NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A small alley is the only thing that separates the home of traditional country music, the Ryman Auditorium, from the home of country’s wilder side, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
It’s an alley that can be tough to cross if you’re an aspiring country artist playing Tootsie’s stage, but once you’re a country star, playing the big stage, it’s only a short distance back to the little honky-tonk where careers begin.
Nicole Rapisardi’s story is like a lot of the stories at Tootsie’s, where you can come in a nobody and leave a star.
Rapisardi got her break last year, when musician Scott Collier needed to feed his meter.
She recalled, “He said, ‘Young lady would you like to sing a song?’ and I said, ‘Yes sir, I would’ and he said, ‘Come on up here and play us one’ and I said, ‘No sir, I didn’t say I could play a song, I said I could sing a song.’ He said, ‘I want you to come up here and pretend you know how to play, I’ve gotta go pay my meter.'”
Rapisardi has been on this stage ever since, a true testament to how it works in Nashville.
Her story is only half way written, but like the stage she sings from, the path she is on is well worn.
Tootsie’s owner Steve Smith has seen a lot of singers travel the path to stardom. Some make it to the big time, but many more end up stranded along the way.
“A lot of people think just because you come to Tootsie’s and you do real well here that you get a record deal and you make it and you go on with life,” he told News 2. “It doesn’t necessarily happen and it’s sad, but it’s what makes the ones that do make it very special.”
Anyone who is anyone in country music history has left their mark on Tootsie’s.
“Anytime I run into any of the older entertainers, they’ve got a story I’ve never heard,” Smith continued. “You learn something new everyday here.”
Kris Kristofferson paid Smith a visit several years ago, while filming a documentary on his life.
“He introduced himself to me and started telling me how much this place meant to him and how he used to be here all the time and he was real close friends with Tootsie,” Smith recalled of the conversation.
“It was a place where you would always see songwriters and musicians and they all mingled with each other,” Kristofferson told News 2, “guys who were already stars and the rest of us who were trying to be.”
For many of country’s biggest names, Tootsie’s has been a stop on their road to stardom.
Terri Clark was discovered on Tootsie’s stage.
“I played the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the afternoon shift and I took the city bus downtown,” she recalled.
Others have everlasting memories.
“I have one great memory at Tootsie’s,” Vince Gill told News 2. “When my father was alive, we both loved an old Tom T. Hall song that had a line in it, ‘There all down at Tootsie’s eating chili’ and one of the goals of my dad was to go down to Tootsie’s and eat a bowl of chili and we got to do that. So yea, it has a pretty good spot in my heart.”
Hattie Louise Bess, aka Tootsie
Like most honky-tonks, Tootsie’s is a tough, gritty, rowdy kind of place.
Unlike most, Tootsie’s is painted lavender, or Orchid-colored, which just happens to be Tootsie’s favorite flower.
“Tootsie knew a bunch of painters that hung out here. I mean, not only did country music people hang out here and country artists, painters and construction people and everybody else hung out here,” Smith reminisced. “She talked these painters that had a bar tab with her – I don’t know how she ever made any money because everyone in town had a tab with her – She made a deal with them to paint the building and they said, ‘we’ll furnish the paint.’ They had a bunch of paint and they mixed all this paint together and came up with this crazy purple color and they come down here early one morning and painted the building. She pulled up and they say she said, ‘Oh my god, what have they done? They painted my building orchid!'”
Better known to the world as Tootsie, Hattie Louise Bess was the “queen of honky-tonks.”
“The only picture of Tootsie when I came was the picture behind the bar and that’s after she had gotten sick,” Smith said. “Somebody came down here and they had an autographed picture of Tootsie, and they gave it to me. We enlarged it and put it on the wall.”
Before Tootsie took over in 1960, Mom ran the honky-tonk. Mom was not like Tootsie.
Smith said while both were kind women, Mom was laid back while Tootsie was “rough around the edge” and “spoke her mind.”
To most of her patrons, like Kristofferson, Tootsie was like family.
“Tootsie herself was perfect,” he recalled, “sweet little old lady who just wouldn’t be pushed around by anybody but she was great.”
In the early days, Tootsie’s back door had the enviable location, just across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, then-home to the Grand Ole Opry.
Since the mother church of country music didn’t have a whole lot of space back stage, her little sister Tootsie’s filled the need.
A radio was used to call the next artist at Tootsie’s, and that was their cue to walk across the alley.
The history of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is laid out for all to see in the thousands photographs that hang on its walls.
“There [are] still photographs here that you don’t know what’s behind them,” Smith explained. “Over time the walls do deteriorate a little bit because there’s really nothing you can do with them.”
