Tootsie’s: a Nashville tourist attraction that lures aspiring country stars

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 Valeria Merino

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—When Brent Browning first heard country music on the radio in his native Georgia, the 5-year-old stood in his car seat with his ears perked up.

He asked where the music came from, and his mom jokingly replied, “The radio.”

He pressed her for more, asking, “Where do they make it, Mama?”

“Nashville, Tennessee,” she said.

Now 34, Browning can be found serenading country music fans at the legendary Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in downtown Nashville. The honky-tonk bar has been a notable factor in the discovery of country music stars like Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Kris Kristofferson.

Brent Browning sings and Merna Lewis plays the fiddle at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, Tenn., in May. (Photo by Valeria Merino)

The bar first opened its doors 57 years ago after Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess and her husband Jeff Bess bought it. The establishment grew in popularity, thanks to its proximity to Ryman Auditorium, a performance venue that attracts country artists and other musicians. A back door at Tootsie’s provides entry to performers at the Ryman, who would come to the club after their shows to have a beer and to bond with other country music lovers.

Steve McKinnis, a guest relations specialist at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said artists like Willie Nelson would go to Tootsie’s and be inspired to write music.

“Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, that was kind of the hangout place. Tootsie’s is a fun place to go,” McKinnis said.

Tourists now come in daily to check out local acts in hopes of spotting an upcoming star. Security officials at Tootsie’s estimated that on Fridays and Saturdays, nearly 25,000 people patronize the bar.

Tootsie’s regular Deborah Powers, with country music artist Mark Sellers, enjoys the music at honky-tonk bars in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Valeria Merino)

Deborah Powers, who has been a regular customer at Tootsie’s for 12 years, said she likes spending her days at the club because she’s able to enjoy good music and befriend people from other parts of the country.

“I ask people where they’re from, and they’re hardly ever from Tennessee,” Powers said. “I’m here quite often, up and down Broadway, and I love what Tootsie’s has to offer. I’ve been everywhere, and this is it.”

To land a spot on one of three stages at Tootsie’s, artists have to perform during open mic day, Browning said. If club managers like the music, they’ll book the artist for a show.

Browning got his start at Tootsie’s six years ago and was later joined by co-singer Sarah Louise Lawton. His band now consists of six people who call themselves 6 Out of Tenn.

“I know people who have done some other drug and they say it’s the highest feeling they ever got,” Browning said. “Being on that stage is a higher feeling than any drug you could ever take. That’s probably the highest I’ve ever been.”

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