Mary Lyons, 61, has never lived in Lutz. In fact, though she lives less than an hour away in Brooksville, she doesn’t get out there often.
Much of what she knows about Lutz comes from a popular song she heard years ago on the radio. The small town would seem an unlikely subject for a radio hit, given that it’s an unincorporated part of the Tampa Bay area straddling Hillsborough and Pasco counties with a population of about 20,000 people.
That’s why Lyons wrote to us as part of “Florida Wonders,” a Times series that asks readers to submit questions they are wondering about their community.
For Lyons, there was no question. She just wanted us to know that there once was a song called Beautiful Downtown Lutz.
That was where our search began.
To understand the story of Beautiful Downtown Lutz, you have to know that the song’s writer once went by John “Lutz” Ritter.
The 67-year-old’s identity was so tied to this song that he took the city as his middle name.
The legacy is hard to escape. His royalty rights are still registered under that name, so each time a song of his is played and royalties stream in, they go to Lutz Music.
The record cover for Beautiful Downtown Lutz shows Ritter, then in his early thirties, posed on top of a white sign that reads, “Welcome to Lutz.” His hair is long and shaggy, his outfit a long-sleeved white top and brown pants punctuated by a matching vest and boots. To his right is his dog, Carob, sporting a red bandana and a cowboy hat. The aesthetic is ‘small town 70s,’ though the song was copyrighted in 1981.
Before Ritter had a ‘Lutz’ in his name, he was a songwriter on the Q Morning Zoo radio show in Tampa, which he called “the biggest morning show in the country.”
He wrote jingles for the radio show and its popular hosts, Cleveland Wheeler and Scott Shannon. One day, he struck songwriting inspiration from two surprising influences: his hometown of Lutz and a character on the radio show named Bud Kutz from Lutz.
‘What if I write a song about Lutz?’ he asked the co-hosts.
‘Go do it,’ they told him. And so, Ritter set out to write a song that would capture the little slice of small town where he grew up.
Something about the song resonated with people. Quickly, it became a local hit played on the Q Morning Zoo, as well as other local stations, and even some across the state. It also became a theme song for Lutz, a small town that still celebrates the song today from one of their own.
The song’s lyrics hit on most of the salient aspects of living in a tiny town where everyone knows each other, though it’s not all entirely positive.
“Everybody’s gotta have one, a little city that they pick on,” the song starts. “Got a half a dozen churches blinking light and one laundromat. Both its buildings are outdated, looks like everyone’s related, wearing jeans and boots, flowered shirts and cowboy hats.”
Ritter drew on elements of his own life growing up in Lutz. As a kid, he knew most of the people on his street. When he was misbehaving, his next-door neighbor would come outside and yell: “John Ritter, you stop that or I’m going to tell your mom.”
“Lutz was like that,” Ritter said. “Everybody knew each other, because it was a small town.”
A line in the song that goes, “Buy a hat with a feather,” was taken from a man that lived down the street from Ritter and owned a local boat company. He always had to have the biggest feather in his hat.
“Follow them four-wheel drives and pick-em-up trucks,” another line goes.
“Flowered shirts was the thing," Ritter said. “And the higher the pick-up truck, the better you fit in.”
From the age of 15, Ritter knew he wanted to be a musician. He always sang and played music in bands, but people told him it would never work. ‘You’ll never make a living doing that,’ he heard endlessly. ‘When are you going to get a real job?’
So Ritter went to college and graduated from the University of South Florida with a Master’s degree in speech pathology.
He never stopped loving music. The day he got his degree, he hung the plaque on the wall and grabbed his guitar.
In a way, he also marched right back to Lutz. At 25, he bought his first house on a lake and sat out on a little boat and fished nearly every day.
Eventually, he left Lutz and moved to Lake Tahoe. He still wanted all that open space spread out before him.
Almost 40 years later, Ritter doesn’t get back to Lutz much now. He runs a nationally distributed country music radio show called “Rise Up.”
Even on that show, his Lutz roots call back to him. So many country stars hail from small towns.
The first thing they want to do, Ritter said, is leave.
But once they get that taste of success, the fast-paced life, they want to go back. They miss that small-town feel. They miss that Beautiful Downtown Lutz.
For years after Beautiful Downtown Lutz’s premiere, Ritter would go out to local schools and sing his hit song.
He hasn’t done that in at least a decade. But the schools still perform his song.
“We play it and sing it every year,” says Lutz Elementary School principal Lori Branham.
Students sing Beautiful Downtown Lutz as part of their yearly ‘Lutz Olden Days’ celebration. They dress up like cowboys and have a day of storytelling and hay rides.
“This is kind of like our song,” Branham said. The students "scream it at the top of their lungs when they’re singing it. And they do this little kick thing where they click their heels — they’ve got it all down.”
Branham’s own children, who are now more than 15 years out of elementary school, still remember singing the song. Just the other day, she reminded them of Beautiful Downtown Lutz and they immediately began singing the chorus.
Social media posts show that people are still nostalgic for this song. Vida Louden posted in a “Raised in Lutz” Facebook group telling members that she “remembers the song and still sings it.”
Comments on a Youtube video of the song range from a parent whose kids learned the song at Lutz Elementary to a second generation Lutz resident who still has the 45 record.
Ritter remembers performing the song more distantly. The first time he got a call from a teacher asking him to play the song for their students, he said to himself: You’ve got to be kidding me.
What is it that has so resonated with Lutz residents? The song is catchy, sure, and captures that small-town feel, but there has to be something more. Other songs have those components and yet lack the longevity of this tune.
Ritter boils it down to the chorus.
In Beautiful Downtown Lutz, kick off your boots, give a holler and a hoot. Yee-haw!
“The success of any good song is having a good hook,” Ritter says, sitting in his studio. “And right now, if I said 'In Beautiful Downtown Lutz, kick off your boots, give a holler and a hoot..."
You’d probably have to finish it with a “Yee-haw.”
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