madness" on Tuesday nights, which has attracted celebrities such as Kix Brooks, Hank Williams Jr., Montgomery Gentry, Clay Walker, John Corbett, Rob Schneider and even Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Tootsie Bess, the saloon owner who stuck unruly patrons with a hat pin, died of cancer Feb. 18, 1978, at the age of 61.

She had become a patron saint to nearly all the down-on-their-luck, would-be stars trying to make it in Music City U.S.A. She was said to have kept a cigar box full of IOUs from hungry pickers and writers whom she gave food and drinks.

Supposedly, several Opry performers would pay all the IOUs at the end of each year so Ms. Bess wouldn't lose the money.

She reportedly was buried in an orchid-colored gown and with an orchid placed in her orchid-colored casket.

Opry performer Connie Smith sang some of Ms. Bess' favorite hymns, but most likely did not sing Carl Smith's hit I Overlooked an Orchid While Searching for a Rose.

One thing for sure, though, is that no one in Nashville overlooked Hattie Louise "Tootsie" Bess.

LEARN MORE: You find out more about Tootsie's at

Don Rhodes has written about country music for 36 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at

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