When Nashville’s iconic Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge opened a new location on Florida’s Panama City Beach a few years ago, area native and country singer J. Dallas Sword was naturally excited.
Little did he know that the new Tootsie’s would eventually lead him to perform at the Ryman Auditorium, opening the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Tootsie’s and sharing the stage with his lifelong country idols, including Little Jimmy Dickens and Kris Kristofferson.
After years of trying, J. Dallas had glimpsed the music mountaintop for the first time.
“The Web site just exploded after that, it just flat blew up,” Dallas says in a Thanksgiving week conversation from the office of the heavy-equipment company in Florida where he works as a safety coordinator.
“It went from a couple hundred hits a month to a couple hundred a DAY,” he continues.
Sword is not only from Panama City, he’s a fifth-generation product of the resort town in the Florida Panhandle. His Dad played and sang in area Gospel bands, and was also the Chief of Police in a small town outside Panama City. For a long time, there was a venue in town called the Ocean Opry, which attracted many top Music Row stars.
Like lot of aspiring country artists, Dallas was a fairly anonymous performer playing karaoke nights and club dates near his hometown. He’d come to Nashville occasionally to play venues including the Nashville Palace, and even released a single to country radio a few years ago that didn’t do much. But in the process he became very close with Shane Collins, the morning co-host on WPAP, the city’s powerhouse Clear Channel country station. Shane eventually introduced Dallas’s Ryman performance.
Tootsie’s Panama City announced a contest that would result in a 5-week gig playing at the club, and a trip to Nashville. More than 300 entered, 21 became semifinalists, and Dallas won.
“The winner was determined by popular vote,” Sword says. “At the end of the five weeks, the vote total was calculated. One of the things that you won was the right to sing at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville.
“That was held at the Ryman Auditorium on Nov. 7,” Dallas says. “They flew us up to Nashville, and I got to sing at Tootsie’s in Nashville. Then the coup de grace was opening the show at the Ryman, singing Hank Jr.’s `Family Tradition,’ on the same bandstand with Kris and Jimmy. It was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
Sword’s wife Deanna and their two daughters Anna and Alyssa were among the 30 or so family members who came to the Ryman that night and shared Dallas’s magic moment.
It was a peak for a career that had started decades before, when Sword’s Dad took Dallas with him to sing in church and at shows. Early on, Dallas fell in love with all kinds of music, and particularly the country of traditional stylists including Merle Haggard and Hank Williams Jr. As it turns out, Bocephus’s “Family Tradition” has been one of Dallas’s personal favorites for years, and the chance to perform it at the Ryman in November was a dream come true in more ways than one.
For this strong Christian from Florida, it was certainly a God moment. But was Dallas nervous, playing at such a high-profile event, in front of friends and families and his own musical idols?
“Nervous? Not really nervous,” Sword says. “I’ve been playing and singing for so long. But I’ll tell ya what. That was exciting. Anxious would be the word to describe it.”
His longtime friendship with Shane Collins and WPAP has helped spread the news fast in late October about Dallas’s victory and upcoming Nashville appearance. For a fifth-generation Floridian in a state largely populated by transplants from the cold Northeast, Sword was delighted to be able to share the victory with area friends and fans who have supported him through thick and thin for years.
“Those guys really helped out,” Dallas says. “I had a week in town before coming to Nashville where everybody knew that I won. There’s one place where I normally do karaoke, and when I walked in there that week they gave me a standing ovation. They asked me to come on stage and sing.”
In fact, Dallas has always felt that the Panhandle’s fabulous country fans have been a giant part of his team and his music.
“Now, it’s like they all kind of won something,” he said, smiling.
And Dallas hasn’t let the grass grow under his feet even after his impressive victory. He’s already cut a new single, with the ideal country title of “Chasin’ It With Beer,” that’s quickly attracting fans at his newly exploding Web site.
By Phil Sweetland