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Barkeeps

Four profiles of some of Nashville’s longest-working bartenders

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Bartenders listen to a million of our stories, but rarely get to tell their own. Here’s a look at four local barkeeps who’ve been pouring drinks in Music City for a good long while.

Joss Hodges—Twenty years ago, Joss Hodges moved to Nashville from England with an antique business in tow. But after two years, Nashville proved to be a tough market to break into and Hodges’ business shut down. In 1985, he started working for the Sheraton Music City as a bar manager for banquets and special functions. When he wasn’t working, he hung out at the old Joe’s Village Inn on Hillsboro Road in Green Hills. When a spot opened up at Joe’s, Hodges jumped at the opportunity and started bartending there. In 1993, Hodges closed the Village Inn and bought the building that now houses the End Zone (2227 Bandywood Drive) right down the street. A small neighborhood bar that attracts a diverse clientele, Hodges has bartended at The End Zone since its opening. When he’s not serving his regulars their drinks, he’s sitting with them on the other side of the bar; his customers have become his friends. In the 17 years he’s been tending bar, Hodges has watched his customers get married and start families, while he has raised a family of his own. His philosophy on the job is simple: “If you don’t like people, you won’t be in business long. People want to be welcomed. They can sense friendliness.”

Jerry “Cowboy” Cooley—If you’ve even had a beer sitting in the stands of a Nashville Sounds game in the last 11 years, chances are you bought a few of them from Jerry Cooley. Like any other bartender, Cooley has his regulars, who call him Cowboy because of the leather cowboy hat he wears while he’s working. A Tennessee native, Cowboy says he enjoys working the games because the people are friendly and are somehow drawn to him. The introduction of the Titans to Nashville has allowed Cowboy to take his hat and outgoing demeanor to the Coliseum, where he sells beer on Sundays. When he’s not working, Jerry comes to the park with his wife of 12 years and supports his fellow vendors while taking in a ball game. Next time you make it out to Greer Stadium or the Coliseum, look for the guy in the cowboy hat with a big smile. You’ll find Jerry having as much fun as the fans he’s serving.

Calvin Armstrong—When Calvin Armstrong, 62, returned to Nashville from Germany in the late ’60s after serving three years in the military, he wanted to find a German restaurant and bar to relax in like the ones he had seen in Europe. The Gerst Haus was his only choice in Nashville. For six years, Armstrong stopped there after work to blow off steam and ask the owners for a job bartending. “In ’86, I think they just got tired of me bugging them and told me to come in the next weekend,” Armstrong says. He’s been there ever since.

Armstrong has also been a firefighter in Nashville for 38 years. These days, he trains firefighters by day and serves them fishbowls of beer four nights a week.

Since the Titans have come to town, Sundays have become an even busier day for Armstrong and his co-workers at the Gerst Haus (301 Woodland St.), but he likes the excitement and energy the fans bring into the bar each weekend. “I could retire tomorrow, but then what?” Armstrong wonders. You might just see him behind the bar 20 years from now.

Johnny Sanford—When Johnny Sanford, 52, was a boy, he worked summers at his grandmother’s restaurant in Dover, Tenn., and from that point forward, the restaurant industry was in his blood. Sanford has made a living working behind bars for 29 years. He’s worked all over Nashville, starting at the now defunct Peking Chinese Garden, as well as Kobe’s, Sperry’s, Cakewalk and Bishop’s Corner to name a few. For the last nine years, Sanford has been making drinks for the customers at Tin Angel (3201 West End Ave.). After working in almost everyone position in restaurants, Sanford always returned to bartending because of all the new friends he makes on a daily basis. “Not much has changed over the years about the job,” Sanford says. “People still want to talk about their problems with a bartender, but now they want to do it over an apple or chocolate martini.” (Sanford will tell you that neither is really a martini at all.) The secret to bartending, according to Sanford, is hitting the books and studying the drinks, while at the same time studying the people you serve in order to craft your drinks to fit the person. Like the best of the best, Sanford is a thinking man’s bartender. “I probably have a doctorate in philosophy by now,” Sanford chuckles. There are worse ways to learn.

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