As the years rolled by, more and more pictures made their way onto the walls, and as long as Opry stars flowed across the alley from the Grand Ole Opry, drinks were flowing at Tootsie’s.
In 1974, the flow of country stars was cut off at its source when the Grand Ole Opry moved to a new location and the Ryman was boarded up.
The bar’s namesake, Tootsie Bess, died for years later.
All the while, Lower Broadway was turning into a place that most people wanted to stay away from. The streets were rough and there was a peep show down the street.
Smith recalled, “Whenever I came here, they had a 200-watt light bulb hanging in a downstairs room. That’s all the light in the house and they had homeless people hanging out up here on mattresses and stuff and catching water in 50 gallon garbage cans coming through the roof but the place was still open.”
While he saw Tootsie’s at its worst, Smith also saw something else.
“Tourists would periodically come in with butane lighters and [they’d strike the] lighter to see what was on the walls,” he recalled. “That’s when I really started looking at the walls. I said, ‘Man this thing is full of history here’ so I had a vision if we could ever get the place cleaned up and get the walls lit up so people could see them, that it could come back.”
Even though his wife thought he was crazy, it’s what he did.
As if spirits of country’s past, these pictures had watched over tootsies, waiting for brighter days.
“I don’t know why this happened,” he continued. “Right after we took this place, Gaylord decided to revamp the Ryman and started talking about doing shows over there again. I said, ‘Man that’s a bonus.’ The next thing you know Hard Rock makes an announcement they’re coming to town [and] then the arena. Things just started [falling into place and] that really helped keep this place moving along.”
Smith cleaned up Tootsie’s, but didn’t make it too clean. After all, that’s part of what makes Tootsie’s, Tootsie’s.
He said, “We have tourists all day long come through… They want to show everybody the experience, coming through the stinking alley, all the way through, and out the front.”
Through good times and bad times, tourists never stopped seeking out the little orchid-colored honky-tonk and Tootsie’s continues to mean good times for those who drift though its doors.
Tootsie’s is still the place to see the up and coming and the stars of today.
“Ninety percent of our customers are tourists,” Smith said. “When they go home, you know they talk about Hank, Jr, Kid Rock, Montgomery Gentry, Terri Clark, everybody they walk in and experience on this stage they talk about.”
One of the best things about Tootsie’s is you just never know when history will happen.
“He did about an hour and 20 minutes up on stage and sent Tootsie’s into an uproar. There was people on bars, there was people dancing in the streets, all Broadway. It was chaotic. Pamela was doing her thing with her body and putting it to the window.”
“The booth down in front is the VIP booth, you know, if you’re sitting in it, and somebody walks in, you gotta go. Kix comes in one night and I made a bunch of people get out of the booth and said, ‘Come on man sit in this booth.’ He said, ‘Man you don’t have to make these people get these people to move because of me, I’m not that kind of guy, I don’t want them to move.’ I said, ‘No, that’s the rules they’re moving.’ I said, ‘Don’t feel bad about it, if Hank, Jr. walks in you’re getting up.'”
“He started laughing,” Smith added. “I think he liked that a lot.”
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is a one-of-kind place and Smith walks the line between staying true to the past and keeping up with the times.
One way he has done that is to take the Tootsie’s experience off of Lower Broad.
“Delaware North approached us a few years ago and they wanted to put a Tootsie’s in the airport so we licensed them to do that,” he told News 2. “I didn’t know how it was going to do because Tootsie’s moving from Broadway, people said it was never going to work. Well Tootsie’s at the airport [has] done so well they opened two of them.’
Along with the airport locations, Tootsie’s is now on Center Hill Lake and even in Panama City, Florida.
“Some people thought it would hurt my business here but it’s helped my business here because so many people that went to Panama City, young kids, go to Panama City but still don’t know about Tootsie’s. Now they go there, they get the Tootsie’s experience. They’re dancing on the bar, they’re partying, they’re having a good time, and as soon as they’re coming through Nashville, [Tootsie’s] where they’re coming to.”
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge will celebrate its 50th anniversary this weekend at where else but its neighbor, the Ryman Auditorium.
Just like the old days, the show will be on Old Opry Stage but the most of the memorable part of the evening may happen across the alley.
“We’re going to rock on the wee hours of the morning, in here, in the street, we’re going to have it blocked off and Rippy’s across the street, the after-party is probably going to be more fun than the show,” Smith said.
Tickets are still available for Sunday’s event. Click here for details.
Read more about Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge online at Tootsies.net.