If You Don’t Clean Your Tab in 1968, Your Credit Is No Damn Good in 1969.
—Notice Behind the Bar At Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Nashville, Tenn.
“Naw, I said Harper. HAR-per. Same as in ‘Harper Valley PTA.’ Scoopie Brucie Harper, The Country Man from Dixieland. Everybody’s always asking me how come they started calling me ‘Scoopie Brucie.’ Well, I was a kid working at this station, see, and one day one of the announcers wanted me to go strip some wire copy for him and he said, ‘Go get the scoop, Bruce: and that was it. They been calling me Scoopie Brucie ever since. Jerry Lee Lewis, hell. I got Jerry one of his first jobs, working this club for five bucks a night and all he could eat. He hadn’t been working there more’n one night when the owner called me and said, ‘This kid ain’t got a bottom to his stomach,’ and the next night he called me and screamed, ‘Now he’s torn up my piano; this guy’s costing me five hundred a night.’ Hell of a story, huh? Lots of good stories around here, boy, if you just get out and look for ’em. Charlene, honey, there’s a hole in this glass….”
Early Friday night in Nashville. The cold fog rising off the Cumberland River bottoms at the low end of Broadway, stalking up the broad neon avenue like a swirling gray shark, frosting the windows of Linebaugh’s Restaurant and Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop and Roy Acuff Exhibits and Sho-Bud Guitars, snapping at the people. Truck drivers from Wheeling and lathe operators from Gary and their plain women in thin cotton Sears dresses, picking over the latest Kitty Wells albums at Buckley’s Record Shop No. 2, then moving like sheep down to the novelty shops on Opry Place to giggle over the cheap glass souvenirs and kitchen plaques (“Kissin’ Don’t Last, But Cookin’ Do”), finally shuffling up to the front steps of the Grand Ole Opry House and getting in line for the Friday Night Opry. But the smart ones, the ones who know how cold it can get in Middle Tennessee on a January night, are sitting in the scarred booths at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a ten-second sprint from the Opry House, gawking at the glossy eight-by-tens of country-music stars that blanket the walls, listening in awe while Tootsie unloads on a drunk weaving on a stool at the counter (“I ain’t gonna have no damn drunks in my place”), observing a duel between two Opry pickers at the pinball machine (“Tilt, my ass, you made it do two laps around the bar”), keeping an eye peeled on the front door in case Little Jimmy Dickens happens to come by to wet his whistle before going to work, and tapping their feet on the checkerboard linoleum floor while Loretta Lynn twangs “Don’t Come Home A-drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind” over the jukebox—
You thought that I’d be waitin’ up
When you came home last niiiight,
You’d been out with all the boys
And you ended up half-tiiiight;
But liquor and love they just don’t mix,
Leave the bottle or me behiiiind;
And don’t come home a-drinkin’
With lovin’ on your miiiind…
—and here is Scoopie Brucie Harper sitting at the counter, in a checked sport shirt and a Western string tie and a plaid summer sports coat shot through with cigarette burns, watching the suds build up as the Oertel’s beer slides into the glass, and saying, “Been a country deejay for almost twenty years, and everybody knows me. Sort of between jobs right now. Thinking about going down to Jacksonville with WVOJ if they make the right kind of deal. WVOJ, that’s for ‘Voice of Jacksonville.’ Yessir, you came to the right place, all right. Scoopie Brucie can tell you anything you need to know about country music, and if I can’t I can find somebody who can. I been around here since the old days when if you had a song idea you’d just call up somebody and say, I got a great one here; and you’d sing a couple of bars over the phone and if they liked it they’d tell you to get on down to the Tulane Hotel for a recording session. It’s sure changed a lot since—hey, there’s old Harold Weakley over there. Hey, Harold, come here, I want you to meet somebody. Tootsie’s son-in-law. Plays drums at the Opry. Tell us how long you been playing the Opry, Harold.”
‘Well, it’s been about…”
“This is important now. Fella’s writing a book and we gotta get everything right. Go ahead, tell him.”
“…without missing. Every Friday and Saturday night.”
“Harold sings, too. Good singer. Tell him about your singing, Harold. Go ahead. Talk up.”
“I sing a little. Not as much as I used to.”
“Come on, Harold, tell us about the first time you played the Opry. You gotta get this. This is great. Don’t be so damned bashful, Harold.”
