What Made Tootsie's World Famous

By Karen Le Van

I've heard it said, "You can't go back." But Del Gray and The Orchid Loungers are going to give it one more try at a reunion of all the old pickers at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, June 5 and 6, during "Summer Lights," Nashville's weekend celebrating music, art and dance.

There was a chapter in Nashville's history when the music experience was quite different. From the '50s through the early '70s, Nashville had a strip that was available to the music tourist in town on the weekend. The now infamous Lower Broad at one time was a place where country music fans, upcoming artists and stars, as well as amateur musicians, could come to be a part of "the music of Nashville."

At that time Lower Broad was made up of The Wheel, Ernest Tubb's Record Shop, Roy Wiggins Music Shop, Music City Lounge, Merchants Hotel, with two bars for entertainment and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.

After the Opry on a Saturday night the stars and fans would flock to these lounges and play until the wee hours of the morning. It was normal to see little Lorrie Morgan joining her daddy, George, on the live radio show at Little Roy Wiggins Music Shop. A young Irlene Mandrell was the drummer at The Wheel and Wendy Holcomb performed at Ernest Tubb's Record Shop.

Tootsie's, being the famous 31 steps away from the back door of the Ryman Auditorium, had stars coming and going all night long. Willie Nelson lived upstairs in one of Tootsie's rooms. The stories are too numerous to mention, but it has been said that at Tootsie's, Willie sold Faron Young "Hello Walls" for $500 and that Hank Sr. would sit in the back bar between acts at the Opry and drink, since no liquor was sold at the Ryman.

Other stars such as Kris Kristofferson, Faron Young, Dolly Parton, Roger Miller, Roy Acuff and Emest Tubb have all been part of the great heritage of Tootsie's and the many other clubs on Lower Broad.

The reunion of Del Gray and the Orchid Lounge Band June 5 and 6 could be a new beginning for this group and could also bring about many changes in what Lower Broad is now and what it will be tomorrow.

Opryland and Gaylord Enterprises announced several months ago that they were bringing music back into the Ryman; more recently they announced the acquisition of several buildings on Second Ave. They plan to turn downtown Nashville back into the music mecca it once was. Dance clubs, showcase theaters, restaurants and more will be a part of this regenerated city. Opryland will connect the park and Second Ave. by a shuttle boat to ferry guests up and down the Cumberland River.

Lower Broad could become another Beale Street or Bourbon Street, where music is the main theme. After all, this is "Music City," isn't it?

Emmylou Harris stated recently that she felt that "we have taken the living room out of our music." Well, I think Nashville is about to give it back and none too soon. Branson, Missouri, has been attracting the tourists with all of their theaters and stars.

Well, look out, Branson, "Music City," where it all starts with a song, is about to start singing again.

(This is one of the occasional articles written by Louisville songwriter Karen Le Van, who moved to Nashville last year to pursue a career in the music business. Additional information was supplied by Jim Lawrence.)