Discovering honky-tonk heaven

Editor’s note: During each Chips Quinn orientation and multimedia training in Nashville, Tenn., scholars are required to complete a mobile media reporting module, which includes producing videos and reporting and writing stories. Their work is displayed here.

by Brennon Dixson

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—To local musicians, downtown Nashville is known as honky-tonk heaven.

“Most people don’t even know what honky-tonk means,” said Michael Schoff, an employee of Boot Barn, a store located near several bars in the downtown Broadway area. “Most people tend to associate the honky-tonk culture with going to a country (music) nightclub, or partying.”

But Schoff said the name honky-tonk originated when white men would go into black neighborhoods and honk their horns in search of prostitutes. The “tonk” came from the sounds the piano keys made in backcountry square-dancing halls.

“I have heard that story before. I can’t confirm nor deny,” Steve McKinnis, guest relations specialist for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said. “But I will tell you that the honky-tonk theme got started by having a club where you can hang out, hear great music, and you didn’t have to worry about anybody telling your wife what you’re doing.”

Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway is one of the most famous honky-tonks in Nashville because patrons would often encounter music stars there.

“The stars knew it was 37 steps from the Ryman Auditorium to Tootsie’s back door,” McKinnis said. “They would go to Tootsie’s, do a little socializing and move on next door before coming back” to the club after their performance.

Musician Mark Sellers stands in the alley between Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and the Ryman Auditorium, a performance venue in Nashville, Tenn., in May. (Photo by Valeria Merino)

These days, performers still try to make their name in other honky-tonks around town.

“If you go three doors down to Robert’s Western World, this place looks like a hole in wall,” McKinnis said. “You’re more likely to see the stars there because it’s not as touristy.”

Still, Tootsie’s enjoys a reputation as a go-to honky-tonk in the city.

“People come here to have a good time because everybody knows Tootsie’s is synonymous with honky-tonk heaven,” Tootsie’s performer Mark Sellers said. “It’s a place where you enter a bar in the morning and people are playing music all day long…(It’s) chasing that dream of playing guitar, making music, starting at the bottom and ascending the ranks.”

Sellers said that honky-tonks offer more than a place to party or be discovered. They are a place for artists to cultivate creativity together, he said, adding that he enjoys entering the clubs and seeing people writing together or otherwise collaborating.

“Country music is about the common man’s woes and struggles,” he said. “The honky-tonk heaven of it is country music at its best.”

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