The Simple Life 

The New Face of Nashville Celebrity

The New Face of Nashville Celebrity

When it comes to celebrity spotting, today's Nashvillian is about as immune to Toby Keith as an Angeleno is to Tobey Maguire. Stop a local on the street and ask if they've ever bumped into a famous face, and they're sure to name-drop.

Alan Jackson eats at the Pancake Pantry and Titans coach Jeff Fisher pumps his gas at the Exxon in Green Hills. Taylor Swift grazes at Noshville and John Hiatt grabs his own luggage at the airport. Wynonna Judd shops at Target and Amy Grant browses at Borders. Our country stars even man autograph booths for hours at the CMA Music Festival just to squiggle on a glossy and shake our hands.

All these notable visages and their just-plain-folks air may have left us a little blasé. But in 2006, when international big-timers Jack White and Nicole Kidman moved to Nashville, we suddenly had to re-evaluate our maps of the stars' homes. Hold the phones—we had two red-carpet heavyweights in our midst. Suddenly, we could gawk at what Kidman scooped off the salad bar at Wild Oats and find out whether White likes his Starbucks' lattes skinny.

And so could the national media, who couldn't have predicted they'd be shipping correspondents to a podunk town typically thought of as the rhinestone capital of America. Like it or not, they had to imagine Nashville as the sort of city mainstream celebrities would not only embrace as their own, but profess the kind of gushing affection that's typically reserved for getaways like St. Moritz or Belize.

After Kidman gave birth to her daughter at Baptist Hospital in July, an AP story snorted, "It's ironic that Nashville, the city that Robert Altman poked fun at with his '70s film Nashville and that spawned the cornpone TV series Hee Haw, is being celebrated as laid-back and hip—but perhaps that's what it's come to."

"Cows are the new swimming pools, apparently," sniped the U.K. Guardian.

This sentiment has long been echoed in the national entertainment media, who periodically raise an eyebrow and offer a puzzled grunt whenever a celebrity settles down in Music City. "Those dizzy celebrities and their wacky trends," they seem to shrug, as if Nashville could be an artists' colony in Topeka.

No offense, Topeka, but as many performers and songwriters will tell you, Nashville offers a provincial charm and professional hustle seldom found elsewhere. Our ability to play it real cool when spotting the anointed is attracting a new breed of artists to town—and they aren't here for the Nudie suits.

The likes of Nicole Kidman, Jack White, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Kid Rock, Donna Summer, Gunnar Nelson, Emerson Hart, Tom Keifer, Desmond Child, Mark Slaughter, Michelle Branch, Kelly Clarkson and Ben Folds all call Nashville home. And they're not just breezing in for a quaint photo-op.

Their reasons depend on industry and career phase. But they've all chosen the city to get down to work or take a load off—often both. And their giddy outsider's perspectives hold a gold-filigreed mirror up to the city we take for granted—the luscious landscapes, friendly hellos and down-home hospitality that resist trendy obsessions in favor of preserving a small-town way of life.

For those majestic untouchables, it's our distance from the film and rock industries that offers a sweet escape from the long lens of the paparazzi. For artists who last tangoed with the charts years ago, the transition to solo artist—and the multitudes of players with a studio infrastructure to back them—is a chance at a comeback. Then there's the temptation to go country—trading Hollywood's petroleum gloss for Nashville's old-fashioned boot polish.

But for nearly all of them, Music City's artist-camp vibe and workmanlike attitude toward songcraft promise a new education far from the headaches of the frenzy.

If you've ever heard the unforgettable choruses of "Livin' on a Prayer," "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" or "Livin' La Vida Loca," then you know the work of the one-man hit-factory Desmond Child. But what you might not know is that this Spielberg of power ballads, who's written more than 70 Top 40 singles, has been living in Nashville since 1991.

Like many artists who enjoyed chart success through the '80s until the pirates of grunge planted their flannel flags, Child found himself suddenly on the wrong side of cool. Still high off hits such as Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You," he was hunkering down to work with Michael Bolton on "How Can We Be Lovers" and Cher's "We All Sleep Alone" when he got the news that the Seattle sound was king, and his career was kaput.

