A fellow who thrives on music and merriment, Derwin Hinson has reinvented himself twice in recent years by transforming himself into a one-man band and a late-blooming St. Nick.
The musician, also a real bearded Santa, gives lessons on stringed instruments via Topper’s Music (615-922-8322) in Lebanon. He plays banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, doghouse bass, fiddle, ukulele, autoharp, electric guitar, electric bass, classical guitar and steel guitar.
His one-man band act, a blend of gospel, bluegrass and a touch of Southern gospel, offers a high-energy, 75- to 90-minute show. He manages it by rapidly shifting from one instrument to the other while playing fast-paced, intricate solos and singing the lead vocals. He is accompanied by pre-recorded tracks made in his home studio.
Since he began picking as a youngster, you’d think his nimble fingertips would be worn to the nubs by now, but that’s not the case.
Raised in Fayetteville and Wilmington, N.C., Derwin was the oldest of three children born to Conrad and Marlene Hinson. In the early 1970s the clan joined hands to become the Conrad Hinson Family. Think the Partridge Family except this band had a dad aboard and sang gospel rather than pop tunes.
“When I was 9, we went to a bluegrass festival, and I saw the Wilson Kids. They were young, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do,’ ” recalled Derwin, who was raised on a diet of bluegrass and gospel records.
“Back home, I asked Dad if he would teach me to play guitar, and he taught me three chords and said, ‘If you do anything different, I’m going to take the guitar away.’ He didn’t want me to learn the wrong way.
“A month later I went to play with my dad at the V.A. hospital in Fayetteville, and he was happy with my work. Then my dad taught Mama to play bass and my brother, Danny, learned mandolin. We started to play around churches and wound up on a TV program, ‘The Red White Show’ and then we got our own show.”
While the Hinson family performed gospel music at concerts across the Southeast, it provided Derwin the opportunity to play alongside bluegrass giants such as the Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
“We played a lot of spring and fall festivals. The only way we could make some of those was if Dad took us out of school on Fridays,” Derwin said. “If we stayed until 11 or 11:15 a.m., we would not be counted as absent. One day the principle said, ‘Mr. Hinson, I noticed you taking your boys out of school three or four Fridays in a row.’ Dad said, ‘That’s right.’
“The principle told him, ‘Aren’t you worried about their education?’ And Dad said, ‘Why no. I would never let school interfere with their education.’ ”
Meeting, performing with the stars
During his late teenage years, when his parents had slowed down, Derwin began picking with local groups which led to an encounter with country-bluegrass legend Charlie Louvin.
“I auditioned for him that night and the next week I was on ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’ When I got the job, I said to Charlie, ‘My brother sings tenor and plays mandolin like Ira’ (Louvin’s late brother, and Charlie said, ‘Bring him along.’ ”
The following Friday night Derwin and Danny made their “Opry” debut. He recollected that his father listened to the “Opry” on his car radio but had to drive it to the coast to get decent reception.
“I played Dobro and sang ‘Nobody’s Darling’ that night. I was scared. When they clapped it made me even more scared. Daddy heard it all. It was a big night,” he said.
After a year in Louvin’s band, Derwin and Danny auditioned for country singer Vern Gosdin and were hired on the spot, a gig that ran two years. That included opening for George Jones on “Austin City Limits” in 1985, which led Jones to invite the band to his home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Hinson had to make a call to his parents in North Carolina to explain he would not make it home for Thanksgiving which upset his father, but after telling him he would be dining with Jones, his dad told him, “You’re forgiven.”
Leaving Gosdin’s band, Derwin dove deeper into the bluegrass scene, playing with Wayne Lewis. On the side he began a Wednesday night gig at the Bell Cove Club in Hendersonville. From that came the Restless Heard, a band including Derwin, his brother, Kenny Lewis and Steve Thomas. A later version of the group included Larry Cordle and Glen Duncan, who would form the nucleus of Lonesome Standard Time.
By coincidence, bluegrass king Bill Monroe went to a church near the club on Wednesday nights. “After church he would drop by the club and play with us,” Derwin said. “For 45 minutes to an hour and a half we would play whatever he felt like doing.”
In 1990, the musician felt compelled to move back to North Carolina to help his mother care for his ailing father. After his dad’s death, his mother became ill, and Derwin and his wife, Alene, tended to her needs until she passed away in 2018.
It was during those years that Derwin made the transformation into a one-man-band.
“Music has always been part of my life. I had gotten tired of dealing with band members coming and going. Then a friend of mine, Steve Gillham, came up with the idea of me being a one-man band. I said, ‘How would I do that?’ He said, ‘You got to figure that out.’ ’’
Soon afterward a preacher friend encouraged him to move in that direction and prayed for him as he continued to ponder how he could pull it off. Then a friend told Hinson about a Gracie Stand he had spotted in a music store that could hold up to eight instruments, and that, says Derwin “is how it come about.”
Returning to Tennessee
Over those years in North Carolina, he always planned to return to Middle Tennessee. Thus, seven months ago Derwin and Alene relocated to Lebanon.
The couple looked at 59 houses, some in person and some online, before buying their new home sight unseen (their realtor did give them a visual tour via Facetime with her iPhone).
“We wanted to be close to Nashville but not exactly in the fray, not downtown,” said Derwin, adding that Wilson County with its rolling hills reminded them of the North Carolina Piedmont.
“It’s just a nice little place. We like it cause it’s country but close to the big city,” said Alene, who raised tomatoes, squash and herbs in the backyard this summer and also tends to a flock of chickens for fresh eggs.
“We’ve got nine-tenths of an acre, so we call it the Bluegrass Acre,” Derwin said of their Cedar City estate.
Derwin is entering his sixth holiday season portraying the big fellow from the North Pole. His first step in that direction came when Alene asked him to grow a beard.
“I had never seen Derwin with a beard,” she explained, “so No-Shavember of 2013 he began growing one.”
“I started growing it, but little did I know it would be snow white. This happened before Christmas. Then little kids began coming up to me thinking I was Santa Claus,” he recalled.
“About three months later, I posted my picture on Facebook, and my friend Steve a premier Santa Claus in Raleigh, N.C., said, ‘I’m calling you to be Santa.’ So we got some suits, and I went to Santa Claus University.”
The results were a bag full of Santa gigs, and the musician discovered he loved playing St. Nick. He already has a dozen bookings for the Middle Tennessee area. And in 2017, Derwin performed his one-man band act in the guise of Claus on “Huckabee.”
While he does not have a big, red sleigh parked in his shed, Derwin owns a 31-year-old tour bus that sits idle in the driveway.
“Conway Twitty bought it new in 1988 and it was later purchased by the Lewis Family. We bought it from them in 2005,” Alene said. “We don’t need it anymore. There’s a lot of history in it.”
With a jolly grin and hoping for a happy holidays himself, “Santa” Hinson hinted, “It can be had.”
MY REAL SANTA
A member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, Hinson is available to make appearances as Santa Claus at public events, private parties, parades, photo sessions, Christmas tree lightings and as a singing telegram. Phone: (615) 922-8322. Website: myrealsanta.com