Weakley grins and digs out a piece of fried chicken with a toothpick and sucks his teeth, making a sound like air brakes on a diesel rig. “You don’t ever forget the first time you play the Opry,” he says. “I remember I was supposed to play for Billy Walker on the Bill Monroe show. Something happened, I don’t know what, but. Monroe and Walker was the only stars that showed up, so Bill, Bill Monroe, not Walker, he came up to me and said, ‘Son, you’re gonna have to sing so we can fill up the time.’ Talk about being scared. Anyway, I sang a spiritual…”
“…about the only thing I knew…”
“Get this now.”
“…and I got five encores.”
Scoopie Brucie can’t stand it any more. “See, what’d I tell you? You came to the right place. You could probably sit right here in Tootsie’s and do your whole book. Hey, one thing you’ve got to do, you’ve got to check up on old Jack Toombs. Jack wrote ‘Almost’ back in the Fifties while he was driving a cab. Wrote it on the back side of a trip sheet one night and George Morgan made a big hit out of it. See? I got all these stories….”
One thing Scoopie Brucie was right about is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. If it takes character to make a great bar, then Tootsie’s is a great bar: a sprawling collection of smoky rooms where the worshipers, the gods, the would-be gods and, by all means, the angels of country music come together on Opry weekends in a dizzy melange of blinking Falstaff signs and pinging pinball machines and a throbbing jukebox, everybody committed to the proposition that Roy Acuff will still be wailing “Wabash Cannonball” when Leonard Bernstein is gone and forgotten. If the Grand Ole Opry is the Jerusalem and the Masters Tournament of country music, then Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is its Wailing Wall and its nineteenth hole.
Tootsie is Tootsie Bess, a tiny but spirited woman who was born in Hohenwald, Tenn. (“the same place Rod Brasfield come from”), some 70 miles southwest of Nashville. Tootsie used to be married to Big Jeff Bess, and was the singer-comedienne-ticket seller for Big Jeff and the Radio Playboys during World War II when they began every day with a 90-minute early-morning show over WLAC in Nashville and then fanned out into the surrounding countryside for stage appearances. When she and Big Jeff split, she opened Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
In its ten years, the place has become an institution. “One time I threatened to sell out, and everybody said if I did they’d just move out to my house,” says Tootsie. She gets the new-model jukebox “before they even come out” and says the distributor feeds her $10 worth of change every month to prime it with (“If your record makes the jukebox at Tootsie’s you’ve got it made,” they say around Music Row). There are at least 1,000 publicity pictures of past and present Opry stars covering the walls downstairs, and more than 200 autographs on the upstairs walls. If a star comes in, Tootsie slips over to the jukebox and plays every record of his on the machine in his honor. Opry star Del Reeves shot the cover for his album “Good Time Charlie’s” inside Tootsie’s, several scenes for a low-budget country-music movie called Nashville Rebel were filmed there, and Tootsie herself has been talked into recording two singles about her place (“Saturday Night at Tootsie’s” was the title of one song). The local beer distributor tells her that she sells more beer than anybody in town. At closing time Tootsie breaks out a police whistle and starts yelling, “All right, drink up and get the hell out,” and then walks down the line of bar stools at the counter, jabbing the slow drinkers with a diamond-headed three-inch hatpin presented her by Charley Pride, the only Negro star in country music.
And here was Tootsie Bess, this tiny woman in a print dress and glasses with diamond-flecked rims, here was Tootsie yelling for Charlene to open the door, and Tootsie pulling the old man right off the bar stool and in one great heave rolling him out onto the sidewalk like a sack of dirty laundry.
But the ones who appreciate Tootsie’s the most are the boys who wander into Nashville cold, hoping against hope to make it as a writer or picker or singer. There is no way to estimate how many of these there are in Nashville at a given moment except to say the number is considerable. They hitchhike or ride in on a Trailways, get a room at the YMCA or in a cheap boardinghouse, start knocking on doors along Music Row (where they run into a phalanx of secretaries cooing “Whom shall I say is calling?”), and eventually, when their spirits are as low as their resources, they wind up at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Tootsie is a pushover for them. A constant total of $500 in bad checks and $1,500 in unpaid tabs, kept together in a cigar box behind the bar near a notice that says NO BEER TABS FOR NO BODY—POLICE ORDERS, attests to her generosity. But she knows just as well as the down-and-outers that 20 years ago Carl Smith, for one, was in the same shape; and now, they also know, Carl Smith owns a 350-acre ranch in Franklin, Tenn.