"The bands I was working with, like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, for a minute, they weren't cool anymore," says Child, seated in a plush bus outside City Hall as he waits to film an episode of the Next Great American Country Star, on which he's a judge. With his radiant tan, slicked-back ponytail and jovial demeanor, he gives off the relaxed vibe of a restless Latin playboy who's happily found domesticity. (He also pulled up to the interview in a black Bentley—possibly the only Bentley in Nashville.)

"I'll never forget when my manager told me, 'Well, the producers now are wearing plaid shorts and combat boots and have tattoos,' " he says. "I was 35 at the time. He said, 'You know, pretty much, you're done.' And I said, 'What?' He said, 'No, it's finished. You better go find something else to do.' "

That something turned out to be ditching L.A.'s hassle for Nashville's ease, where the songwriter is king and where the pop fundamentals Child had perfected—meticulous focus on lyrics and vocals—could be applied to more than just power ballads.

When a Nashville friend suggested he come here to work with songwriter Victoria Shaw, who co-wrote with Garth Brooks, he was game. That session birthed "Where Your Road Leads," a duet by Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. His first dabble in country produced a No. 3 hit on the country charts.

The lasting friendships he's formed and Nashville's clan-friendly perks didn't hurt either.

"Nashville was full of sweet, wonderful people when I first came," Child says. "And that's what began my love affair with Nashville. We have friends here for life. We just love them. When my partner Curtis and I had to make a decision where to bring up our sons, Roman and Nero—they're 6 years old now—we said the culture and atmosphere and purity of Nashville, that's what we want for them. We love it here."

In Nashville, the Miami native has written hits for American Idol stars Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken. Meanwhile, he fields numerous requests to try his hand at twang. "So far, everyone says, 'Write with us for country music.' And I say, 'Great, I'd love to, but my pop and rock business keeps going and I keep taking on more jobs.' I'm bringing people to Nashville."

And in return, Nashville's craftsmen offer Child a crash course in country music's stock and trade—linear, economic storytelling. It's baffling to imagine that a master of pop songcraft could stand to improve his game. But the man who wrote Aerosmith's "Angel" in an hour and 45 minutes found that the slower pace sharpened his skills.

"There's nothing random in country songwriting," Child says. "I remember having fights with [former Nashville songwriter Stephanie] Davis. She's such a stickler and is so strict. We wrote a song about a guy's first day alone after his wife had left him. He started the morning doing all the things on a Sunday he always did with her. He goes to buy the groceries and comes home and he opens the door and she was gone. And she stopped me and said, 'Where did he get the key?' And I said, 'What do you mean? He put the groceries down and got the key and opened the door. Maybe the door wasn't locked.' She said, 'No, that doesn't work. You have to show what he did with the groceries and where the key was before he opened the door.' We went on like that for two days."

But unlike the notoriously congested Los Angeles, a midnight oil-burning session in Nashville means you're mere moments away from home and brood.

"One of the great things about being in Nashville is it's so centrally located," Child says of the less anxiety-inducing flight times compared to New York and L.A. "I'm five minutes from everything I need. In L.A., I was going crazy. I was spending three, sometimes four hours in traffic a day to get from one end of town to the other—just to get home, feed my kids and put them to bed, and then get back to the mix. And I'd be coming home from the mix at 1 in the morning and there'd be gridlock. At 1 in the morning. On a Wednesday."

In 1991, glammy pop duo Nelson were in the midst of a 13-month tour in support of their multiplatinum After the Rain. The album's first single, the sunny power ballad "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection," was No. 1 on the charts.

The duo, a natural fit for a Doublemint gum commercial with their gleaming teeth and Nordic blond pony manes, were poised to dominate the apple pie division of hair-metal. But a live performance gone awry by the dance-pop outfit Milli Vanilli nearly crushed their momentum.

During a live MTV performance, a skipping CD exposed the German duo for lip-synching to someone else's voices. Their Grammy was rescinded, and the industry quickly eyed the polished Nelson and their eerily perfect harmonies skeptically.

"Suddenly, we were guilty until proven innocent," says Gunnar Nelson. "That 13 months on tour was a lot of radio stops, too—just two guitars, two voices. And we just showed them we could really sing and really play. And that's how we overcame it."

But the momentarily dodged bullet was only a brief respite from the barrel they'd soon find themselves staring down—what Nelson calls the single most abrupt paradigm shift in music history. "We came back and the world was wearing flannel," he recalls.

