In early May 1953, my girlfriend Jean Armstrong suggested I apply in the coffee shop where she worked as a waitress at the Tulane Hotel in Nashville. The hotel was situated on the corner of Eighth Avenue North and Church Street. It was the equivalent of a two- or three-star-rated hotel in today’s market. The restaurant served breakfast, lunch, and supper—nothing fancy. The Tulane was cheap, clean, nice, and convenient—a magnet for sidemen from the Grand Ole Opry. Musicians who lived there and worked at the Opry didn’t need a car. They could take their instruments, unless it was an upright bass, and walk to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Opry was held. The Ryman was located on Fifth Avenue, between Broadway and Commerce Street—about six or seven blocks.
I applied in the coffee shop at the hotel and was hired the same day. I started to work the next week. On my first day of work I met Bessie Lee Mauldin, Bill Monroe’s longtime girlfriend. Bessie was a well-endowed, beautiful blonde and an immaculate dresser. I was envious of her beauty and fashion. She was easy to talk to. Maybe she needed a friend. Who knows? But she befriended me. It wasn’t long before she told me she was Bill Monroe’s girlfriend and had been for many years. Bessie said Bill was still married to his wife, Carolyn, and they had two children. But that didn’t stop Bill and Bessie. He took her everywhere. She even appeared with Bill and his daughter, Melissa, on stage. Despite the fact I was a transplanted Nashville girl, I had no idea who Bill Monroe was at the time, nor did I care. I did know he played on the Opry, because Bessie told me. Bessie was not only Bill’s longtime girlfriend but also his bass player.
Within a week of starting work I met Rudy Lyle, L. E. White, Sonny Osborne, Charlie Cline, and into my life came Jimmy Martin. They were all sidemen for Bill. They didn’t impress me, but I thought they were nice guys. I still didn’t know anything about Bill Monroe. The last time I had gone to the Grand Ole Opry, I was three or four years old and it was held in the Old Dixie Tabernacle. I don’t remember going, but Mother told me
we went. When Jimmy first came into the restaurant and sat at one of my tables, he immediately asked me out. At the time, he was twenty-five years old and I was only seventeen, with a smart mouth. I told him, “No. If I wanted to go out with my daddy, I would go home and get him.”
Even though I thought of Jimmy as old, he was still very good looking and a charmer. He had beautiful blue eyes. His hair was a dirty brown color and sort of thin, but not as thin as it was in later years. I liked him—and I didn’t. I wanted to go out with him—and I didn’t. I thought it would be exciting to go to the Opry with him, but I didn’t want to get involved with him. Those mixed feelings would keep me with him for the next fourteen years.
Jimmy came to the restaurant every day. He was not a big tipper, but he was a big talker. He often left a penny under each plate, cup, saucer, or whatever dish he was using. That irritated me to no end. He thought he was playing a joke, but what he was doing was ripping off the waitress. In my mind, he was a typical old man trying to be cute. I didn’t think he was funny. Yet he had that charisma tugging at my heart. I had to keep telling
myself, “Don’t get sucked in. He’s too old.” A few weeks after I started work at the Tulane, Jean and I decided to go skating one Friday night. We took our skates and extra clothes to work. Jean and I had been going to the Hippodrome Skating Rink since we were in the ninth grade and considered ourselves “regulars.” Our weekends were consumed with skating. Looking back now, we were kids doing kids’ things while living in a grown-up world.
After work we caught the bus and went to the Hippodrome. When we got there, we put our skates on and went out onto the floor. We made a few rounds, but none of our skating partners was there, so we took off our skates, caught the bus, and went back to town. We were standing on Union Street waiting for our bus to go home when it started pouring down rain. No umbrellas! We were soaking wet. We did have a piece of plastic covering our heads. It was Friday night, and we weren’t really ready to go home. From where we were standing, we could see the National Life and Accident Insurance Company building, where radio station WSM had its studios, and we wondered if L. E. White and Jimmy were at WSM. Jean said, “Why don’t I call L. E. and maybe we can go up to the WSM studios.” That sounded good. I liked L. E. but was not crazy about Jimmy Martin. I was hoping I might meet someone else at WSM I could hang out with. Jean went inside the restaurant and called L. E., and he invited us up to the studio. Neither Jean nor I had ever been in a radio studio. Our lives were to change forever with this one visit to WSM.
Read more about Barbara Martin Stephens’ life with the King of Bluegrass in Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler.