Taking on Tootsie’s

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 Aleanna Siacon

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The three performance stages at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, downtown’s legendary 57-year-old honky-tonk hotbed, have been sufficiently scuffed by the boots of country music superstars.

Its walls are covered with photographs and mementos from alumni as lauded as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Little Jimmy Dickens. To this day, up-and-coming crooners stumble across the doorstep, ready to greet the history and nostalgia marking these hallowed halls with dreams of their own.

“I want to go to the next level. I want to be on your radio in the morning when it goes off to wake you up,” said Brent Browning, 34, the Georgia-born front man of a six-piece band called 6 Out of Tenn.

Brent Browning (with guitar) and Merna Lewis (with fiddle) perform at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, Tenn., in May with their band called 6 Out of Tenn. (Photo by Aleanna Siacon)

Browning has been performing at Tootsie’s for six years. Blasting music down Broadway is everything he has ever wanted, and the Orchid Lounge is considered a revered institution, he said.

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

Ultimately, Browning said, the members of his sextet dream of getting signed to a record label and seeing their faces plastered across a banner on Music Row – the star-studded strip that serves as a benchmark for country music success – just a 10-minute drive from Tootsie’s doorstep.

“The step that got me to Tootsie’s was knowing I had to come here and let this afford me the time I need to network,” he said. “I play four hours here in the daytime. The rest of my day is allotted to networking at songwriter’s knots, on Music Row pitching my music. The next step I want to take is getting a songwriter deal or artist deal.”

For Browning, performing at Tootsie’s is what he calls “paying your dues.” He said it takes a good country performer 10 years in Nashville to make it big.

By that metric, the 6 Out of Tenn band has four years left.

“You gotta have faith. If you don’t have faith, you don’t have nothing,” Browning said.

Tootsie’s music is typified by iconic fiddle-struck twangs and joyful “yee-haws,” carefully curated by Tootsie’s entertainment director John Taylor.

Sarah Lawton, a singer in the band 6 Out of Tenn, sets up a microphone on the top of Tootsie’s bar in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Aleanna Siacon)

“It’s not hard to get booked here,” Browning said. “They have an open mic day, and if management likes you, they keep you. If they don’t like you, they tell you to get better. If they see some potential in you, they tell you what to work on. If they don’t see any potential in you, they just won’t call you back.”

Taylor’s process has vetted performers like 57-year-old Mark Sellers, who’s usually holed up at the other end of the building, in Tootsie’s backroom.

Sellers moved to Nashville from Los Angeles, choosing to wind down from a career as a dancer by picking up his guitar and playing country rock. He has performed at Tootsie’s for a year.

“It’s an honor,” he said. “I meet people from all over the world; some of the greatest singers and songwriters are around me every day. I play guitar every day for a living.”

Sellers said he isn’t interested in becoming a breakout country star, but many hopeful artists are drawn to Tootsie’s because of the role it has played in country music history. For years, music stars have found themselves meandering from the back door of the Ryman Auditorium across the alley and grabbing a drink at Tootsie’s.

“Anybody from Hank Williams to anybody that was anybody in country music would hang out at Tootsie’s backroom,” Sellers said. “So that’s why Tootsie’s is famous: It has bumped up against the mother church.”

To this day, stars keep stopping by the bar. Sellers said he has met Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Chris Stapleton, George Strait and Carol Burnett.

Regardless of whether they end up with a recording deal, performers keep coming to Tootsie’s because they love the music and the great stories they’re able to tell afterwards, Sellers said.

“Everybody knows that Tootsie’s is synonymous with honky-tonk heaven… or hell,” he added. “People come here and have a good time. Pretty much everybody from around the world lands (in Nashville), and they want to come to Tootsie’s.”

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