(Background: In the early 1990s, Nashville’s lower Broadway was still lined with honkytonks that offered one country or western band after another, playing afternoons and evenings. The homeless thronged to them, spending the cash they earned as day laborers. This story, written in those days, accurately predicted the demise of the honkytonks.)
I’m having a drink at Squires Music City, standing at the curve of the bar by the front door, yakking with one of the regulars (I’m hardly there two minutes) when BAM, two figures rush up the room towards the front door— The guy in back is shoving— It’s the bartender— He has a hold of the other fellow’s left arm and belt— He’s pushing this fellow (no doubt a drunk) out at a fast trot, and as they pass through the door, with a last burst of energy the bartender flings the other off the ground— The drunk spins awkwardly, then disappears without a word as the bartender stands at the door with hands on hips . . . What an opening act!!!!!!
Billy Byrd, who’s been playing on Nashville’s lower Broad since he was fourteen, is on the bandstand singing and playing guitar— As the drunk is hustled out Billy says, “We’ll he just said goodnight.”
What a difference from Merchants, that apogee of respectability and splendor just a block away, which in an earlier incarnation was as a wild a bar as you could get here or anywhere, but now is the home of unflappable penguins in suspenders and freshly laundered shirts and dry cleaned black or gray suits sitting over vodka tonics, talking BIG business, you bet, like real estate, municipal bonds, utility stocks, whatever it is that male and female penguins talk about . . .
Some of Nashville’s big money boys would probably love to see Squires Music City and the other honkytonks urban renewed out of existence, say in the form of a loud explosion and a cloud of reddish vapor— Or else have these sawdust bars transformed into respectable Holiday Inn lounges— You can bet that the money boys are standing in the wings right now, with their flunkies, who are holding potted ferns—
As these penguins lead us and themselves into the Brave New Technocratic World of the Future that shines with brand new computer chips and missiles, fewer and fewer people will ever care or even know of the whereabouts or existence of the honkytonks—
But at the honkytonks the customers haven’t the slightest inkling that they are fast becoming an irrelevance, extruded OUT of society by the very fact of their disinterest in municipal bonds, $100,000 sports cars, and Braun coffee makers—
On this particular night, however, no one at Music City is alarmed, even by the drunk’s quick exit— Billy Byrd simply moves into an up-tempo tune, and a blonde mustached gent in a white shirt begins clogging to the music, elbows up, hands waist level— Soon another man joins him—
Earl Thomas Conley, the famous country singer, is here with his entourage, which includes the Clogger in White—
Jo Eaten co-owns Music City, a pleasant, interesting woman— “I’ve always had dreams of having a bar down here,” she says, and adds that although she and her husband have owned Music City for a year and a half, that she’s “been down here and worked here five years. I’ve seen it all.”
You can believe it, if you know lower Broad.
“I don’t think they”—the honkytonkers—“are ever going to change. They”—the refurbished bars with potted ferns—“will never get the atmosphere these old ones have. You can’t drink three ribbon beer”—Pabst—“on a three ply carpet and enjoy it.”
In the old days, before the Grand Ole Opry moved out of the Ryman Auditorium for the sanitized splendor of its present home, Opry stars frequented these joints, particularly Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge (smack behind the Ryman), where they drank beer between appearances, or before or after shows— Legend has it that lots of famous songs were written at Tootsie’s, including Willie Nelson’s “Crazy”—
Back at Music City Jo leans across the table and says, “See, we’re sttin’ here with Earl Thomas Conley. They”—the country starts—“are used to these old places. Dolly, Johnny Cash, Johnny Carver, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Faron Young, they’ve all played here. That’s how they all got started”—
Suddenly the barkeep leans across Jo’s back and calls out, “Bob!” Bob, a slobby unshaven character with an open-mouthed stare, turns in his chair. The bartender’s face and finger are inches from Bob’s nose. Bob is vacuous looking; his shirttail hangs out, his long black hair covers his collar.
“Bob,” the barkeep repeats in a warning tone, “you’ve got a bad attitude!” Bob says nothing but stretches out his hand in a peace offering, which doesn’t cut any mustard with the bartender who repeats his warning yet again: “You’ve got a bad attitude, Bob.” Whatever the offense was, we’ll never know, but Bob agrees that his attitude needs adjusting and nods his head.
