NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Amid the bright neon lights and bustling crowds on Nashville’s Broadway strip, one purple building tends to stand out from the rest.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge has been catching eyes ever since its namesake Tootsie Bess came in one day to find the building had been painted an orchid purple. However, it’s much more than its unique color that has made the honky-tonk a famous and beloved part of Nashville.
“Every artist that comes there and hangs out at Tootsie’s, it becomes their spot. They’ve always made it happen like that. They’ve always supported that little purple building, and it all started with Tootsie Bess taking care of the artists,” said Steve Smith, the current owner of Tootsie’s.
Tootsie Bess bought the bar — originally named Mom’s — in 1960, and for the next 14 years, the lounge was positioned to accommodate several up-and-coming stars who appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. At the time, the Opry was only an alleyway away.
The Ryman Auditorium behind Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, before it was moved to the Opryland complex. However, Smith said there wasn’t a lot of room backstage, so performers would head to Tootsie’s before and after shows.
“They would sit upstairs at Tootsie’s and drink a little bit and hang out, swap music around and pick guitars,” Smith said. “And Tootsie ran a tab for every one of them. Whenever they would get a little hit and they made a little money, they would square up with her.”
‘Kris Kristofferson had been known to sweep the floors’
Tootsie Bess, who sang in her husband’s band Big Jeff & The Radio Playboys, was known for her generosity toward other musicians. It was said that she had a cigar box behind the counter full of IOU’s, which Opry performers would pay at the end of the year so she wouldn’t lose money.
“And they worked around there,” Smith said. “Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson had been known to sweep the floors and mop the floors and help pay the bar tab in other ways.”
In fact, Smith said it was a couple of painters who owed money on their bar tabs who gave the bar its name. Tootsie Bess offered to “call the tab even” if they painted the building, but when asked what color, Smith said she told them, “Whatever you can come up with.”
“They painted it, and she goes down there the next day, and she looks at it and goes, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge now’,” Smith said. “That’s how she got the name.”
Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are among a number of famous early customers. Roger Miller is rumored to have written “Dang Me” in Tootsie’s, and Hank Cochran, Waylon Jennings and Patsy Cline are just some of the other well-known performers to have spent time there.
Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn also once sang for crowds at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which was a filming location for the 1980 biographical film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” that told the story of Lynn’s life from her early teen years to her rise as a country artist.
Many of their photos can still be found on what has come to be known as “Tootsie’s Wall of Fame.” As the years have gone by, several new photos have been added to the wall, but Smith said there was a time when the future of Tootsie’s looked grim.
‘You’ve just got to keep reinventing it’
By the 1990s, Smith said “Broadway had taken a real turn for the worse.” Businesses were boarded up and few customers were coming through the doors anymore. Tootsie Bess had passed away about a decade earlier, and the beloved honky-tonk was in danger of closing.
“When we bought it, there was a 200-watt light bulb hanging in the center of the room,” Smith said. “And you could smell the bathrooms from the street. They were doing about $500 a day. It had a lot of homeless people sleeping up in the backroom on mattresses, cots.”
Smith, who grew up alongside Tootsie Bess’ grandson, officially purchased the bar in 1992 and soon started making changes to help revive Tootsie’s. They began selling $2 tokens at the door that could be either kept as souvenirs or redeemed for drinks.
Smith and his team also added a third floor and rooftop patio to the building. By around 2014, Smith said business had peaked at about 30%. Today, Tootsie’s is alive with people packed into the building to watch bands perform live every night of the week.
In keeping with its legacy, the famous honky-tonk continues to bring in a number of artists looking to make a name for themselves. Country music stars Chase Rice, Jake Owen and Brad Paisley have all performed at the bar in recent years.
Several up-and-coming artists who have performed at Tootsie’s have also appeared on television series like American Idol and The Voice. Smith said he is grateful for the musicians who continue to support Tootsie’s and make it “a part of their home.”
“You’ve just got to keep reinventing it. Every time these new artists come in and hang out there it becomes a new thing all over again for the younger people,” said Smith who referred to the honky-tonk as “One big musical family.”