Nashville’s Hidden Destination: The Ryman Alley – ’17 Steps to Tootsie’s And 34 Back’

by Jim Casey

The Ryman Alley is just a footnote in Nashville’s storied history of country music. But it’s a damn cool one. And best of all, it’s free, unlike many of Nashville’s more well-known attractions.

Since its first concert on May 4, 1892—then known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle—Ryman Auditorium has welcomed an array of entertaining acts on its hallowed stage. But the Ryman Alley also has had its share of star power. In celebration of the Ryman’s 130th anniversary this year, let’s check out one of Music City’s hidden gems.

The Ryman Alley is the passage between the Ryman Auditorium’s gated back entrance and the back entries of some of Lower Broadway’s honky-tonks. Today, those honky-tonks include Legends Corner, Robert’s Western World, The Stage, and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

Alley to the Stars

When the Grand Ole Opry was hosted at Ryman Auditorium (1943-1974), the Ryman Alley became a well-traversed path for a number of Opry stars like Faron Young, Marty Robbins, Bill Monroe, and Porter Wagoner, who were looking for a cold drink, or perhaps, a bite to eat, before or after their performance. Since the Ryman had no backstage, the honky-tonks, especially Tootsie’s in the 1960s, became the de facto backstage.

Circa 1955, the teenage Everly Brothers—Phil and Don Everly—performed in the Ryman Alley, with the hopes of catching the ear of an Opry star. And they did. While Chet Atkins was already connected to the duo (he persuaded them to move from Knoxville to Nashville in 1955), he eventually invited them up the stairs. The Everly Brothers were asked to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1957, the same year “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” became smash hits.

The gated back entrance of the Ryman, which leads to the Ryman Alley.

A Toast to Tootsie’s

Tootsie’s is where a struggling songwriter named Willie Nelson pitched Faron Young a song called “Hello Walls” in the early 1960s.

Willie, who frequented Tootsie’s after moving to Nashville in 1960, is quoted as saying: “It’s 17 steps to Tootsie’s and 34 steps back [to the Ryman].” Of course, the allusion is that a few drinks made the return trek a bit longer. And he’s right. I made the walk a few days ago.

Visit the alley today, and you can make the “walk” yourself from the Ryman gate to any number of honky-tonks. However, in front of Tootsie’s back door, you’ll notice a set of inlaid footprints. It’s an unofficial invite to come inside.

When you make the walk today, you’re following the same path as some of the greats who frequented Tootsie’s, including Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Dean, Mel Tillis, Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, Tom T. Hall, and more.

The Ryman Alley’s inlaid footprints leading to Tootsie’s.

Hello Walls

As Faron Young told author Ace Collins in his 1996 book, The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs, Willie was at Nashville’s famed Orchid Lounge pitching “Hello Walls” to anyone who would listen.

“He needed more money, and he offered to sell me something called ‘Hello Walls,’” said Faron. “I listened to him sing it and said, ‘Hell, that ain’t bad.’ But I wouldn’t buy it. I did promise Willie that I’d record it later. He told me that he needed the money now, so I gave him a $400 loan.”

True to his word, Faron recorded and released the song. “Hello Walls” topped the charts on May 7, 1961, and stayed there for nine weeks.

Willie recorded the tune in 1962.