Mom Upchurch's Boarding House
Did you know this nearly 100-year old stone house at 620 Boscobel Street in East Nashville's Edgefield neighborhood served as Mom Upchurch's Boardinghouse from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s? A widow, Delia "Mom" Upchurch (1891-1976) only rented to struggling male country music singers, songwriters, and musicians. "They don't mix too good with people in other livelihoods," explained Mom. "And I just like good ole hillbilly music."
Known as "Hillbilly Heaven," the house became famous as the first home of hundreds of struggling hillbilly musicians. Over the years, it is estimated that over 2,000 men in the country music industry roomed here. The list is a virtual who's who and includes Pee Wee King and His Golden West Cowboys, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Stringbean, Stonewall Jackson, Lloyd Green, Buddy Spicher, Hank Cochran, Grandpa Jones, Roger Miller, Okie Jones, Buck Trent, Howard White, Benny Williams, Stan Hitchcock, Butterball Paige, and the Carter family. Mom would take in 6-14 boarders at a time in her 5-bedroom, 1-bath home, and only charged $7-8 per week. She took good care of her "boys," cooked for them, cleaned their socks, and took messages while they were on the road. The boys would rehearse in the house and in the yard during the summertime.
A native of Gainsboro, Tennessee, the "Den Mother to the Stars" died in 1976. Her home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and protected by a historic preservation overlay. Mom Upchurch's Boarding House is located directly across the street from the stone Bungalow that serves as Deacon's home on the "Nashville" TV show.
(Photo and text courtesy Robbie D. Jones)
After “Pa” Upchurch passed away in 1947, Delia opened the rest of her house to musical tenants and by the late 1940s, “Mom” Upchurch’s boarding house, at 620 Boscobel St, was the first stop for many young singers and pickers fresh off the bus to Nashville. For $5 a week, a musician could rent half of a double bed, with the understanding that it might be sub-leased while they were out on tour. A home-cooked breakfast was 75¢, supper 85¢ and friendly advice from “Mom” was always free. Mom Upchurch became a surrogate mother to scores of young musicians. While she had strict rules forbidding alcohol, cursing and female guests, her “boys” loved her. Record producers and artists knew that if you needed a musician for a session or tour, Mom Upchurch’s was the first place to call.
Mom continued to run her boarding house until she turned 80 in 1971. Over the years, her tenants ranged from future stars and songwriters like George Morgan, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Roger Miller, Stonewall Jackson, and Hank Cochran to accomplished sidemen like Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Butterball Paige, Lightnin’ Chance, Shorty Lavender, Buddy Spicher, Dale Potter, Buddy Emmons and scores of others.
[Muddy Roots Records]
A Grand Ole Lady - (by Don Davis, former member of Pee Wee King & His Golden West Cowboys)
There is a house at 620 Boscobel Street in East Nashville - a yellow stone house between Shelby Avenue and Woodland Street. it became famous because of the Grand Ole Opry stars and musicians it housed. Delia Upchurch was the owner and 'Den Mother' to all of us. We called her 'Mom.' Mom (or 'Ma' as some would say) was just a Nashville homemaker who opened her house in East Nashville to struggling young musicians, man of whom were so young they were experiencing their first time away from their own home and family.
Shorty Boyd was the first person who stayed there at a time when Mom's husband, Louis K. Upchurch, was still alive. Shorty talked them into letting him stay there, too, as we were both members of Pee Wee King's band then. When Mr. Upchurch died, I was in California, and when I got back Mom was grieving.
I talked mom into letting other musicians live there, because I knew if anybody could cheer her up it would be a bunch of dang hillibilly pickers. I told her it would be an income she needed. When she agreed, everybody started moving in there.
Her cooking, and especially her rates, attracted all the pickers. We only paid $7 a week for board and she charged 85 cents for dinner and 75 cents for breakfast. There were three bedrooms downstairs and two upstairs. There was one shared bath and, wonder of all wonders, there wasn't much arguing over its use. Think of a dozen hillbillies all getting ready to play the Opry at the same time on a Saturday night! We had the run of the house, using the living room as our own. She had one phone, only one line and no call-waiting. Mail was neatly stacked in the downstairs hall. The hopefuls were coming into town with no money, no jobs, and no friends, each of them with the same dream of getting on the Opry. They needed a home and somebody to look after them until they got started. Mom was just the person to do that for them.
