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VOL. 42 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 21, 2018

If beer, smoke, karaoke top your list, this Santa delivers

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Santa, who has worked as a painter and preacher over the years, serves only beer, chips and corndogs to his karaoke-loving clientele. “Whiskey makes you a super-hero who thinks he can fight anybody,” he says.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Santa’s neither worried nor enthusiastic about the Major League Soccer stadium that’s going to be birthed across the street from his smoke-filled, cash-only, beer-and-karaoke oasis on Bransford Avenue.

“I don’t think about it much,” he says, sucking softly, a second time, on a Marlboro Red before setting it in the ashtray, where most of it will smolder to one long ash after he lights another one … or two.

“I sometimes have five cigarettes going at once,” says this mostly jolly, “69 next month” owner of self-named “Santa’s Pub.” No little black pipe for this Santa, though, as he admits to a one-pack-a-day habit of feeding Marlboros to ashtrays and one damaged lung, “especially when I’m working the bar.”

He looks to his left and surveys that bar, his bright eyes twinkling as they travel from the white board “menu” advertising soft drinks and PBR for $2, “regular” beers (Bud, Coors Light and the like) for $3 and wine coolers and “fancy” beers – like his pal Kid Rock’s Badass Beer – for $4. Hungry customers can enjoy a $2 corndog and/or $1 chips.

Santa’s slow gaze continues all the way to a Santa’s Pub neon sign on the wall. Along the way are Christmas lights. Some well-yellowed holiday greeting cards – promoting, perhaps, Peace on Earth or Reindeer Games – are taped to the walls.

I caught him with his decorations down.

Generally, Christmas lights and even a glittery fake fir preside year-round in this proud dive, but because of politically correct “progress” such festive niceties are at a minimum right now.

For a brief period, most of the decorations have been removed so that a higher ceiling – with exhaust fans “so we can get all the smoke out of here,” Santa explains – is being finished. “We’re also going to get a new tree.”

Until those fans provide an escape route for the smoke, Santa’s Pub continues to provide the clothing-permeating aroma of late-night Winstons and Virginia Slim 120s, necessitating this reformed smoker (a pack and a-half a day until 15 years ago when I cold turkeyed smokes as a part of a personal purge of nasty habits, taking tea at 3, etc.) to strip completely when I return to my house, dropping jeans and prized “Exile on Main Street” T-shirt into the washer.

Christmas never ends at Santa’s Pub, so a holly-jolly atmosphere, presided over by this gentle soul with mostly white beard cascading to his belly, flavors the general mood of his karaoke-belting regulars and the occasional brave explorer.

“I just sell beer here. No whiskey. Beer bloats you. Whiskey makes you a super-hero who thinks he can fight anybody,” Santa says.

Fighting is the last thing Santa – “Nobody knows my name is Denzel Irwin. Everybody just calls me ‘Santa’” – wants to erupt in his 4 p.m.-3 a.m., seven-days-a -week dream, his retirement home after a career as, among other things, a painter and a Pentecostal preacher.

“I spent most of my life as a painter,” Denzel recounts. “My daddy was a painter. Everyone says painters either are drunks or Pentecostal preachers. I was both.”

His Pentecostal proselytizing period was spent on Tampa street corners, where he cursed hell’s fury and petitioned the Lord with prayer while trying to save souls – his own, even? – when he wasn’t painting businesses or working in the solar-energy-installation business. By night, he was a drunk, he insists.

Santa’s hearty laughter – and no, it’s not “Ho-Ho-Ho” as I’d hoped – fills the pub that was born from an abandoned former construction site office trailer.

“They left it here after building those houses over there,” he says, nodding toward the north pole of Santa’s Pub where low-income housing has decorated the Bransford-area landscape for decades.

“Since the trailer was left on their property, the former land owners turned it into a bar back in 1963,” Denzel adds. “It was all UT.”

For 47½ years, the bar hatched from the doublewide was a beer-drinking gathering spot for Vols fans who wanted to be around like-minded folks who supported sainthood for Peyton Manning and Johnny Majors and execution for Bill Battle.

The joint was decorated orange-and-white, and – while there were several different owners – it remained the site of bottles raised to Rocky Top’s revival until Santa Denzel bought it 7½ years ago.

The old painter and preacher with the long beard had been off-put by that color and spiritual theme in the years when he was just a customer, sucking one or perhaps two down after a brush-in-hand day on a scaffold.

“First thing I did was paint it,” he remembers. “I’m for Vanderbilt. Always have been. I’m a hometown guy. Win or lose, I root for Vanderbilt.”

Doesn’t get to go to many games, though. “I’m always here at work.”

With the wee hours he keeps, daytimes are for sleeping in (until 11 or so) before getting back to the pub for the cleanup and inventory check – “I put in my beer order on Tuesdays” – and another night as the right jolly old elf welcoming all comers of peaceful intent.

I’m colorblind, but whatever is the post-Vols color scheme in here is pretty much tinted nicotine yellow, although much of it is paneled and I can tell the back room is red, likely with that smoky tint.