The bartender is Jo’s son, the perfect host/bouncer/bartender for a bar like Music City, friendly if you are, but a I-don’t-take-no-sass-but-sarsaparilla type, if you ain’t . . . . . unnerSTAND?
Drunks are handled promptly at the honkytonks, especially since last year’s crackdown by His Honor Bill Boner, who lined lower Broad with lines of cops (practically), and cop cars, and an ever-present paddy wagon— The cops may not have been able to stop any drug deals or prevent any murders or robberies in the rest of the city, but boy could they arrest those homeless drunks or suspected drunks, even tourists!— No one is quite sure what prompted the crackdown, whether the boys with potted ferns were putting pressure on the mayor or whether the mayor thought up that idea by himself—
At any rate, the Rhinestone Cowboy was forced out of business and the beer board started playing games with Music City, like yanking Jo’s license the very day she slapped down $17,000 for it— Things got so bad that Tootsie’s owner, Robert Moore says, “I don’t even want to talk about the mayor”— Eventually the homeless got the message and few are seen around the bars today—
Those bleak days are in the back of everybody’s mind, certainly the regulars, some of whom had begun the evening at Tootsie’s, right across the street. The Conley entourage had begun festivities there—
Tootsie’s is a dream in sepia tones—brown walls, brown bar—walls covered with framed pix of country singers, and every square inch not covered with a picture is covered with signatures, even the top and sides of the bar— Like the rest of the honkytonks like Turf, Music City, the Say When II, and the newly opened Blue Bayou, Tootsie’s has always had live music, a rotation of singers in western shirts with long sideburns and slicked down hair, guys you could imagine at home in a truck stop over a mug of coffee and a cigarette—
The honkytonks are a never-ending vaudeville show— Pick any day and hang out long enough and you’ll get the point— Earlier that night at Tootsie’s a fat man in a blue jacket, yellow shirt and sneakers (none other than the world champion yodeler!) had been exercising his tonsils as the audience clapped and Ray Wicks played guitar— When Wicks picked up the tempo the yodeler warbled faster and the audience (mostly working class couples) cheered and hooted— The women with their smooth meaty faces, the men with worn and lined faces— Take away the music and the beer and it’s a tough haul— There were perhaps twenty in their nylon or vinyl jackets and K-Mart sweaters, plus a man at the back of the room taking notes (not me)— By 9:15 the bar was packed with tourists, including a bunch from Germany, all talking to Wicks, who appropriately enough took off on a good, rocking version of “Fraulein” that had patrons on the floor and dancing—
Upstairs there’s a party for country and western d.j.’s, which is why Conley drove in town from his home in nearby Franklin— I’ve left Tootsie’s for Music City by the time he shows up there, too— He is an intense looking man with a beard and piercing eyes. He says, “Back when I first came to town I used to come down here all the time.”
“When did you first come here?” I ask him.
“Came here in 1968 from Cortsville, Ohio. Was working in a steel mill, moved to Huntsville [Alabama] so I’d be close to Nashville. This”—lower Broadway—“is where it was AT when I first came to Nashville.”
“What made it the place to be?”
“Music. We didn’t care about good music and bad music. The heart of country music is people doing what they feel. I believe in doing what I feel.”
Indeed, Conley is known for that, and for speaking what he thinks and feels. He’s the real thing, with twenty-one songs recorded in the eighties that made it to country’s Top Ten.
Now, he says, the business is determined by “the nostalgia of the common people. A lot of stars cut music they know people will fall for. It creates a kind of music that has already happened.”
Prepackaged, predetermined, and plastic, like Opryland.
Meanwhile, next door at The Say When II, a handful of the homeless nurse their two drafts for a dollar and a half. But at the homes throughout Nashville, penguins are taking their Lean Cuisines out of the freezer and popping them into microwaves.
The Clogger comes up to Conley, wavering and almost shouting, “Earl, we got go, man!”
“Where?” Earl asks.
“Back to the other one”—by which he means Tootsie’s.
