Tootsie’s at the beach?

Published 7:55 pm Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Donna Sue, her mother, and I went to Panama City Beach this past week. Upon my return, people said, “You don’t look like you’ve been to the beach.”

That’s because when I go to the beach I wear one of those “hazmat suits.” What’s a hazmat suit? That is the shortened name for those hazardous material suits that we see when a train wreck occurs and the train cars were carrying hazardous materials. The investigators are covered in super-protective clothing so they won’t get contaminated.

I was the only one on the beach in one of those suits that looked sort of like an astronaut suit. I was determined not to let a destructive ray of sunshine get through. I’ve given enough money to the American Dermatological Association.

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We were staying near Pier Park; that’s a shopping and eating area just off the beach. They have all kinds of shops. The shops are the same ones you might find in a mall, but they are outside. Inside, outside, it doesn’t matter; the shops are all the same.

At Pier Park, I wasn’t wearing my hazmat suit. I was wearing a pair of white pants and a white t-shirt and a guy asked me if I was a painter. “You look like you ought to have a can of Sherwin-Williams paint in your right hand and a brush in your back pocket.” Smart Aleck!

Then, I saw a restaurant that intrigued me. It was actually a bar that served food and it was named Tootsies. I thought, “What’s Tootsies doing in Panama City?”

The original Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. When I sought my fame and fortune as a country songwriter way back in 1974, the first place I visited was Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge right across the street from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Why Tootsie’s?

It was in the outlaw days of Luchenbach, Texas, and Waylon and Willie. There was a spirit about Nashville in those days that had caught my fancy. I listened to country music almost exclusively and Tom T. Hall was one of the songwriters I liked.

He wrote a song called “Spokane Motel Blues.” It was about him being on the road as a singer and songwriter and he was stuck in Spokane, Washington, in a motel room while Waylon, Willie, Kristofferson, and so many others were “down at Tootsie’s eating chili.”

In those days, before too much money hit Nashville, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge was a rundown sort of place. I drove my Volkswagen on the street named Broadway until I saw the sign “Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.” I walked in to find a silent jukebox, which I put a quarter in and punched up a Merle Haggard song.

The walls were full of old album covers and publicity photos of country stars I knew and just as many that I had never heard of. There were lots of names written on the walls and I wrote mine there, thinking that one day, I’ll go back and see it again. Never did.

The smell of the previous night’s drinking and smoking filled the lounge and I stayed long enough to wet my whistle and hear Merle sing “I take a lot of pride in what I am.”

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since that day in 1974 and no way to remember it all, but another Tootsie’s in a most unusual place sure made me think.