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Nelson wound up both writing for Price's publishing company and, for a time, playing in his band, the Cherokee Cowboys. Another day Nelson pitched "Hello Walls" to Faron Young; Young ultimately took the song to the top of the country charts.
Professional break or no, what could always be counted on at Tootsie's was the motherly generosity of Tootsie herself. She ran (and ran and ran) tabs for those who weren't having much luck getting cuts or gigs. She made sure they got fed too. Almost as much fried chicken, biscuits and chili went on those tabs as beer.
"She loved songwriters more than she loved the stars," Bare says. "The stars got the huge egos and they'd throw it around a lot. She had a soft spot for songwriters. And musicians. There's no telling how much money she loaned Roger [Miller] and people, you know, who would come in broke. And feed them."
Tootsie's stepson believes that soft spot came from listening to Big Jeff's stories about the leanest of lean times he and his peers endured in order to make it in music.
"I mean, if you can imagine, it was rough back then, and for you to take a gamble and leave wherever — Hoboken or Oklahoma or Texas — and take the chance to come to Nashville ..." the younger Bess says, trailing off almost reverently. "And most of these guys, I mean, those old stories were true. They would get to Nashville with two or three dollars in their pocket.
"That took a lot of guts, you know. I would never have done it, I'll tell you. And I don't know how they were brave enough to do that. But Tootsie knew that."
In that less scripted, less settled era, anything could happen. Tillis remembers the day Roger Miller called the Orchid Lounge looking for him and Willie Nelson, to see if they'd like to hop a plane with him right then and head down to the Florida governor's ball where he was to perform.
"Yeah, we had on jeans," Tillis says. "In those days, if you went to a governor's ball you dressed up, you know. He said, 'I'll put ya in the light booth.' " In the light booth is exactly where they ended up at the ball, in jeans.
While Tootsie's patrons might've been off the wall at times, she never let them get entirely out of hand. She famously enforced order with a jeweled hat pin given to her by Charley Pride. If anybody got too mean or stayed too far past midnight closing time, she'd jab them in the butt.
"Tootsie, if you caused too much commotion, she'd kick your ass out," says Bare. "I mean, she'd punch you with her pin or something. And she kicked one guy out, he was drunk and bothering everybody. She threw him out the door. Anyway, she went back behind the bar and the guy came back and stuck his head in the door and said, 'Throw me out! The hell, I've been throwed into better places than this!' And then he ran."
Wild and woolly exploits alone don't win a songwriter an audience, much less a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Mel Tillis and Tom T. Hall are all in there (and one hopes Bobby Bare will be invited to join them). Their songs had everything to do with the accolades they gained. What they were writing stood out from what'd been done before. It could also be argued that what they were writing stands out from a whole lot of what's been done since.
Hall was struck in the early '60s by the distinctive style of one Nashville songwriter who'd beaten him to town. He says, "I was in Indiana working in a club, quote unquote, and I heard a record on the jukebox and I turned to one of the guys in the band and I said, 'Hey, there's a new songwriter in Nashville.' I go over to the jukebox and I'm watching the record going around and around, and I read, 'Willie Nelson.' He had written 'Hello Walls' for Faron Young."
Eventually Hall's own clear-eyed, literary story-songs — like "A Week in a Country Jail" and "Homecoming" — started eliciting a similar response around town. "Somebody would say, 'That sounds like a Tom T. Hall song,' " he says. "I heard that and I thought, 'Hey, well, there must be such a thing as a Tom T. Hall song, because people are comparing these other things.'
"That was a defining moment for me, kind of an epiphany of some sort. I said, 'Ah. Now I have an identity, a style. I'm not just wandering around making up tunes. There is such a thing as a Tom T. Hall song.' That was my greatest compliment."
Kristofferson, too, heard something fresh out of Nashville that caught his ear. In his case it was Miller's "Dang Me," a jaunty self-appraisal of a poor excuse for a husband, punctuated by Miller's irresistibly goofy scatting licks. Said Kristofferson during the 1995 Willie Nelson-hosted special Tootsie's Orchid Lounge: Where the Music Began, "The first time I ever heard Roger on the radio, I was in the Army in Germany. And after one line, I knew there was another one of them out there, one of them loonies."
Once Kristofferson was out of the Army, trying to get somewhere as a songwriter in Nashville — a habit he supported with several varieties of low-paid gruntwork — he made a powerful impression himself on Fred Foster, founder of Combine Music and Monument Records, when he showed up to audition for a $50-a-week publishing deal.
