Too long and too loose.
Those were the principal defects in the Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge 50th anniversary celebration held Sunday night (Oct. 7) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Fortunately, there were moments of pure musical joy to brighten the rambling three-and-a-quarter hour experience. One of these was the versatility, attentiveness and smart looks of the 16-piece house band which featured four backup singers and four fiddlers. It was one of the most watchable and listenable ensembles to grace the Ryman stage in recent memory.
However, there was a veritable round robin of announcers, some of whom were rather too pleased with the sound of their own voices, like the best man at a wedding reception who suddenly fancies himself a public speaker. Even with this surplus of emcees, some performers were unaccountably pressed into service to announce the next act.
The talent lineup included Country Music Hall of Fame members Kris Kristofferson, Mel Tillis and Little Jimmy Dickens along with Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Mark Chesnutt, Terri Clark, Colt Ford, Lorrie Morgan, the Grascals, Dean Miller, Ronnie McDowell, Mandy Barnett, Joanna Smith, Kenyon Lockry, Scott Collier, John Stone, Leslie Craig and Tootsie’s talent contest winners Nathan Young and Dallas Sword.
As much of the world knows by now, Tootsie’s is the aggressively funky honky-tonk located just across the back alley from the Ryman’s stage door. In the early ’60s, it was the home away from home for the likes of Kristofferson, Faron Young, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Roger Miller and various Grand Old Opry stars.
Once called Mom’s, the place was sold in 1960 to Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess, a warm-hearted but no nonsense personality who promptly painted the exterior of the building purple and renamed the bar Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Bess died in 1978, and the establishment was eventually conveyed to its present owner, Steve Smith.
Both by audience reaction and the undimmed brilliance of his songs, Kristofferson was the star of the soldout show. Dressed all in black, his hair and face a monochromatic blur of gray, he ambled onstage relatively late in the show, carrying an acoustic guitar and wearing a harmonica holder around his neck.
The crowd was up and cheering before he even reached his microphone. He ultimately had to still the applause by reminding the audience he had only a limited time to sing and that there were performers yet to come.
Kristofferson opened with “Me and Bobby McGee,” the song immortalized by Janis Joplin, continued on with “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” a country chart-topper in 1971 for Sammi Smith, and ended his too-brief set with his imagistic masterpiece, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Again the crowd stood and roared volcanically until Kristofferson pleaded to be allowed to bring on Mel Tillis.
If Kristofferson was first in the crowd’s affections, Terri Clark ran a close second. The tall Canadian, who began singing at Tootsie’s in 1987, was in a festive mood. Dispensing with the services of the band, she seated herself on a tall stool and proceeded to shake the rafters with her strong, authoritative voice and ringing acoustic guitar.
She recalled covering Loretta Lynn’s hits at Tootsie’s and said she had only recently met star. At that meeting, she said Lynn exclaimed to her, “I love you so much. I never will forget ’Daddy’s Hands,'” obviously mistaking Clark for Holly Dunn.
“I said, ’Thank you very much,'” Clark recounted, “and I love ’Stand by Your Man.'”
She then belted out “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” broadly mimicking Lynn’s accent.
Clark turned to two other Kentuckians — the Judds — for her next song, “Mama, He’s Crazy.” Then it was on to her own distinctive cover of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” She finished by wailing a no-holds-barred rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” and walked away to a standing ovation.
The celebration — which was being videotaped — got off to a promising start at 7:30 p.m. with a sweet performance by students from Nashville’s Holy Rosary Academy and Davidson Academy of the Tracy Byrd hit, “I’m From the Country.”
The Grascals followed with a breezy romp through their current single, a bluegrass remake of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.”
But the momentum slowed considerably when Nashville Mayor Karl Dean was brought up to read a proclamation honoring Tootsie’s 50 years as a city landmark. Then there were the dull but obligatory readings of congratulations from absentee well-wishers, among them Tennessee Gov Phil Bredesen, Congressman Jim Cooper and, finally, President Obama.
“You don’t know how I hate to come out here and stop all this entertainment,” cracked Little Jimmy Dickens when he took the spotlight. The senior member of the Grand Ole Opry didn’t sing, but he did riff on the adjustment life requires of one at the age of 89.
“When you drop something and kneel down to pick it up,” he said, “you think, ’Is there anything else I can do while I’m down here?'”
Dean Miller warmed up the crowd with the song that first made his dad, Roger, famous, “King of the Road.” Mandy Barnett out-Clined Patsy with her version of “Crazy.” And Ronnie McDowell brought his Elvis-size enthusiasm to his 1981 hit, “Older Women.”
The portly Colt Ford regaled one and all with his down-homey “Chicken and Biscuits.”
Mark Chesnutt did a solid, workman-like job with “It’s a Little Too Late,” his hit from 1996, and “Brother Jukebox,” a No. 1 from 1991.
Tillis sang only his 1976 standard, “Love Revival,” electing to spend most of his allotted time cracking jokes about the erotic impairments of age. He also brought out his longtime protégé, Kenyon Lockry, to do two songs.
“I want to sing you the song that brought my daddy [George Morgan] to the Opry in 1949,” said Lorrie Morgan before promptly launching into “Candy Kisses.” She finished with her 1992 hit, “Something in Red.”
Randy Houser was next in line. He opened with “Will I Always Be This Way” and introduced one of his new songs not yet recorded, the whimsical “The Dog House,”
Houser beckoned his friend and co-writer Jamey Johnson to the stage and joined him in singing Hank Williams Jr.’s “Dinosaur.”
Then Houser exited, leaving Johnson to render his CMA award-winning “In Color.” Unfortunately, some segments of the crowd kept trying to tap into Johnson’s rowdy persona by shouting out as he sang, thereby lessening the song’s impact.
Dramatically, the show should have ended with Johnson, but it rambled on through a half dozen more performances by Tootsie’s regulars who sang well enough but failed to acknowledge the once-packed house was now less than half full and that they were looking at more receding backs than they were at rapt faces.
At 10:45 p.m., with no announcers onstage to wrap things up and say goodbye, the show simply petered out.