Bartender James Cason possesses a mellifluous voice, a generous smile and a waggish sense of humor, which, all combined, will win you over in less than 30 seconds.
“I started bartending 50 years ago. Before that I worked for a funeral home. I’m still mixing fluids, only on a different scale,” joked Cason, 77, Wilson County’s first licensed black bartender who made a bit of a boo-boo his first time serving an alcoholic beverage.
“I got here (working behind the bar) as an accident by helping at a wedding reception at the Lebanon Golf and Country Club. When the lady in charge got to me, she brought me this little white jacket to wear. We went back into the kitchen to a walk-in refrigerator. She opened it up and inside from top to bottom was Andre’s Champagne,” recalled Cason.
“She asked me, ‘Do you think you can pour it all?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ but she did not tell me to not give it to the children. A lot of ’em took a little sip, so we partied,” he said with a grin. “Later, (club golf pro) Larry Swafford come in and convinced me that I could be a bartender.”
At the time, Cason, who was in his mid-20s, didn’t know how to mix a single drink. Now he knows 500 by heart.
“I got some friends who can do 800 because they lived in different cities: Washington D.C., Atlanta. They’re around more people. A lot of drinks I learned from people from different countries,” said Cason, who mans the bar at Sammy B’s in Lebanon on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings.
“Sometime I help on Saturdays. I help them out whenever they need me. I start at 3 o’clock. If we don’t have a crowd, I can shut down. Last Saturday night I worked till 12:30. It depends on how busy we are.
“This is the best job I ever had in my life. I try not to let them know I’m having fun. If they did, they would cut the salary off. I meet some of the best people in the world. When they come in, they’re happy and when the go out they’re happy. We want to see smiles on their faces,” said the mixologist, whose biggest tip ever was $1,500.
The 17 siblings
He was the fifth of 18 children (eight girls and 10 boys) born to Sammi Kate and Wilson Cason in the Cherry Valley community near Watertown where his father was a logger and sharecropper. His mom gave birth to four sons, two sets of twins, in the same year.
After dropping out of Bairds Mill School after the eighth grade, Cason took a job at Driver’s Bakery as a baker. From there he went to work at Texas Boot and later toiled at DuPont in Old Hickory.
“I also worked at Hellum Funeral Home for a number of years. I gave up my education to help my family back home. I worked as many jobs as I could get a hold to, so I could send grocery money back home to the younger ones. I met my wife at a grocery store getting groceries to send back home,” he said.
He and his mate, Katherine, have been married 55 years and have two children and four grandchildren.
As for his real education, he says, “Lebanon Golf and Country Club, that’s where I started learning things. The first night I bartended I made $5 in tips at the country club. I got greens in my jeans.”
In the early 1970s, Cason made the acquaintance of Danny Evins of Cracker Barrel Restaurant fame. The two became bosom pals.
“Danny was a person that didn’t say much, but our relationship, it was almost like he adopted me. He was a father to me, and I learned a lot from him. He was a very trusting person and really trusted me. Before I went to work for him, I left the country club in 1992 and worked for his son, Meacham, at Meacham’s (restaurant) down in Kroger shopping center, but whenever Danny would bring people into the club, he would make sure they met me. We had a wonderful relationship.”
From Meacham’s, Cason worked as a bartender for the senior Evins at Rademacher’s in what once had been the president’s house on the Castle Heights campus. He stayed on when it became the Chop House, and later, when the owners of Sammy B’s moved their business from Nashville to the Mill at Lebanon, Cason became the man pouring the libations. Now Sammy B’s thrives inside the same structure that housed Rademacher’s and the Chop House.
Learning from the customers
When asked what is the main skill necessary to be a good bartender, Cason answered, “Your relationship with the customers. You can serve them a bad drink, but they’ll forgive it as long as you try to improve on the next drink. If they like you, it don’t matter who you are or what color you are. And if they be ugly toward you, you still got to serve them.
“What I enjoy most about this job is I love the people. The people offer so much variety of information. I learn from people. I didn’t know much about nothing until I met all these people, and they took me on their wings, and they carried me. They taught me so I didn’t have to go to college.”
Cason, in turn, passes the lessons he’s learned along to much younger employees that he works beside.
“I’ve worked with him eight years. He’s taught me a lot,” Cheri Crook said. “I’ve never seen him get upset. The best lesson I’ve learned from him: Fake it till you make it. If you don’t know it, act like you do.”
When things begin to wind down behind the bar, Cason might serve himself a beverage.
“I usually do a vodka cranberry with no ice so you can rush it down,” he said, but this night he sips a cranberry juice straight up.
As for some of the more favored concoctions he serves here, he says, “I make a drink the Holy Vow, and another drink I made for ladies who play tennis is called Miami Ice. Back when I first started the popular drinks was Singapore slings, Harvey Wallbangers, Old Fashions and Manhattans.
“I fix a drink called a Ghost Martini. You have to see it performed before I can explain it. If you can see it and drink it before the ghost appears, it’s free; but if the ghost gets on it before then, you got to pay.”
Quizzed as to what is the most popular mixed drink he serves, he responds that it is called “just one more.”
A sharp-eyed patron at Sammy B’s may notice a portrait of Cason on the wall to the left of the bar. It was painted by Cumberland University art student Heidi Dennis in 2009.
“That’s not the original,” shared Cason. “I keep it at home. This one is a duplicate because if they throw darts, they might hit it.”
Every night at work, Cason ties one on — a tie that is. He owns about 700. All of them were given to him by his patrons.
“I can’t afford a tie for what I get paid,” he joked. “I recently had 75 ties that I had about worn out put into a quilt. I started wearing ties after a lawyer, Jack Lowrey, told me, ‘If you wear a tie, it makes you look honest.’ It works. You know, when a lawyer goes into court, he’s got to have a tie on, so by me wearing a tie, I’m the only person in the restaurant to wear one, and it makes me look honest. People will come up and ask me questions because they think I know something.”
After clocking out at the restaurant, Cason, who, by the way, sings in the Cedars of Lebanon Primitive Baptist Choir on Sunday mornings, goes home and winds down by falling asleep in front of the TV.
His favorite pastime is working with a small herd of cattle. “I’m a farmer. I have 10 cattle right now but I have had as many as 52. I’m not a professional farmer because I don’t chew tobacco,” said the funny guy, who carries a piece of metal in his leg, a souvenir from a collision he had more than 20 years ago when he rammed his four-wheeler into one of his heifers.
By the way, should you meet Cason, be sure to ask him how his father got his brother to stop sucking his thumb.
The man, who may be Lebanon’s most beloved bartender, sums up his good fortune, saying, “For someone not having an education, I’ve been very blessed.”
Those who know him well will drink to that.