Suddenly, the very label that had once enthusiastically funded their career—Geffen—was now bidding for a record by a Seattle band called Nirvana. And just as quickly, what was once a luridly decadent brand of lifestyle rock had all the sleazy thrill of the Beach Boys. For Nelson, L.A.'s hostile-takeover atmosphere made Nashville, with its incendiary players and master architects of sound, look like a safe house. Nelson began visiting on the advice of a friend who promised the songwriting community would be "very supportive."

He didn't have to move here. Nelson's father is the late teen idol Ricky Nelson, whose catalog he and his brother Matthew, who still resides in Los Angeles, both manage. His grandparents are Ozzie and Harriet, household names even among those far too young to remember the archetypal '50s family sitcom. The Nelsons are the only family in the world who can boast three successive generations of hit-makers.

"I did find that it's a bit of an old boys' network here, and a very tight circle," says Nelson, who settled here seven years ago. "But everyone's so friendly. Once they realized that I wasn't trying to steal their country cut, that I'm a rock guy in town, they accepted me. Honestly, with what I do and what I have, I could live anywhere in the world I want to. I don't have to live anywhere. I chose Nashville 'cause I really dig the people."

And where else would the people offer a chance to live comfortably with dignity? In an age where former glam-rockers are often punch lines—even Nelson did a stint on Celebrity Fit Club—the fact that Nashville offers a respectable career in songwriting also makes it an oasis of second chances. In keeping with the advice of his father, who told him that life, much like a career in music, is a series of comebacks, Nelson found he could try again.

He and former Slaughter frontman Mark Slaughter, also a resident, have since formed Scrap Metal, a kind of hair-metal supergroup where members play their own former bands' hits as well as a slew of other glam-rock chart-toppers. (Fellow member Kelly Keagy, the former frontman of Night Ranger, is also a Nashvillian.) Nelson the band has also reformed, and tours to packed houses with everyone from Peter Frampton (also a former resident) to Styx. They've got an upcoming show with Great White and Firehouse.

But when he's not on the road, he basks in the glow of a picturesque life at an almost too-good-to-be-true price: He traded up his Los Angeles condo for a 4,000-square-foot preserved Victorian off Eighth Avenue.

"This is a quality-of-life decision," Nelson says. "From my front door to everywhere in town is 10 minutes. I can see comedy at Zanies, hang out in Hillsboro Village or check out bands at Douglas Corner. I ride my Harley and don't have to worry about getting pulled over. The weather's good 70 percent of the time. I'm 20 minutes from fishing. I can go water skiing, which I never did in Los Angeles, and it's like a freakin' Sunkist commercial. The flattest water you'd ever find and everyone is eating BBQ."

That romanticized view of quaint Southern living is no doubt made easier by Tennessee's lack of a state income tax, guaranteed to leave the fat on the BBQ and the royalty checks. "That's a big one," he says. "My brother and I split our income, so we make the same amount, but we keep very different amounts after taxes."

Sure, he could shack up in any of the handful of states that don't impose personal income tax, but if songs are your racket and you're looking for that peaceful, easy feeling, there are few places where you can hoard your riches and stay afloat in the music business.

"You've got Nevada, but you're living in Vegas," he says. "You've got Florida, but you've got hurricanes. You've got Texas, but then you have to live in Texas. I'm one hour away by plane from 80 percent of the country. One hour away by plane of every single gig I will probably ever need to play. While my brother's on the plane back to L.A., I'm already at home with my feet kicked up watching my big screen."

But whether it's a big screen or the Big Screen that beckons, Nashville's a place where Hollywood personalities can live like ordinary folks. For the remote, queenly Nicole Kidman—the top-earning female face in film—her marriage to Keith Urban brought her to Nashville. The Tennessee countryside, with its leafy tranquility and welcome distance from the prying lens of cultural obsession, offers a healthier, oxygen-plenty escape.

"It's a great city for getting outdoors," Kidman says via email from London. "Just driving home to our property every day makes me realize how lucky I am to live here."

Her regal presence has given the city its first real exposure to the paparazzi, who'd previously stalked Kidman in enough hot pursuit to bring her in front of Australia's Supreme Court. A photographer's constant harassment culminated in a brazen chase that left Kidman cowering in the backseat on her way to her parents' house in 2005. She hired 24-hour security as a result and accused the photographer in court of being a stalker. But here in town, a simple Internet search yields dozens of local snapshots of an unguarded Kidman outside Target or leaving a restaurant.