By now the scene at Music City is chaotic, not rough, jus chaotic with at least twenty different dramas going on— A young female songwriter—one of the entourage—is on stage singing, but hardly anyone listens—
All at once I spot a character I hadn’t seen in a year. I recognize him by his mustache, a big thick Terry Thomas mustache, comic in its hugeness, his big mealy face pleasant, almost quizzical— His name’s Terry, too— He’s a cab driver, running in and out of the bars between rides to sing a chorus or two or three—
Almost a year before, one wild night at The Turf, an evening of great western swing, the walls practically rolling with the beat, suddenly during a break this mustached fellow came running in, leaped onto the band stand, grabbed a mic, the band swung into a blues, to which he improvised tremendous lyrics, sounding almost like a black, like Chicago—
Now, a year later, I spot him again— By one a.m. he’s at The Blue Bayou where the Zack Taylor Band (“a bunch of old guys trying to have fun and make bucks” their leader says) have been playing— Terry’s up on stag claiming that he drives a cab because he got sick of the music business— The band starts again, a big SLAMMING beat, Terry’s spieling out nonsensical strings of words— No matter— He’s yelling like a black church shouter and playing a scrambling, shrieking guitar— The drummer ups the tempo WHAP WHAP WHAP WHAP odolabodola oodola toddle WHAP WHAP WAMMA WHAP WHAP, Bass guitar craze sound twirling twirling crazy WAMMA WAMMA BAPITY BAPIDDY WHOPITA WHOPA DA dada whop whop squiggles of yellowgreenblues guitar noise, Terry shakes his head, ecstatic, blue lights, drums bam bam, Combals! bass deep, guitar squeals louder, stars crash bar! beat! boPs! lookOUT!!!
A wild mad ending to a perfect night of drama and music that you couldn't pay to see in a New York or Chicago stage cause they ain’t there, and these performances by real life people, mind you, not actors or penguins— But such are the afternoons or evenings on Broadway, like the golden afternoon at Wanda and Louie’s Place (long closed) when it was one entertainer after another holding forth on the floor, first a singer later discovered by Roy Acuff, then a retired famous d.j. who used to wear a yellow suit and ride a bicycle around town while holding an umbrella— Others too that day, like the bog-bombed lady in spandex pants and boyfriend in Italian gangster clothes, she trading wisecracks with the d.j.— Nothing preplanned, all spontaneous, a crazy grab bag of days, some bleak and bad, of course, like real life— At best it was life as it should be, no fears, no timetable in your head, no uptight “I wonder if I shouldn’t be doing taxes or shitting bricks?” but just throw off your shoes and lay back for the fun—
Let Bubba Howard, Tootsie’s bouncer, tel it, a good old pleasant-faced country boy with straw hat, brim up, crown deep cut with guitar pins on the front— He’s been in Nashville 22 years, plays bass, drums, and rhythm guitar— He’s just gotten married and so came off the road where he’d been playing with various bands— He has a deep love for the strip, and he’s seen a lot of changes.
“Bars’ve changed over,” he says, standing just outside Tootsie’s front door, “and a lot of ’ems closed up used to be here.They tore a bunch of ‘em down, tried to tear Broadway here down, tryin’ to close Tootsie’s down, tryn’ to close everybody, really.
“I was tellin’ you The Wheel used to be one of the nicest clubs here and now it’s a peep show. There’s another peep show down the street here.
“I mean people don’t come down, things done got commercialized. Opryland has everything, you know. Like I said, when I first come here these streets was wide open.
“Right now, this time of day, this time of year, these streets would be loaded. They wasn’t scared to come down here and now things has got out about hw rough it is down here, which is a bunch of crap. The Nashvilleans are scr=ared to come down here and if they get guests or friends and family to come in and visit ‘em they say, “Don’t go down there to Broadway, it’s dangerous.
“But right now Broadway’s as good as it’s going to get. We have patrolmen down here all the time.”
He talks about the men who wrote songs in Tootsie’s— Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson— He looks up and down the street, pointing out the bars and talking about each— “I love Broadway,” he says, “I love what it stands for. It’s history. This whole street is history.”