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Lower Broadway: the place where dreams are sometimes made and often broken

By Ivey Lindsey, November 1998

A visit to Nashville's hallowed Lower Broad area is an enlightening experience for any country music fan, whether you love the contemporary sound, still listen to purist classics on AM radio or fit snugly somewhere in between.

Because this small stretch of dim, yet thunderous honky tonks, where performer after performer flock to play for tips and sing their hearts out is just as much of a piece of the genre as any rural tradition or cowboy song.

This is (and has been) the proving ground for many of country music's best. Places like the world famous Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Robert's Western World or the Ernest Tubb Record Store have showcased some of country's greatest talent.

Yet they have done so in a fashion that is intimate and wholly real: for the most part a microphone, a song and a tip jar. No lights, makeup or studio pros help out these countless artists as they strive to fulfill their dreams of country music stardom.

On the outside, a city block full of loud bars, pawn shops and record or collectible stores, the section of historic buildings along Broadway in downtown Nashville represent much more than idle watering holes or tourist checkpoints.

They represent the bare knuckles soul of the country tradition.

From Hank Williams, Sr. to Willie Nelson to BR5-49, Lower Broad holds the stories of country music in its aging landscape.

And while the practically non-stop performance hours of the neon driven bars have turned away more country dreamers than they have created careers, plenty of artists have moved from these small stages to become legends of country music.

The reason?

Lower Broad represents a great equalizer for incoming talent. It is a testament to the strength of a dream. It's a place where you might find yourself performing on a hot Tuesday afternoon to five unappreciative people. Or the brunt of direct criticism from a drunkard in the bar. Or, if things go right, a solid tip jar and hearty applause. In any case, it is real and far removed from the often jaded or shallow antics of Music Row politics.

Chuck Mead of the latest Lower Broad heroes BR5-49 echoes this sentiment as he reflects on every day hopefuls who parade just off 16th Avenue in hopes of catching a random industry nod.

"Every day, I drive by Music Row and see these guys out there in front of that big jukebox in about 102 degree weather singing to a tape, and I think 'Man, I'm glad I went down to Lower Broadway."

This type of integrity, in its own rustic form seems to be an underlying yet prevalent theme, which comes across to locals, visitors and business fixtures of Lower Broad.

Robert Moore, owner of Robert's Western World (the "Home of BR5-49") has been in and around the scene there for 32 years. Prior to opening Robert's in 1989, he also owned world famous Tootsie's Orchid Lounge for a few years.

In his time, Moore has seen several superficial changes on the busy street: from the Opry-dominated era prior to 1974 (when the Grand Ole Opry relocated from the Ryman Auditorium downtown) to the neglect which encroached on the area in the early '80's, and finally to the tourist friendly yet humble feel of the present day.

But his admiration for the music and lifestyle of the area hasn't changed. "It's always been a great place to be, no matter what."

More than just a great place to see music, Lower Broad also represents a key factor in the system of checks and balances which is necessary to keep country music so rooted in tradition.

The area offers a glimpse of yesterday, which continues to make itself known in contemporary country. One of Nashville's most respected and long-standing critics (and author of Grand Ole Opry), Jack Hurst has reported on country music for over 35 years.

"It's good that along with the glitter and sheen of the new arena and the refurbished Ryman Auditorium there still remains some of not only the spirit but the grit of the old: the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and Tootsie's along with Roberts, Jack's Barbeque and the like. This way Lower Broad can still serve it's historic function as a reminder that country music goes astray when it gets too far above its raising."

When asked about the unchanged attitude of Lower Broad, Robert Moore echoes the same sentiment by simply saying, "You just can't go too fast."

Though places like Robert's Western World have become the most sought out night spots in recent years, the historic crown jewel of Lower Broad has to be Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.

A comforting haven for many of country's icons, such as Hank Williams, Sr., Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson, Tootsie's is an ever-thriving history book of country lore.

Hank Williams, Sr. and others used to duck in the back door when they were performing on the Grand Ole Opry, to get a few drinks in between sets at the then "dry" Ryman Auditorium. (In fact, the alley separating the so-called "Mother Church of Country Music" the Ryman, and the honky tonks of Lower Broad has to be one of the most musically metaphorical places in the city - the marriage of rural wholesomeness and country heartbreak.)

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