For an actress used to role-playing, Nashville's come-as-you-are appeal has allowed her the freedom to take off the mask—a luxury we commoners will probably never understand. But any hope for total anonymity was dashed the moment she announced her pregnancy. Just when we'd gotten over spying Kidman around town, we were once again privy to her private life, thanks to that hysterical frenzy of celebrity pregnancy coverage known as "baby-bump watch." Suddenly there was Kidman again in photos with Urban in tow—this time outside Starbucks, her once-narrow waist slightly swollen.

It's perhaps the first time such mundane, everyday parking-lot shots have been sold back to us as an exclusive look into fame. Nicole Kidman...outside the Green Hills Kinko's! And when she speaks of the city, it's often in such simple, regular-folks terms it's easy to imagine that the fourth wall has been shattered. Kidman is just a down-home gal munching on comfort food after a long day on her feet at the office.

"Keith and I love our food and we love to try new places," she says. "One of our favourite things is to have great Southern barbecue."

When she gave birth here, Nashvillians were ready to rise to the occasion of supervising an intensely private, near-aristocratic event. "I am very proud to have given birth to a Tennessean baby," Kidman says. "The people at the Baptist Hospital who took care of us are some of the best in the world and I am eternally grateful for all the care we were given there."

Nashvillians' peculiar breed of Southern gentility and giggling shyness behooves the couple when they're out on the town. They're finally free to pursue pleasures both culinary and philanthropic without the usual accosting that comes with a life lived behind a velvet rope. "The people in Nashville are lovely and have been very welcoming toward me," she says. "Our life is very easy here and we just do normal things like everybody else, which is so nice for us. We feel like we're part of the community—we deliver Meals on Wheels when we're in town and just like to do little things to try and do our bit."

But the freedom to be yourself is a luxury for the famous. For songwriters, it's a necessity. Especially in Nashville, where the unadorned, down-home truths of legendary artists from Hank Sr. to Johnny Cash trump complicated angst. When Eef Barzelay, formerly frontman of the twangy indie-rock outfit Clem Snide, first moved to Nashville from Brooklyn to pursue a solo career, he sought the same reverential glow of songwriter status many others have. He found a life closer to country music's rawer themes.

"For all the clichéd things about Nashville, the truth of it is, if you're a musician, I can't imagine a better place to live," he told the Scene two years ago.

Today, the honeymoon may be over, says the 38-year-old. "I'm finding it a little tougher to afford my life here.... The mortgage payments are looming larger than I'd like, so it's taken some of the sizzle out of it. I've gotten to a point where I'm more ready to get involved in the machinations of Nashville songwriting. I might have resisted that when I first got here, 'cause it seemed weird to me. But now I'm warming up to it."

Those machinations include a business-as-usual approach to songwriting, and striving for a broader appeal than Barzelay's traditionally quirky, insular lyrics. "When you're younger, in your 20s, you fancy yourself more like a poet and you're more indulgent with the words," Barzelay says. "I've tried to get more out of the way in my writing, and let whoever lives in the song really come through. It's not about me so much."

A self-described homebody, Barzelay's move to Nashville sounds initially akin to someone taking a vacation at the beach and sticking his head in the sand. "I'm more into the idea now of being a working songwriter and less of a cloistered, mysterious artist type. There's still nowhere else in the world where songwriting is focused on or is done by as many people."

That's as much Nashville's legacy as it is as a local's barb—we're drowning in songwriters like Los Angeles is drowning in wannabe starlets. That surplus can't help but find its way right into our artists' water supply.

"The last record I just put out, Lose Big, is very much influenced by Nashville," says Barzelay. "Everyone's one cut away from success here. And everyone's trying to make it. And yet, as you get older, there's family and kids and all that. So it's about sort of how you balance those two things. That's become more true for me. I've been writing a lot from the perspective of failed musicians. Everyone who has come to fix the HVAC or plumbing says they're a songwriter. Everyone here's got a song in their heart."

And a little humility in their step. Nashville isn't a place for putting on airs. Songwriters toiling in publishing deals to churn out a hot cut know they're only as good as their last hit. For most, that means keep sharpening or the blade goes dull. For Emerson Hart, former frontman of the alternative rock band Tonic, that hit came in 1997. His band's mournfully earnest grunge-lite ballad "If You Could Only See" holds the distinction of being the most played song on modern rock radio for that year.