First there was the visual. "It's a good thing," Foster says, "that I never had preconceived notions what people should look like, because Kris did not look like what a lot of folks would think a good songwriter looked like. He was pretty scruffy and he had on a pair of old cowboy boots, and the sole had come loose on one of them and it was flopping every time he walked. I had a couple of these big wide rubber bands on my desk, so I just went over and said, 'Let me fix that for you,' and I wrapped them around it."
Asked by Foster to play four songs, Kristofferson offered up "To Beat the Devil," "Duvalier's Dream," "Jody and the Kid" and "The Best of All Possible Worlds," three of them works of depth and eloquence and the fourth clever and hip. Thus commenced a rather well-known exchange.
"I said, 'OK I'll approve your deal, on one condition,' " Foster recalls. "He said, 'What's that?' 'That you agree to record for Monument.' 'Hell, man I can't sing,' he said. 'I sound like an effing frog.' "
One doubts Kristofferson opted for such a softened curse, but still. The technical shortcomings of his rough-throated singing didn't worry Foster in the least. "The feeling just rolled out of him like Niagara Falls," Foster says. "I couldn't imagine anybody not thinking he was gonna be a success. But most people didn't. I didn't care."
Then again, Foster was a serial risk-taker who made inspired decisions about who he wanted to work with; a Roy Orbison who hadn't yet reached his full potential, an unproven Dolly Parton, and a good many more utterly distinctive singers and songwriters, like Kristofferson and Tony Joe White. (Fittingly, the Nashville Songwriters Association International recently gave Foster the Maggie Cavender Award of Service.) He even cut some Monument sides on Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran — including a Cochran rendition of a Howard number called "Tootsie's Orchid Lounge" — even though neither songwriter was known as a singer.
Those sorts of distinctions were made often in country music. That's not to say there were no performing songwriters whatsoever — Jimmie Rodgers was one, and so was Hiram King Williams. But mostly songwriters stuck to writing songs and singers to singing them. That began to change, during the '60s and early '70s, when many of the Tootsie's habitués who'd been supplying others with songs started finding success as recording artists.
Hall, for one, hadn't planned on making albums. Jerry Kennedy, a producer at Mercury, more or less scared him into it by predicting his autobiographical story-songs songs would meet the fate a songwriter fears most: "He said, 'If you don't record these songs, nobody's ever gonna hear them.' Well, that was kind of an alarming wake-up call. I said, 'OK, I'll do an album.' " He made several, in fact, many of them hits, and people did hear the songs, done his way.
Around the same time that singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan were amassing socially conscious collegiate fans in the urban folk revival, country music got its own crop of singer-songwriters, who — it should be pointed out — were well aware of what folkies like Dylan were up to. Just ask Tillis, who'd gone from penning honky-tonk and pop hits to a socially conscious, lyric-driven song like "Ruby (Don't Take Your Love to Town)" in the course of a decade.
"Yeah, well, you know, Kris Kristofferson and I were big buddies and we were trying to write some songs like Bob Dylan," he offers by way of explanation. "We loved Bob Dylan, and still do." Tillis adds that he was going for a Dylan-esque waltz feel when he wrote "Mental Revenge" — though Waylon Jennings delivered the song with more rhythmic punch, and just this year Jamey Johnson recast it as ominous blues.
Bare was covering early Dylan songs only a year or two after Dylan recorded them, songs like "Blowin' in the Wind," "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "It Ain't Me Babe." He recalls being summoned one night on tour by a security guard bearing a message: "There's a hippie out there who wants to talk to you." The hippie turned out to be Gordon Lightfoot, and Bare decided on the spot to record one of his songs too.
When Kristofferson started hitting the road in the early '70s with his ragged-but-right band, he wasn't playing to country fans so much as Dylan's crowd. He drew movie stars like Dennis Hopper to his shows at L.A.'s Troubadour, hit it off with countercultural blueswoman Janis Joplin, and landed on the cover of the Life-like Look magazine.
If the makers, marketers and fans of more urbane pop had once pegged country music as simple and rustic, these Tootsie's regulars were defying expectations and turning out the sorts of songs that people couldn't help but take seriously. Hall and Kristofferson, in particular, had come to songwriting under the equal influence of literature and downhome music. Kristofferson was a Rhodes scholar; Hall studied writing in college and sharpened his skills churning out radio copy.
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