A slow stream of smoke slides from Santa’s mouth and curls slightly around the yellowed sections of his beard. “Always had a beard,” he allows, adding that once he was turned clean-“shaven” in a work accident: A run-in with a trash-burn barrel someone had poured gas into.

“Nobody told me, and I threw a match in there to burn the trash and the fire came out the top and burned my beard, eyebrows and eyelashes. Burnt hair stinks, man,” he recollects, adding that he could smell it for two weeks. He began growing the beard back even while that aroma dissipated.

The laid-back fashion – I was much more intense in my smoking days – with which he handles his Marlboro is just punctuation on the way he handles life: Enjoy it, one shallow breath at a time. Those breaths are hindered by Stage 3 COPD in his right lung. No problems with his left lung, though. That one’s been gone 22 years because of profound lung damage as a result of his profession.

“Painters inhale so much, they all damage their lungs.

“They said I died three times while they were taking that lung,” he says, shaking his head, a smile breaking through his beard. The point is that he didn’t die, so he embraces his on-borrowed-time lifestyle.

“I enjoy smoking,” he admits, shaking another Marlboro Red from its cardboard packaging. “There’s no reversing COPD, so I might as well enjoy life.”

He ponders again our original conversation about the soccer stadium that within two years will be the new “center” of this community by the State Fairgrounds.

“I don’t go to (community) meetings, don’t pay too much attention. I roll with the flow. I’m easy-going.”

For a moment, he talks about the top-grade sound system that’s being installed on this day for his “fan base” – the legions of karaoke enthusiasts who jam his bar seven nights a week.

The faux Tammys, Hanks, Rebas, Carries, Lukes and Garths step aside for a bit on Sunday nights. That’s time for “Santa’s Ice-Cold Pickers” – Denzel’s house band made up of friends who mostly are sidemen for some of Nashville’s biggest acts.

If one of them’s out on the road, there’s always another Ice-Cold Picker ready to step out of the recording studio or rehearsal hall to come play for kicks and tips.

A hearty Ho, Ho, Ho evades Santa, alias Denzel Irwin, who is working with one good lung at the smoke-filled Santa’s Pub, where he sometimes hosts famous friends.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

My pal, country traditionalist, heartache philosopher and former adjunct professor Jon Byrd often comes down to sit in. “Jon’s here a lot,” Denzel says. “He likes traditional country, real country music.” (Since he’s a friend of mine, it shouldn’t surprise that Jon’s a bit out-of-sync in this bro-country world.)

Santa returns the conversation to the soccer stadium and its potential impact on him.

“Traffic’s gonna be hell. Gonna be a mess. I guess I’ll get more business, since I’m the only bar across from the soccer stadium,” he says, casting his eyes in the general direction of Bransford Avenue, 50 feet or so from his bar.

He adds again that he didn’t engage in any pro-or-con arguments about that stadium.

“Neighborhood’s going to change. Already changing,” he says, adding that a friend who bought a home on nearby Wedgewood for $80,000 is being offered more than $300,000 to sell.

“It’s crazy,” Denzel says. So, what would it take to buy him out, let the millennial business brokers tear down the old bar and build neighborhood-character-erasing tall-skinnies, over-priced designer coffee shops and perhaps a high-end used-clothing emporium?

He adds that a nearby businessowner asked him, rhetorically, if he’d take $10 million for his half-acre-plus parcel that holds his bar and gravel parking lot and backs up to Browns Creek.

That just made him laugh (again, not “Ho-Ho-Ho,” though I wish I could report it that way).

“I won’t sell this,” he says.

“Do you realize how many tall-skinnies could be installed on this site?” I ask.

“No. I’m not selling,” Denzel replies. “Doesn’t matter how much. I wouldn’t have nothin’ to do. I’d have to go home and sit down and die.

“I’ve met a lot of good people here. Great friends. I have four good buddies who retired and died. All they did was sat around drinking. Died.”

Some of them were retired painters who likely hadn’t paid their dues as Pentecostal street preachers.

“I don’t need the money,” explains Denzel, continuing the to-sell-or-not-to-sell discussion.

“My wife and I have everything paid off. Our house (near Vultee Boulevard). The bar. We don’t owe anybody anything.

“We both bought new cars and all we do is drive back forth to work (wife Angelina also tends bar here). I got a 2016 Jeep (it’s red and he parks it in a spot out front reserved for Santa’s Sleigh), and she’s got a 2014 Corolla. Cash. Those are the last cars we’ll ever need to buy before we die.

“Even my after-home is paid for,” he says, noting that he’s paid for his funeral, including his already-placed gravestone – “all you have to do is put on the date of my death” – in the family cemetery in Nolensville.

“It’s right next to my mother. There’s my dad. My brother, my mother, then me.”

His mother, he adds, was “my best friend,” who had nine children before divorcing her alcoholic-painter husband, Denzel says.

“She joked with me that what she wanted on her gravestone was ‘Here lies the mother of nine, I would have had more, but I didn’t have time.”

“She was my hero,” he recalls, before adding that he himself has been married six times, to the humorous dismay of mom. “My mother always told me that just because I met a girl, I didn’t have to marry them. But that’s, I guess, pretty much what I did.”

