Legendary Nashville Nightspot : They're Still Pickin' and a-Grinnin' at Tootsies

Associated Press

A truck wreck killed Sherman Neff's daddy in 1945. The only thing of value he left his boy, then 3, was a secondhand Gibson Centennial guitar and an itch to learn to pick it.

When Sherman was 6, a fierce Smoky Mountain storm raged in eastern Tennessee. A bolt of lightning found the Neff house, deep in the hills, and shattered that guitar.

An omen?

Maybe, because ever since, Sherman Neff, now 44, has lived the sort of life set to music in a thousand old country songs.

He's been poor, hungry, broke. He's been foolish, loved, drunk, cheated on, stolen from. He's driven a truck and drag-raced a car. He's slept in a van and slept in a jail. He's been in debt, been AWOL, been tattooed. He's lost his job, lost his money, lost his wife. But he never lost the itch.

Not Much Money

"Right now," Neff was saying the other day, "I wouldn't swap my place with anybody. Took me too long to get here.

"I play for chicken feed, but there are 50 pickers out on that street ready to take my place for half the money. Or none at all. They'd play for tips. I have, many a time."

Neff picks a guitar at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. No wonder he wouldn't swap places.

To a vast and loyal congregation of Americans who worship country music, Nashville, birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry, is the mother city and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge one of the holiest shrines.

A wide-eyed visitor finds that curious. Shrine? Tootsie's is a honky-tonk, one of the--is the word earthiest?--honky-tonks you ever saw.

"Yes it is," Neff said, taking a sip. "And Lower Broad is one of the earthiest streets. But this is what country music's all about."

Lower Broad--Lower Broadway--is a stretch from about Seventh Avenue to the Cumberland River.

The direction is downhill. To the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, so is the tenor. Some city boosters believe Judgment Day for Lower Broad is not far off, that new development, already afoot, will soon shove Tootsie's and its ilk into the river, replacing saloons and pawnshops with boutiques and hanging plants.

To country musicians, the essence of Lower Broad is the block between Fifth and Fourth. They call that single block The Street.

Gathering Places

Tootsie's is one of six beer joints on The Street. Another, The Hitchin' Post, is separated from Tootsie's by a T-shirt shop. Four more stand shoulder to shoulder across the street, as close as strings on a guitar: the Say When, the Rhinestone Cowboy, Squires and The Turf. A seventh, Wanda & Louie's, also revered as a shrine, is around the corner on Fifth.

In all seven bars, country music, live from Music City U.S.A., twangs from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.

A few years ago five more honky-tonks, perfectly serviceable in Neff's view as seedbeds to stardom, were bulldozed off of Fifth to make room for the Nashville Convention Center. Yet another stood alongside the Merchants' Hotel, even now under renovation.

Thirteen, then. Thirteen saloons in a one-block area during The Street's heyday. None as renowned as Tootsie's.

Other establishments on The Street awaiting Judgment Day include Ernest Tubb's Record Shop next door to Rose's Pawn Shop, across the street from Friedman's Loans, Lynn's Liquors, Al's Music City Pawn Shop, Gruhn Guitars Inc., Live Exotic Shows, Adult News, Penthouse Burlesque Cinema and two vacant shells of buildings now littered with empty Thunderbird wine bottles and empty lives.

"The street people really don't bother anybody," Neff said, taking another sip. A questionable observation. "The highbrows," he continued, "call Nashville Music City and call knocking it down progress. Doesn't make sense.

"The Ryman Auditorium is a national landmark. Now they aim to knock down part of what made it a landmark. Tootsie's."

Original Home of Opry

The Ryman Auditorium was originally the Union Gospel Tabernacle, built in 1891. The auditorium audience sat in pews. It was the home of the Grand Ole Opry before the Opry moved, in 1974, to a theme park in the suburbs.

Neff is typical of the hundreds, the thousands, of country music acolytes who have come to Nashville over the years with hearts full of hope. He also is untypical because instead of pawning his guitar at Rose's or Al's for a bus ticket home, he stayed.

Now he picks and sings at Tootsie's. Success at $15 a session, plus tips, the going rate on The Street.

Tootsie's is special because among all those bad old joints on The Street its back door was just a few steps across a narrow alley from the backstage door of the Ryman Auditorium, convenient for an Opry performer with a thirst between sets.

That, and the happy fact that its proprietor was Hattie Louise Bess, the eponymous Tootsie.

Tootsie Bess died of cancer in 1978. When veteran pickers on The Street talk about her, they tend to get weepy. With reason. Tootsie didn't wait for struggling Street pickers to become stars. She befriended them on the way up--or down.

She let a guy named Willie Nelson sleep on an upstairs cot in exchange for sweeping out. Everybody knows what became of him. She let a guy they called Cityview sleep on the roof. Nobody knows what became of him.

She celebrated their struggling triumphs and comforted them in failure. Somebody wrote a song about her, "The wettest shoulder in town."

She kept their beer tabs in a cigar box, hoping, with them, for lightning to strike, a big payoff. Some years ago, while she was alive, a one-time struggler named Tom T. Hall came back after lightning struck and redeemed his and all the other tabs in the box. Something like $600 worth.

She also put their pictures on her walls. For luck.

Pictures Become Trademark

The pictures have become a Tootsie's trademark, pictures floor to ceiling, some in plastic frames provided long years ago by Oertels 92 Beer, others thumbtacked, pictures upon pictures, curled and faded. Stuck among the pictures are hundreds of business cards and scrawled on the oak parquet bar hundreds of names.

The facade is a color you might get by mixing leftover paint so it doesn't go to waste. Tootsie fancied it a shade of orchid. Inside, the decor is plain old American honky-tonk: seven round bar stools with torn vinyl cushions, a couple of dozen wobbly tables, tin ashtrays, beer-ad lamp shades strung from a buckled ceiling by electrical wires, cracked linoleum floor.

If you saw the movie "Coal Miner's Daughter" you got a glimpse of Tootsie's. In fact, the fellow who got slid down the bar was Robert Moore, Tootsie's current proprietor. The scene was poetic license. Nobody can remember a brawl at Tootsie's. Tootsie kept order with a hat pin. One struggling customer, Charley Pride, returned to present her with a jewel-encrusted one.

Colorful Nickname

At the front end of the bar on a platform behind the tip jar, Neff picks and sings. He has sandy hair going to gray and a rusty, down-home voice. Some of his songs are of his own creation.

Sometime back he picked up the nickname Sherman Tank, inevitable, perhaps, even though there is nothing in his blue eyes that is hard or threatening. Anyhow, he adopted Sherman Tank as a stage name. It at least allows him a between-songs gag about his brother Septic.

He was born in Townsend, Tenn., population 1,800, joined the Navy at 17, finally got to Nashville in 1974, the year the Grand Ole Opry moved to the suburbs. For seven years he drove a tour bus off and on and picked his guitar at night for tips. Once he picked for nothing, just meals and a bed at a motel.

"If I had got here sooner I might have been lucky quicker," he said without bitterness. "I get along with people and I might have rubbed shoulders with some of those good old boys who made it big. Making it big is mostly luck."

On another level, he explains, making it big is playing regularly at Tootsie's.

Does that mean he has given up hope of becoming a star?

"Anybody who does what he loves to do and people come to listen to him do it and he entertains them is a star."

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