One thing that mom didn't allow in her house was any form of alcohol. She was an avid church-goer and a Democrat. You could find her every Sunday at Eastview Church of Christ on Shelby Street. Howard White (Morgan called him Sylvester), steel player, was one of Mom's longest residents at 10 years. Once he made a tour in Canada and came home with a recipe for Peach Brandy. He managed to make it in Mom's basement without her knowledge. It had to ferment for 30 days and before the time was up, Mom found it. She made him pour it out. 'Honey,' she said, those Revenuers might come in and close this place down.'
Then another time, someone gave Howard a gallon of moonshine. He brought it home to Mom's and hit it in the closet. As he was leaving to go on tour with Cowboy Copas, he let Ray Edenton, a guitar player also living at Mom's, have a taste. While Howard was gone, Edenton took that 'shine over to some girl's house across the street and had a party. Ten days later, when Howard came back, he looked for his moonshine and found the jug almost empty. Edenton said, 'There was a lot of hell raised.' But as Howard said, 'not enough to attract Mom's attention.'
Once Dale Potter and I bought a motorcycle from Grady Martin. It was a nice big Harley 74' with a big seat on it. Mom kept telling us, 'You're gonna get killed on that thing one day.' Then one day when it was in the back yard., Dale coxed her into sitting on it just to see how comfortable it was. While she was remarking that it really was comfortable after all, Dale jumped on the cycle, kicked it, and took off. Wow, what a ride!
Grady Martin, the finest guitar player in Nashville, and I spent a lot of time together when we both lived at Mom's. At this time, Grady's wife had left him and he was in a foul mood most of the time. He'd go out looking for trouble and, of course, if I were was with him there were two of us looking for trouble. Usually the evening would end in a fight somewhere. Now, there was this place called the Glenview Inn where a lot of us drank beer, put nickels in the Seeburg 100 Selector Jukebox and shot pool. It was right off the East Nashville side of the old Shelby Bridge on South First Street. Mr. Fleming, the owner, ran a real straight dive. Grady and I were in a bunch of fights there.
Then one day, somebody from 'The Glenview,' as we called it called Grady at Mom's and told him that he would not be admitted to the Glenview anymore, and to tell Don Davis he was barred too. Well, Grady didn't tell me. He waited until we were riding by one day and he pulled into the parking lot and asked me to go into the Glenview and get him a package of cigarettes. Being perfectly innocent to the fact that I was barred from there, I went in. They promptly threw me out saying I was never to come in there again. Grady thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever seen - me getting thrown out of the Glenview on my butt. What a laugh! Mr. Fleming didn't kid. He kept a big, hog-leg pistol right by the cash register. The Glenview taught me two things: (1) Beer bottles in those days, don't break and (2) pay no attention to people who say, 'Look-out for the little guys. 'It's these big dudes that weight in at 280 pounds who are dangerous.
One Saturday night after leaving Mom's, we would head for our Opry date. And of course, we had a lot of time on our hands between shows. That's when we would head for another 'Mom's,' a beer place that Louise 'Mom' Hackler and her husband John had. The back door of this 'Mom's' was off the alley, a little to the left of the Opry back stage entrance. We musicians drank beer there and swapped lies and listened to Ernest Tubb sing about lost love on the juke box. We were all one great big happy family.
Mom catered to us, calling us her Opry boys. She had a shillelagh, and Irish club, and if one of us Opry boys came in and there wasn't a seat, she would ask the non-musician to get up and give her Opry boy that seat. If the person refused, she got her shillelagh after him. Now, Mom Hacker became curious abou the other 'Mom' across the river who ran the boarding house. One day, Buddy Emmons and I were sipping a cool one and Mom asked us, 'Who is that woman across the river who calls herself 'Mom?' We explained to her who Mom Upchurch was, Mom Hackler then turned to Buddy and I and said, 'Well, I'm the original Mom, ain't that right Buddy!'
Tootsie Bess came along later and bought the old place and kept on catering to us. She wielded a long hat pin. The old tavern was run down, but there were pictures of all of us downstairs, and on the upstairs walls were autographs of the famous and not-so-famous. Tootsie renamed the old place 'Tootsies Orchid Lounge,' although it was less of an orchid lounge than it was a watering hole. She painted the outside purple and the old place became famous, thanks to the show business people who hung out there, wrote songs there, and fell in love there. And that's how Mom's place became an orchid lounge.