After her divorce, Santa’s mother couldn’t afford to take care of her children. Two already were grown, but the rest of them, well “we was awarded to custody of the state.”

T-shirt available for purchase at Santa's Pub

Denzel was “12 or 13” when he and one brother moved into Tennessee Preparatory School. “It was a good school. A lot of people think it was a place for juvenile delinquents, but it was just for children whose parents couldn’t take care of them anymore.” (The younger children, four girls, went to St. Mary’s Catholic School before becoming old enough for TPS).

“I felt like ‘Wow,’” he says, repeating what he told his brother on move-in day. “‘It’s me and you against the world.’”

Now, he adds: “If it wasn’t for that school, we’d be in prison or dead. School’s closed now. 2001. We always had a helluva football team.”

There was no mortar-board march. Denzel never graduated. Instead “I quit-erated” and went to work, first as a desk clerk at the old Mercury Motel on Murfreesboro Road.

From there, he went to Krystal, and worked himself up to manager of four restaurants in Macon, Georgia, and another in Warner-Robbins. He came home to work for short-lived Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken before enlisting in the Army (he served at Fort Campbell, outside Clarksville, and Fort Polk, Louisiana, for the next three years.)

Those were personally tumultuous years. His first marriage came when he was 17 and didn’t last long. “She left me for another guy.”

He married four more times before finally settling down with (though not yet marrying) Angelina 18 years ago. He and Angelina were actually engaged shortly after they both earned their TPS educations.

“We lost track of each other while I was in the Army,” he explains, adding some private soap opera-like details.

“But, we never officially broke off that engagement, so we tell people we were engaged for 47 years,” he says, again lighting up a Marlboro destined to burn in the ashtray.

“People ask me why I don’t drink. I tell them I quit drinking 1½ years ago when I got drunk and got married.” Course he and Angelina are in it for the long haul.

Denzel had four children from his other marriages and now, between the two of them, they have seven children, 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

One of those grandchildren gave him his nickname one day while admiring Denzel’s beard.

“They all called me ‘Honey,’ because that’s what Angelina always called me. Then one day, I was in the reclining chair and he was there looking at a Reader’s Digest with Santa Claus on the cover.

He looked at me and got all excited because I WAS Santa.

“Around Christmas I volunteer for Toys for Tots, and I like to take toys out to the poor kids around Dickerson Road. I can’t describe the feeling I get when I see the looks on their faces.”

He became Santa, the one-lunged bar-owner, after he decided to leave the brushes and hazardous chemicals behind while he still could breathe. “So, I bought this place for my retirement.”

The switch from UT fan headquarters to karaoke bar came easily to this man who enjoys singing along with the records of Ray Price, Hank Sr. and Willie Nelson.

“I figured everybody likes karaoke,” he says. “I really liked doing Willie Nelson’s ‘Hello Walls.’ My favorite song. I know Faron made it a hit, but I did Willie’s version. He’s been my favorite all my life. I bought my first Willie Nelson record when I was 13 and he was wearing a suit and tie.”

Increasingly short wind keeps him from participating in the singing now, as he just enjoys watching the others have their fun.

And those others include close friends Kid Rock, Mumford and Sons, Ol’ Achy-Breaky Billy Ray and Zac Brown as well as the progeny of guys like Roy Orbison, Glen Campbell, Bobby Goldsboro and Hank Jr.

“When Zac’s in town, he’ll probably spend two nights out here doing karaoke. Last time he came in, he was hungry, so he ordered 50 pizzas for the crowd.”

And then there is Bobby James Ritchie. “That’s what Kid Rock likes to be called: ‘Bobby.’ He comes in here and parties like the rest of them. He’s a really good friend.”

Mr. Rock is just one of many who have used this weathered bar for video shoots. Santa pulls out his phone and shows a picture of Montgomery Gentry: “They did their last video in here before he died in that helicopter crash,” he says, speaking of Troy Gentry. “A real nice guy.”

Marilyn Manson was here with “Walking Dead” star Norman Reedus, whose motorcycle-riding AMC travel show “Ride with Norman Reedus” explores biker culture, dive bars and other things he fancies.

“Marilyn Manson was as nice as can be,” adds Santa of the fully made-up shock-rocker. “My bartender kept getting pissed at me, though, because I kept calling him ‘Charles Manson.’”

I’d like to say his laughter this time borders on a “Ho-Ho-Ho,” but it’s muffled as he lights up another Marlboro.

“I’d say about two-thirds of my customers smoke,” he says, haloed by the thick cloud that has helped his place earn a reputation as one of the country’s top dive bars.

He lists the magazines, from Maxim to Rolling Stone to Playboy and newspapers like the failing New York Times that have had stories about Santa’s Pub.

“It’s an icon, a legend,” this kind soul says with somewhat breathless pride.

Greedy “It City” speculators needn’t come here unless they enjoy cigarettes and karaoke …. at least until the BIG management change occurs.

“I’m going to die here,” Denzel says. “I don’t know what my wife will do with it when I’m gone."

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