Where: Santa's PubWhen: Aug. 17, 12:57 a.m.
It's nearly 1 a.m., and a raging storm has scared off many potential bar patrons from rabble rousing tonight. But a small yet lively crowd in a Christmasfied doublewide near the fairgrounds is not afraid of a little thunderbolt and lightning.
"Very, very frightening, me!" sings the duo on the designated karaoke stage, channeling Queen through an off-key rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody" as clouds of cigarette smoke swirl around the corner of the trailer. Illuminated by beer signs on the wood-paneled walls and unflattering overhead lighting from the low ceiling, they sing unabashed, completely uninterested in whether they sound good or not.
Which is not the case in your average Nashville karaoke bar. If you've hit up Lonnie's or Ms. Kelli's, you'll see some serious karaoke singers, perhaps still clinging to that shred of hope that maybe the right person will see them sing, and they'll finally get their big break.
Nobody at Santa's Pub has any such illusion.
But Santa's isn't just a karaoke bar. The trailer near the intersection of Craighead and Bransford was originally established as a bar called The Caboose in 1962, Santa says. It opened as Santa's Pub in April 2011, and has had a cult following ever since. The extra-large trailer has seen many incarnations in the past half-century, though none as colorful as the current one. The exterior is covered in graffiti Santa art, and the inside of the smoke-friendly bar is littered (or decorated, depending on your point of view) with Christmas decorations.
Two dollars, cash only, will get you a cold beer. If you ask the proprietor — Santa — why he doesn't serve liquor, he responds, "Whiskey makes people stupid."
Santa's has a stuck-in-time feeling and a universal familiarity that is oddly comforting. "I had a guy tell me that when he comes in here it reminds him of his grandpa's basement," Santa remarks as another bartender slides behind the bar. Totally.
I strike up a conversation with the bartender, who tells me he also works at Vanderbilt. He's cute, but he's not the most interesting man behind the bar. That would be Santa himself.
Santa wasn't born Santa. Santa's given name is Denzel. He was born in Franklin and raised in Nashville with his seven sisters and two brothers. He ran a paint company for 40 years and owned a couple of other bars in the '70s. He proposed to a woman named Angelina before heading off to serve his country, but when he returned, he couldn't find her. They were engaged for 30 years.
As it is every night, the clientele in the bar is extremely diverse, as if someone shook a giant snowglobe of Nashville and a random group of people landed inside. A table of hipsters sits next to a pack of bikers — cyclists, not motorcyclists, although you'll see them here too — while some pretty college-aged girls play pool. A disheveled guy lingers around the bathroom area, while nearby, a well-known musician scans her phone. Everybody seems to know each other, even if nobody really does. Is this a parallel universe of Cheers?
Perhaps. It's definitely a family. Santa and Angelina — yep, he found her; they're married now —regularly invite bar patrons out via their Facebook group to celebrate guests' birthdays, or even Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, when folks are encouraged to bring a covered dish to share.
"They make everyone feel like their grandchild," says patron and local artist Julia Martin. "They're non-discriminating, and they welcome and love everyone that comes in that bar."
If you behave, that is. Santa is proud of the fact that there's never been a fight at Santa's Pub. If he witnesses a man hitting on a woman and it looks like it's going bad, he'll ban the guy from Santa's. "You can buy girls a drink, but you can't hit on them," he says.
After chatting with Santa, I decide it's time to relieve the crowd of the karaoke singer who is singing every song in the incredibly annoying voice of South Park's Cartman. My friend Kim is hesitant to take the stage, so I pull out two pairs of sunglasses from my purse.
"Put these on," I instruct. "If you can't see them, they can't see you." Normally, wearing sunglasses indoors is extremely douchey, but if it gets a pal to join me onstage for a rousing version of Salt-N-Pepa's "Whatta Man," damn the torpedoes.
After we finish, a gentleman missing several teeth pulls me aside and says, "I don't know what you do for a living, but you could be a gangsta rapper if you wanted to be."
This is officially the best night ever.
My liquid courage overfloweth at this point, partially because one of my friends has been pulling a Jedi beer trick on me all night, repeatedly filling my beer with his. That explains why I was drinking the same beer for two hours. I ask Santa what his favorite song is.
" 'Imagine,' " he responds, without missing a beat. I tell him I'm going to sing it for him.
When I tell Ichabod, who is manning the karaoke machine, he says, "Well, that's one of Santa's favorite songs. His other favorite song is 'Beast of Burden.' "
"Let's sing that!" I exclaim. So we do. I'm not saying that I butchered it or anything. But Keith Richards just climbed into the grave he's avoided all these years and rolled over in it.
At this point, I may or may not have duetted with a guy wearing a Justin Bieber T-shirt and a sparkly flag jacket on "We Are the Champions." We may or may not have dedicated it to "everyone who was in the Olympics."
I take a swig from the never-ending beer. My friend Michael motions to a girl at a nearby table. "Is that Ke$ha?" he asks. I get a good look and determine that it is not she who brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack, although Ke$ha — like Mumford & Sons, JEFF the Brotherhood and Bubba Sparxxx, among others — has been known to hang at Santa's. One time, she played with Santa's considerable beard. He tells me he "had to get the glitter out of it."
Ichabod announces that it's last call. What time is it? I glance at my phone. 2:45 a.m. Holy shit.
"Can you guys sing something to calm the crowd down so they'll leave?" Ichabod pleads.
I can't decide whether I should be offended that he thinks our singing will motivate people to move out the door, or if I should be flattered that he wants us to close the evening. I go with the latter.
My friend Hal and I launch into "Imagine," dedicating it to the man, the legend, Santa.
"I can't think of anything I wish I'd done," Santa says, after telling a story about the time he was legally dead. "I'd done everything I wanted to."
If that's not something to put on your Christmas list this year, I don't know what is.