I went to Mom Hacker's a lot more after I got thrown out of the Glenview. Dale Potter and I spent a lot of tie just having fun there. Any time any musicians were gathered together, there were always hangers-on who just wanted to be around us. Two of the most famous were Junior and Muscles. They had nothing to do with the music business but were just there to have fun. Junior was a big, six-foot-two man, probably weighing 220 pounds. He worked on a milk truck and had a speech problem. Muscles was maybe five-foot-two and weighed about 80 pounds. He sold newspapers and talked real fast. One night, Junior asked Dale Potter if he could loan him ten dollars; he promised to pay it back the next week. Muscles patted his leg and said, 'That's right, Dale. If he don't I will.' Dale looked at me, grinned and said, 'Now, that's security, ain't it!'
It was against the law to bring hard liquor into Mom's but Junior kept a pint of whiskey in his back pocket. While Junior talked to us, Muscles would put his hand in Junior's back pocket, take out the bottle, unscrew the cap, take a long drink and then slip the bottle back in Junior's pocket. Junior never knew it and we didn't inform him. One night I saw Junior and I asked him what he had been doing. He said, 'Got a job driving the bus for Lester and Earl,' (Flatt and Scruggs). 'Really,' I said. 'Yup,' he said. 'Where y'all going?' I asked, 'England!' he said. 'You driving all the way to England?' I asked, Junior said, 'You've got that God dang right!'
The people who stayed at Mom's read like a Who's Who of Country Music. She kept us all: stars, musicians, songwriters, whatever. The only credential asked for was that you be involved in Country music. She loved her music Country-style. Some of her roomers besides Shorty Boyd and myself, were: Howard White, Ray Edenton, Grandpa Jones, Redd Stewart, Redd's brothers Billy & Slim, the whole Carter family, Dale Potter, Carl Smith, Joel Price, Faron Young, Gordon Terry, Lightnin' Chance, Harold Morrison, Walter Haynes, Shorty Lavender, George McCormick, Johnny Johnston, Buddy Spicher, Buddy Emmons, Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Donnie Young (Johnny Paycheck), Butterball Paige, Darrell McCall, Stonewall Jackson, Stan Hitchcock, Jimmy Elrod, Benny Williams, Lloyd Green, Hank Cochran, Joe Edwards and, as they say in show biz, 'many others.'
It became a status symbol to live at Mom's. Heck it was home! There was always other musicians or writers hanging out there. The artists, bookers, and studios in town knew just where to call when they needed a musician. Somebody called every day to book somebody. And the girls! They knew where to find us, but we were not allowed any visitors in our rooms, a rule we all respected. We just didn't do that. Many a song was written there, many a song was plugged there, many a chord was learned there.
There have been other boarding houses for musicians, several on Music Row, but none of them were run by a good, Christian woman like Mom, with the integrity and innate knowledge of how to keep us happy but straight. When 'Delia' Mom Upchurch turned 80, she quit renting rooms. She died in 1976 at age 85. Back then there was not a home like hers and today there is no-one taking her place. She really was the Grand Ole Lady of Country Music.
A few days ago, I drove down Boscobel Street, stopping across the street from Number 620. An elderly lady was standing on the front steps. It could have been Mom. I got out and introduced myself. Her name is Alveda Newman. Mrs. Newman's son, a Nashville fireman, bought the house from the Upchurch family. Through the years she had learned a little about her home's history. I looked around. Mom's neatly trimmed yard was now overgrown with bushes and weeds, but our home-away-from-home is still standing, in all its glory. Neither rain, sleet, snow or tornado has moved that old stone house one inch. It has survived! Come and see me again,' were Mrs. Newman's parting words. It could have been Mom's words echoing through the years, as I left on tour.
'Nashville Steeler - My Life In Country Music' by Don Davis
This true account of the rise of Country music is told by a 1940s band musician, Don Davis, who became a music business
executive and worked with all the Grand Ole Opry stars. Johnny Cash, the Carter family, Waylon Jennings, Minnie Pearl,
Roy Acuff, and many others were his friends and appear throughout the book. they played from Mobile to Nashville and back
again to his beloved Alabama. This masterful storyteller recalls colorful songwriters, record personalities, and fans with real
incidents over his sixty-year career, that will move readers from laughter to tears. View 100 photographs showing real people,
places, and instruments that have become Country music legends. the stories will inform the fans and inspire current
musicians to keep to their roots and enjoy the music. Nashville Steeler: My Life in Country Music (Book)
Don Davis and 'Mom' Upchurch (1940s)
Pee Wee King & His Golden West Cowboys
(L-R) Mom Upchurch, Jean Stewart (Redd's wife), Shorty Boyd (in car), Pop Upchurch & Don Davis