Tootsies Back Bar: Real Life & Country Music Ain’t Pretty
Back bar of Tootsies looks a little like a Hell hole, Not dark enough for the worn in – or worn out, depending on your perspective – room to have the dingy romanticism of authenticity, its mostly a sad little room for people looking for ghosts and cheap beer. See, Tootsies was where a whole lot of it happened way back when.
And it’s not a combat zone any more. Not just burned out drunks and low level working girls. I’m on the lam from life, waiting on Billy Gibbons, for a version of the talking cure – and I know one thing above all: go to the trenches. It’s where the truth is.
Down front, it’s a tourist friendly band, and they’re belly to backside. It’s all just what out of towners would expect in the land of post modern country music: clean cut, well-scrubbed and radio friendly. Well as friendly as kids working the gutter can be.
Cause Tootsies isn’t where you go to scout the future, but rather to survey the ones so lost to the dream that they can’t see it aint gonna happen.
The back bar, though. That’s where the real shit happens. The scrappy stuff, a little too raw, a little too braying when they sing. Not exactly John Anderson, the definitive years, but kinda that same brazen, toss yourself down the stairs.
And the band is most definitely scrappy. Bass player is long in the tooth, white hair cut not unlike Moe Bandy or Joe Stampley in their honky tonk heyday. Full, grizzly beard, beer gut that’s more tumor.
The drummer is pasty in that motel tan kinda way. Spikey hair, minimal motion and a good solid kick. Country music ain’t complicated rhythmically, but you gotta hit the pocket hard ‘cause these are some of the whitest people in the world you’re trying to move.
Guitar player plays like a dead shot trick embroiderer. Looks like a truck stop Chris Isaak. Seems like he’s spent a fair amount of time at the altar of Vince Gill in his short sleeve cotton plaid and baggy jeans. He steps into the void, though, with command instead of flash – and that adds a dimension you don’t always get playing in the rooms that are about the outlying shreds of the dream.
Still it’s funny what translates and carries. Those songs that outrun the stars who use them to vault to fame. It’s a core sample of what real drinking people buy into, what has enough hoist for the real world.
Or enough frisson to inspire some hardcore buckle polishing.
The singer is a snake-hipped bit of tore up sinew. A military drab t-shirt emblazoned with the jingoistic credo: America: LIVE FREE OR DIE! Crosses on the back pockets of his jeans, heavy, silver wallet chain dangling from his belt loops.
The kids has two sleeves of tattoos, facial hair and a ball cap on backwards. But unlike the hard boys with the soft hearts being hurled at the radio stations, this kid looks hard. You can see the fire in his eyes, feel the burn in his voice.
I won’t say that he’s singing to save his soul – or grab the last shot of any scrap of the lies they feed you. He doesn’t seem to have much of a choice: voice rubbed raw and craggy, yowling at the walls like some kind of being consumed by the songs.
For me, it’s as much a walk through my life as it is “Midwest Midnight”’s core query — “does the man still play all the hits that you wanna hear?” And the hits are all here. Back when, right now, long gone and worn out.
It’s a little bit what’s obvious, obviously. They ain’t coming for art. It’s the accessibility of quasi-outlaw Eric Church’s #1 “Drink In My Hand” sung like a javelin thrown more than a whimsical flirt for the girl with the plan. Plouhed right through Mel McDaniels’ “Louisana Saturday Night” like he was wielding a buzz saw and tackled Brantley Gilbert’s lumbering “Country Must Be Countrywide” with all the dinosaur hummmm.
But it’s really about how the deep-seated realities corner. Embracing David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By Name” comes out all swagger and brimstone… even the Steve Goodman verse is played long and hard and for all the gusto he could find.
Still, even bad boys get the tender mercies. Haunted by some girl they couldn’t keep, lost in a memory that won’t let go.
Just the snake-hipped boy too hard to settle down or slow down enough to figure the game out. On his own, his puts on an acoustic guitar – and finds the contemplative place inside Kenny Chesney’s “You & Tequila.”
Funny how certain songs transcend – and sound good wherever they land. Matraca Berg wrote herself a song about yearning and things that are fun that poison you. The haunted notion of obsession, and the way outrunning that which is so bad for you often leaves you lonely.
Somehow seeing someone like this boy sing this song, the tears and scars of loving and being torn apart by it become real, not trumped up. You and tequila probably really do rip this old scaggy-faced singer up, and that pain comes through by the way he commits to the song.