The album it appeared on, Lemon Parade, went platinum. But three years later, the music scene shifted and so did the industry. Modern rock radio bowed to rap, and the major label bowed to Napster. Hart, who moved here in 2000, had grown tired of the exhausting L.A. scene he'd endured for 11 years, where you can't leave the house without being on.

"Living in L.A., I felt like I could never relax," Hart says from his Belmont-area home. "In Nashville I can just relax, enjoy myself and not be anybody for a while. And it was an immediate change. Everything slowed down, and I could actually breathe and create and work. I could wake up, work and enjoy it instead of wake up, work and stress. It made me a better writer. Move to a place where there's no state income taxes, easier living, a better cost of living and a bucolic setting? I'm in."

Though he returns to Los Angeles often to play the occasional Tonic show, he continues to write in Nashville. He released a solo record, Cigarettes and Gasoline, last year. He co-writes with former American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry, and brings young rock acts here to co-write, where they have the added benefit of making a record for a quarter of the price a typical L.A. or New York studio would cost them. And when he leaves his home studio to grab a cup of coffee or check out a band, he doesn't have to deal with all the aggressive L.A. posturing.

"People leave you alone more here," he says. "You're not going to get accosted by some other songwriter who thinks he's better than you, or who will come up during dinner and talk about how well he's doing."

It's precisely that bucolic setting and relative anonymity that brought Jack White here. White rose to fame with his scrappy garage-rock band The White Stripes and found himself hurled into the bosom of a hipster culture of snobbery and one-upmanship. Named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time and known for his eccentricity and reclusive nature, White grew tired of the pose, as he intimated to the Onion AV Club in 2006 after his band The Raconteurs joined him here.

"I'm extremely anti-hipster now, and I really hate the thought of it, being surrounded by them, and Nashville definitely is not in that neighborhood of their relation to music," he said. "In Nashville, those people want to sell songs, and they want to make hit records, and I don't see anything wrong with that. I'm so tired of playing the cool game with all those people, and just trying to go and have lunch and having to play that cool game with everybody, about what you're supposed to do, what's cool and what's not. It's a fucking minefield, you know? [Laughs.] You can't keep up. It's not healthy to write music that way, and I'd rather be in a town where they want to write hits."

Intriguing sentiment from someone whose indie cred is impenetrable. But perhaps White's exposure to the common-folk vibe of Loretta Lynn, whose Van Lear Rose album he produced and played on here in 2003, spoke to him. He's said that his love for the blues led to a natural appreciation for country. "It's sort of the earliest white take on the blues, really," he told The Onion. "And the music coming out of the South—all the folk music—is so interesting, and it's so important, too. When you're a songwriter and you really start hunting for where everything came from, there's only one place to look."

White and his wife, British model Karen Elson, who has plans to open a vintage boutique in town, formalized their marriage here at the Ryman and are raising two children. It's become something of a local pilgrimage to go driving around town looking for the house with the red door. He's been spotted out and about eating dinner and getting coffee, and has played a handful of secret and publicized shows with both the White Stripes and the Raconteurs for local audiences. He's also made guest appearances when big-name acts such as Bob Dylan came through town.

But for artists ever pressed to hawk their wares in new, more attention-getting ways, this is not a city where shameless self-promotion can coexist with our native humility. "In Nashville, self-sabotage is not on the menu, and in hipster culture, self-sabotage is definitely one of the entrées," he said.

That kind of dilemma is a bit of a head-scratcher for a city that never stopped eyeing the bottom line. With a factory of middle-class wizards behind the bejeweled curtain, working hard while laying low has allowed us to keep the creative fires burning. And it fosters a healthy tension between the old Nashville and the new—a city of honky-tonks, writers' nights and the slow-cranking gears of Music Row making way for condos, sushi restaurants and tequila bars.

It's not our big-city amenities, but rather our small-town charms that seduce these outsiders. And ironically, these new faces aren't really changing Nashville at all—Nashville is changing them.

"When the guy that cleans your pool plays better guitar than your lead guitarist, that's the town you want to be in," says Gunnar Nelson. "If you can hold your own in this town, you've got chops. I know it sounds cliché. But if I were a tennis player, and I could move to a town where they play the best tennis in the world—how could I not improve?"

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