Later, when the Friday Night Opry let out, the tide came sweeping back into Tootsie’s and soon there wasn’t a seat to be had. In the booth nearest the front door a stocky man with a wind-whipped red face and burnt-orange hair and long sideburns sipped beer from a bottle and drummed his fingernails on the table while Bobby Bare sang “Detroit City” on the jukebox. His clothes were cheap and frayed, a lightweight sports coat over a short-sleeved polo shirt buttoned at the neck, and he was still shivering after the short dash through the cold from the Opry House.
“Mind if I sit down?” he was asked.
“Naw, come on in.”
“Thank you. It’s crowded tonight.”
“Always is. Tootsie, she does a good business.”
“Been to the Opry, I guess.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Backstage.”
“You must play, or something.”
“Naw. I mean, I’m trying to get into it. Me and Dale and Leroy, that’s these boys I’m staying with, we all went. They know near ’bout everybody over there. We got backstage for nothing.”
He said his name was Tommy Higgins, age thirty-five, from Waco, Texas, and that he had been in Nashville for about a month. He had always wanted to be a country songwriter, so he jammed $50 and a lot of songs in his pocket and struck out for Music City, U.S.A. “Wadn’t easy gettin’ here neither,” he said as Charlene brought another beer. “Me and this old boy was talking and having a drank about one in the morning in Waco, and when I told him I oughta go to Nashville he said, ‘Let’s go.’ See, he had a car and I didn’t. Well, I guess he sobered up, or else he flat got scared when he heard me singing some o’ my songs, because after a while he stopped the car and said we was gonna have to go back to Waco. I told him I wadn’t gonna go back to no Waco before I’d been to Nashville, so I hitchhiked the rest of the way. All that last part happened in Benton, Arkansas.” He pounded the pavement for the first week, getting nowhere (“Ever one o’ my toes was blistered”), and then ran into a pair of songwriters, Dale and Leroy, who invited him to share their pad until he got a break.
“The fifty bucks is just about gone,” he was saying.
“Having any luck?”
“Thangs has started to break a little lately. They cut some demos on a couple of my songs this week. Monday, Audrey Williams, that’s Hank’s widow, she’s gonna listen to some more of ’em. Here, I’ll show you a couple.”
He fumbled around in his coat pocket and fished out several sheets of crumpled-up sidepunch notebook paper. On the pages he had scribbled the lyrics to several songs. One of them was called “Send My Daddy Home,” about a little girl who wants nothing for Christmas except her father back home from Vietnam. Another was “Vision in Prison,” about “a guy kinda getting his life straightened out with God” before getting it messed up by a hangman. He read the words with his lips, then folded the sheets of paper and stuffed them back into his pocket. He was quiet for a few minutes, but then he put both elbows on the table and frowned and said, “Tell you what’s gonna happen. I got it figured out. I’m gonna stick around until I find out whether I can write songs. And if it turns out I can’t, then I’m gonna find out why I can’t. I got a feel for it. I ain’t gonna quit. Nossir, I ain’t gonna.…”
“Damn men that can’t hold their liquor,” Tootsie was screaming. She had flown out from behind the counter and was flapping her arms, like a chicken on a Junebug, over a hopeless drunk in a wool hat and an Army-surplus overcoat who was heaving back and forth in a courageous effort to stay on the bar stool. “But Toot—“ the drunk would start to say, and Tootsie would cut him off with, “Don’t ‘but-Tootsie’ me, buster, just get out. Out, out, out.” And here was Tootsie Bess, this tiny woman in a print dress and glasses with diamond-flecked rims, here was Tootsie yelling for Charlene to open the door, and Tootsie pulling the old man right off the bar stool and in one great heave rolling him out onto the sidewalk like a sack of dirty laundry. She stood over the man long enough to pass a benediction over him and then stormed back inside, wiping her hands on the apron at her waist, acknowledging the cheers from the crowd.
Finally a voice boomed out from a back booth: “Hell, Tootsie, you shouldn’t a-done that.”
“You want some of the same?” she yelled.
“Naw, I just mean you shouldn’t a-done it.”
“Shouldn’t a-done it, hell, he was drunk.”
“Yeah, Tootsie, but…”
“Hell, maybe he writes songs.”
That did it. A grin spread across Tootsie’s face like sunrise on the Mississippi, and in a second she was howling along with everybody else in the place. Everybody except Tommy Higgins, who cleared his throat and left a dime on the table for Charlene and stepped out into the cold night air for the long walk home. Wherever home was.
Excerpted from The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music.
[Photo Credit: AB]