Last Call at the Tap Room

The Cumberland Strip's oldest bar taps its last after 30 years, and the regulars are learning to let go

We got winners

We got losers

Chain smokers and boozers,

We got yuppies

We got bikers . .

And the girls next door dress up like movie stars

Mmmm, I love this bar

It's no coincidence that this Toby Keith song is playing on the techno-deluxe juke box tonight at the Tap Room, even though the place isn't that big on country music. They do love this bar. And after a run that started in 1978, it's closing. And the idea will take some getting used to.

"We don't just drink together, we care about each other," says Rita Kamper, a merry, welcoming woman with soft brown eyes and open arms. She first came to the bar with her first husband, Ridgely Collins, around 1979. "We've celebrated new houses, marriages, after funerals.... We've been there for people when someone they loved died, or their wife was cheating, or their house burnt down.

"I wish people understood...this is a family."

So close is this family that when Collins was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 they organized a fundraiser to help him pay his medical bills, and they held his widow after he died. "My family wanted me to come back home and live," she remembers. "Then they came down here for the memorial service, and the reception afterwards with the Tap Room gang. They told me, ‘You can't leave these people...'"

The members of this extraordinary clan look just like any other bar flies—day laborers needing a haircut with ball caps, insurance sales guys and other professionals in office shirts, khakis and loafers, women in Big Orange sweatshirts or with tanned legs and heels. They'd file in over a weekday afternoon for a beer on tap, and to read the paper, smoke, talk to the bartender. About 20 or 30 show up for "Home Room" most Friday evenings throughout the year for week-in-review and pool and Big Gulps, or come by to relax with NASCAR on Sunday afternoons.

The bar, too, looks just like a bar, and nothing particularly special at that. A series of owners have come and gone and four years ago the last of the line, Doug Pickens, a deep-voiced country intellectual with brown hair and mustache who resembles a handsome un-uniformed Confederate soldier, added a pool table and deck seating, but the essential elements have remained unchanged: a box of yellow bricks with flat roof and grimy storefront windows, narrow inside with dim lighting, a one-end-open wood-top bar, giant glass-front cooler-cabinet of bottles, and an affable middle-aged man or well-muscled college-age guy working the mostly American beer taps.

Somehow, though, this dive at the tail end of the Cumberland strip has attracted hordes of drinkers over the years, many of them working class, a fair number from the nearby rugby field, lots of friends of contractors like Dan Zuarikowski, Paul Hampstead and Ken Witick, some who "grew up" here attending UT and never fell out of the habit, some who know David Hoose and Ken "Food" Kamper from being caretakers of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, a lot of grown South Knoxville boys and their dates.

There's also an entire Tennessee football tradition that's separate and yet an inextricable part of the place. "A lot of athletes stopped in over the years, and a lot of tales were told here," says Dewey Warren, UT football player from ‘65-'67 who did some remote radio broadcasts on game day from the Tap Room sidewalk three or four years back. "Lord 'a mercy, I can't believe it won't be there. That's a shame."

Even football great Peyton Manning remembers the place fondly. "I had some great times at the Tap Room," he says. "I have lots of good memories of being there with close friends. I am sorry to see it go."

But none are sorrier than the regulars and they're the ones setting out a spread on this Saturday semi-farewell (it's the last Saturday, but a few guys will play cards the next day and they may use up any leftover beer on Monday). Here, with the interior stripped to a minimum, looking like when the Clintons left the White House, Tennessee Gary, a wild and friendly fellow with a pony tail and a knack for fine crafts, goads people to sign ceiling tiles for him to take home ("the orange one for the youngsters, the white for the old timers").

The others are concluding as they've always carried on—with food, mounds of pork barbecue started by "Food" Kamper at 5 a.m. this morning; his wife Rita's caramel-chocolate "cracker candy"; deviled eggs; home-baked brownies. And could this gathering ever be complete without a whole smoked baloney? Perennial good old boy, red-headed J.E. Price, urges all and sundry to give it a try.

"To the Tap Room, 3 of the best years of my life spent here—Andy Young, Kappa Sigma '04-'08" reads the handwriting on a five-dollar bill that's found in the till, and dozens of fraternity brothers stop by the pay their respects and quaff one last.

Doris Perkins is here, too, refusing to mope. She was a loyal patron up till ‘84, starting in her student days, and became a regular again with husband Mike in 2001. She's admiring the T-shirts made up by Doug Pickens. "But I told him they should have said, ‘Cumberland Tap Room, Tuition Well Spent.'"

Tennessee Gary has come up with a one-of-a-kind design of his own, inspired by the words of his old friend, John Hall, deceased since 2000. "The Cumberland Tap Room... the center of art and culture."

Maybe not that, but definitely the center of a lot of the best parts of a lot of lives.

No cover charge.

Come as you are.

Mmmm, I love this bar

— "I Love This Bar," Toby Keith

Putting the lie to a bar being a terrible place to meet a mate, there are many couples who first took up at the Tap Room—usually as part of the big gang of friends—and ended up getting married in their 30s or 40s, including Trudy and Mike Pullen (1993), Anne Littlefield and Jimmy Pickens (2000), Rita Collins and Ken Kamper (2002) and Liz Strang and Robert Barksdale (2006).

The marriage-friendly atmosphere also has included lots of plain dumb fun over the years: Dana Zuarikowski, drinking beer through a straw; the gang picking football by pinning the schedule to the dart board and having at it; playing "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" on the jukebox. "A couple of guys take off their shoes and wave them around every time," says Anne Pickens, a regular since 1992 who can time her first visit to 1984, when she came by before Michael Jackson and his brothers played Knoxville.

"Oh, yeah, and there's that Happy F-ing Birthday song that everyone gets," she says. "I brought my niece here when she turned 21 just so she could hear that."

But it's not always fun and games. Outrageous behavior and loud opinions have gotten a few banned from the bar (some by more than one owner), and election years tend to rile the bar population. "In the Reagan years, it was very heated," remembers Doug Pickens. "Back then you really had a liberal crowd here, and political talk brought on fisticuffs more than once."

And now, no fun, a week since Doug stopped serving, with reality sinking in. The regulars will have to find another space, or break up the act. Mind you, they're sad, not pitiful. They have other lives... but they still want to be part of a group, a place like the Tap Room.

"Some people, and I won't name names, this is the only place where they are loved and tolerated," says Kamper.

Anne Pickens hopes the new bar that may usurp the Tap Room—a trailer theme bar and restaurant whose owners are still in negotiation with the building's owner, Mike Clark—will also be the type of place a person "would always want to go back to." But, she says, "Last Friday I just went home after work..."

Still, people who can weather the deaths of three core members (John Hall, Ridgely Collins, Jimmy Pickens) in the first three years of the century can surely figure out a way to work around a little thing like a bar closing.

Kamper is convinced that love will keep them together. "The Tap Room is a place. But the people really made it what it was." m