It’s a funny thing about the trenches: pain isn’t flanged for effect or authenticity. It’s palpable, gritty, drawn like blood because it’s the only way to get it out.
And that’s not to make a saint of some hard-lived kid in the belly of the beast, either. He’s probably given far worse than he’s got. But that don’t mean the living or worse the being in it when it’s so toxic.
Starts out fun, then takes you down headfirst. And the pain can be excruciating long after the fun’s gone.
Kinda like the dream of being a country music singer. The notion of lights and fans, sexy clothes, fast cars, people knowing your name. Yeah, right: random platters of deli meat, miles and miles by van or bus, debts piling up (everyone has to get paid before you do, singles that die, agendas that crush you, teams that aren’t as good as they think) and the endless indifference of people taken by this one or that other star.
Keeping the faith is hard. Heck, holding the line is hard.
The rough boy comes offstage, grabs the tip jar and circulates. Cause in the afternoon at Tootsies, it’s strictly a for tips kinda pay day.
The kid is so beaten down by the hustle – or tired of being hustled – he doesn’t get it. When the smile and quick connective comment only yields a “Go get your tips and come back,” he doesn’t realize I might could help him. Heck, I could’ve put his name in here.
But he’s gone. Works the room, poses for a few pictures with some tourists, sure they’ve seen the next Travis Tritt or Eric Church – and he skates right past me. Six more times before the migraine that’s settling in takes me under.
Never looks my way again. And so, his name is lost to time and anyone reading this.
The dream can be hard on the dreamer. How much hope can you get up before the hydraulic lift just breaks. Or know so much you know nothing.
I can’t worry about it. Already, there’s more where that came from…
A dark headed girl in a shiny dress and knee high suede boots has taken his place onstage. She’s losing the fight with the sound system. Badly, So sharp she can scalp you with the sour ways she’s squeezing against the melody… and the distress can be read clearly on her pretty enough face.
Chris Isaak, the trucker, is encouraging her all he can. Trying to lift her up during “Ring of Fire” with a harmony part that feels more like a piggy back ride, but even his explosive guitar solo, thrashing his way through Emmylou Harris’ arrangement of Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine” can’t get the poor girl on the beat with a pair of clamps.
The bass player starts railing about the band down front. “Tell that band to turn down… we’re trying to do a country music show up here.”
There’s a notion of audience participation, pulling out Tanya Tucker’s old school gospel harmonies on “Delta Dawn.” She moans like a cat in trouble, the sound being sour enough to not quite curdle, but certainly sets one’s teeth on edge.
The standard bar jokes are offered. “Drink up. I’m trying to get you drunk… cause the more you drink, the more you’ll like us.”
The poor girl tries to shimmy a little, tries to find the songs’ centers. Its painful – and she knows it. Her eyes dart. She clutched the mic. She gets up on her toes. Buckles a knee. Resorts to talk-singing, to propelling her way through Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” where the guitar player runs down the clock with some fiery playing, some spectral sounds, but it is what it is.
What it is is the underbelly of the dream. The fishy pale part that never sees the light, that no one notices – except a few people who can’t get anywhere near the big stars either. So they cling to what they can get access to, make it more than it is – and succor on the carbon fumes of dreams idling with a bad emissions issue.
As long as you don’t need more, it gets people by. If you accept what’s reasonable, it still might be Hellish… or real life. Real life the way no one wants to see it. The fact that 400,000 people in Nashville alone are struggling with hunger; why a mobile food pantry that will likely be the biggest in the state is afraid of “publicity” for fear of a riot if too many people show up.
This is what the Hummer people don’t want to admit. It’s not the Ayn Rand or Gordon Gecko reality that seems to be driving. It’s something else, and if we can blame people for the jobs we send to China, India and South America (in the name of “cheaper labor”), then we’re missing the point.
My migraine is getting worse. Maybe it’s the pitch issues. Maybe it’s something else.
I’m sitting in the ally on the Ryman’s back door curb, hoping it will pass. I know I’m overwhelmed by what I just experienced, am cratering for the blinding pain coming on.
Is there a point? Beyond what real life looks like, the betrayal of the power of what country music is in the name of bad post-“Entourage” posturing and contempt for the audience? I don’t know. I’m just hoping my need to throw up is the headache, and not the realization sinking in.