Inside the Secret Retreat Where Little Big Town Go to Write - Rolling Stone
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Inside the Secret Retreat Where Little Big Town, David Nail Go to Write

How a remote Smoky Mountains resort is inspiring artists from Kacey Musgraves to Luke Bryan

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Little Big Town are among the artists who have decamped to Blackberry Farm in East Tennessee to write for their albums.

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There’s a song by Nashville country parodist D. Striker titled “Three Dudes in an Office” that pretty well describes the sterile modern-day songwriting process on Music Row. But some artists and writers are taking pains to break free from those four walls of the writing room, hightailing it into the wilds to all but lose themselves in nature. For Eric Church, it’s a family cabin in North Carolina. For Kenny Chesney, it’s Malibu or his treasured Caribbean islands. But within driving distance from Nashville, the destination of choice is the remote Blackberry Farm. Nestled at the base of the Smoky Mountains in Walland, Tennessee, the property, with its cabins and guest houses overlooking more than 4,000 creativity-inspiring acres, is prime real estate for musical musing.

But artists aren’t just coming to the getaway destination to write: they’re also playing for guests, delivering one-of-a-kind intimate concerts in a rustic performance and event space that, though meant to look like it’s from another era, was built just this past summer. Opening last August, Blackberry Farm’s Bramble Hall has already hosted concerts by Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Emmylou Harris, Jennifer Nettles and David Nail. Luke Bryan will perform there November 10th, and Little Big Town, who wrote some of their 2014 Grammy-nominated album Pain Killer at Blackberry, will play an annual holiday show at Bramble Hall on December 11th. Both quickly sold-out.

“The main difference between being in a writing room and a place like Blackberry Farm is, in that space, your phones don’t work, there’s no email, and there are fewer distractions. You’re in the middle of nature and you can step outside by the creek if you need to refresh your brain or get a new idea. You can hear your thoughts much more clearly,” says Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet, who vividly recalls writing the Pain Killer banger “Turn the Lights On” in a cottage that he, bandmates Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook and Kimberly Schlapman, and their co-writers rented on the grounds.

“We came back from dinner, and Karen started singing this thing – ‘Turn the lights on’ – and we started grooving. We had a boom mike set up and we could hit record and see what we were doing. Some of those vocals we did that night ended up on the record,” he says.

Often the band didn’t know when to quit. “We were drunk on creative energy. There was one night, I was like, ‘I just gotta go to bed, it’s three in the morning,'” Sweet says. “You’re supercharged.”

David Nail, who performed at the resort over Labor Day, can relate. Although he admits he’s far from an outdoorsman, he couldn’t help but be inspired when writing in Tennessee’s pristine wilderness.

“It’s the type of place where you hear people say they disappear for a month to write a record. I can definitely envision doing something like that,” Nail says. “You feel so removed from the extracurricular stuff that can bog you down in Nashville, or distract you. When you get away from the hectic craziness, it’s amazing the things that you find that are on your brain, that you didn’t know you wanted to translate to a song.”

For his Bramble Hall showcase, Nail brought along friend, songwriter and fellow artist Randy Montana and set up on two stools to trade songs under the night sky, a setting that is far from the norm for established country stars used to generic arenas and clubs. It’s just such an experience that makes attending Blackberry Farm’s concert series a bucket-list item – both for fans and artists.

Epic Night with Kacey Musgraves in #bramblehall @blackberryfarm. #angelfromtexas #blackberryfarm #blackberrymusic @spaceykacey

A photo posted by Blackberry Farm (@blackberryfarm) on

Kacey Musgraves is enamored of the place. She tried to share the magic she gleans from the property with her Bramble Hall audience by setting just the right mood: arranging for a sea of candles to be lit around her during her stripped-down solo performance this past summer.

“I asked if they could go out of their way to make it a little more intimate. It made it feel so special and close-knit,” Musgraves says, estimating a compact crowd of only 150 people caught her show.

What’s more, the bare-bones engagement left Musgraves with a possible new creative direction. “It was one of the first times in a long time that I played without my band. It was just my guitar and I, the way I used to play all the time. I was a little nervous, because I’m used to having that security blanket and I enjoy playing with my band. But I got to tell stories about the songs and take my time. It was really wonderful,” she says. “It inspired me to do more acoustic stuff, just paying attention to that more.”

But despite being renowned for its food and wine program, as well as a wealth of outdoor activities, it’s not the amenities at Blackberry Farm that motivate artists like Little Big Town.

It’s actually what doesn’t appear in any brochure.

“It’s more of what isn’t there,” says Sweet. “You quiet yourself. You reflect on what you’ve done. You can turn off the other things and just enjoy breathing air.”


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