Hollywood to Nashwood: Keith Weaver launches a new venture aimed at bringing big ideas to local small towns

 Keith Weaver
Keith Weaver poses outside the former Shelbyville Times Gazette Building. It’s one of three Bedford County properties his company Nashwood, Inc. recently purchased for renovation and development. (A Lynchburg Times Photo)

By Tabitha Evans Moore | EDITOR & PUBLISHER

Keith Weaver walks into the greenroom at Humble Baron – the bar his wife, Fawn, named after him at The Nearest Green Distillery – wearing casual army green pants, a plaid button down, sneakers, square-framed glasses, and a big infectious smile. At first glance, he could be selling local honey down at the farmer’s market or meeting with Jamie Foxx about his latest movie role. It could really go either way.

The greenroom is a vast inviting space with comfortable seating, cool lighting, and lots of kitschy music nods like a retro turntable and a wall of vintage speakers. He’s relaxed and easy going. Based on his accomplishment to this point, a little ego would be understandable but there’s not an ounce present.

The former Executive Vice President for Global Policy and External Affairs at Sony Pictures Entertainment once regularly rubbed elbows with Hollywood A listers but these days he’s just as content to drink a cold beer at a local dive bar with new found friends. He’s in love with his new hometown of Shelbyville and it shows.

“The sunsets here in southern, middle Tennessee are the most stunning I’ve ever seen, and I’ve travelled a lot,” he says.

Southern Serendipity

Keith and Fawn moved from Hollywood to southern, middle Tennessee around 2016 to launch the only distillery in America named after an African-American – a formerly enslaved man named Nearest Green, who lived in the Lois community on the Dan Call Farm, in what was once Lincoln County. The fact that a distillery exists at all is a lesson in the concept of serendipity.

While traveling in Singapore, inspiration struck during the couple’s morning routine.

“We have this morning ritual where we read the newspaper and don’t talk about her work or mine. Those are the ground rules. We call it our board meeting. That morning she read the Clay Risen piece in the New York Times about Nearest Green. It sparked a lot of curiosity on our part.”

The piece entitled Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help from a Slave discussed the Lynchburg distillery’s public announcement of what locals had known for generations – Nearest Green taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Ever a researcher looking for a rabbit hole, Fawn immersed herself in the history of Jack and Nearest. That included a trip to Moore County for Fawn’s birthday. She spent hours at the Moore County Public Library, Moore County Archives, as well as speaking with Jack Daniel officials and Nearest Green descendants attempting to wrap her head around the story.

“Everyone in Lynchburg we approached about learning more about the Nearest Green, Jack Daniel connection was very generous with their time,” Keith says. “Fawn eventually understood it as a story of love, honor, and respect – which is why you see that throughline in the Nearest Green brand.”

Ketih says when they discovered that the place where the Jack and Nearest story took place, the Dan Call Farm on Louse Creek Road, was for sale they felt a nudge to buy it.

“It’s crazy to think that we decided to buy property here on our very first visit but that property speaks to me, and there’s a warmth throughout it. I feel at peace when I’m there,” he says. “It had been on the market for a while – nearly 15 months – and we just really felt called to purchase it.”

Keith says both he and Fawn have always wanted to live in the country and at first, the couple thought they might renovate the farmhouse and live there. They even went so far as drawing up plans, but when they started exploring, they discovered the history layered into that property and decided to leave it as is.

“We eventually realized that we were the caretakers of a key piece of American history.”

These days their renovation efforts at the farm take on more of an archaeological feel. Keith says he currently plans to restore the barn and cabin on the property with an eye towards preservation.

“Since we bought the farm, we’ve discovered that two other slave families lived there in the 1800’s, and we’ve even found an additional still site that may be older than the Old No. 7 site. I’d love to plan an archaeological dig to see what else we might discover.”

A year later, the couple drove by another historic local property on the market, the 270-acre Sand Creek Walking Horse Farm on Highway 231 in Bedford County, and decided it would make the perfect spot for what is now an award-winning whiskey brand.

“Things just kept being laid out for us,” Keith says. “A lot of people think there was some master plan, but there wasn’t.”

Executing big ideas in small towns

A couple of weeks later, Keith and I met at the former Shelbyville Times Gazette Building in Bedford County for a photo op. It’s yet another historic property that will be given new life under the Weavers’ watch. When he offers a tour of the building, his energy becomes infectiously giddy. The former journalism major loves the newspaper game and it shows. He recently purchased the East Depot Street building and he’s thrilled about all the publishing relics left behind by the now defunct community newspaper.

“When I took over possession, I discovered all these treasures. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, but they’ll be preserved properly in some way.”

He plans to make the building the headquarters of his newest venture, Nashwood, Inc. – a company dedicated to preserving and reimaging historic properties in southern, middle Tennessee. The name blends the idea of Nashville and Hollywood – two towns with a similar vibe.

“There’s so many similarities,” Keith says. “From the cranes in the sky to the traffic, the excitement, and the revelry, I respect and appreciate those things. But I’m also an introvert, so I want to tap into and then exit out of it.”

Keith says his new company will combine production, real estate, and hospitality – all the things he and Fawn are most interested in. The idea is to cherry-pick the best parts of living in the big city and reproduce them in an elevated way in the small Tennessee towns he’s come to love. Keith says his bullseye for Nashwood, Inc projects is a certain cool factor with stunning architecture while honoring the agriculture roots of the small towns he now calls home.

“What I love about here is that there’s an opportunity to build upon what’s already in place while respecting the history and adding something of value,” Keith explains. “But I don’t think we should take people’s time, resources, and interests for granted. So, we’re going to plate a dish in Bedford County the same way I’d experience in Hollywood or Nashville.”

Keith says he wants to earn the business of those looking for a night out by offering them something they can’t get anywhere else.

“A lot of that already exists here, but I feel like more would be welcomed,” he explains. “I’m looking for projects with a certain it factor that is elevated and approachable with a healthy nod towards the region’s history.”

If you build it, they will come

Bedford County and specifically the Nearest Green Distillery exists along Highway 231 – a road in which hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage from Nashville to Lynchburg each year. Keith says in addition to offering locals something new that he’d like to give visitors more opportunities to stop and stay longer.

His first project will be to convert the former Bedford Paper Box Factory on North Main Street just off the historic Shelbyville Square into a brewery and burger joint named Classic Hops. It will not only serve a great burger but also be built with clear walls where guests can watch the beer being brewed. It will open tentatively in January 2024.

“We are surrounded with numerous grass-fed beef producers around here,” he says. “Why not offer something regional significant in an iconic place?”

He also says he’ll continue to work with Def & Co – the James Beard Award-winning mixologist who developed the drink menu at Humble Baron – to make sure the beer and cocktail menu is on point.

“Those folks have spent lots of time out in this community meeting locals and exploring local venues,” he says. “I want them to bring back what they’ve learned and develop it into a signature experience.”

Live music will also be part of the plan, and Weaver says he’s not looking for just big names, he’s looking to discover artists.

“There is so much good music in this state,” Keith explains. “I want to bring as much of that talent here as possible. Do they have the heart, work ethic, and the talent to become a Grammy-winning artist? That’s who I want on the stage.”

With that aim in mind, Humble Baron recently launched an American Idol-styled talent competition named The Quest. It seeks the best and brightest unsigned acts with 10 finalists moving on to perform in front of host Kenny Lattimore, a live audience, and a star-studded judging panel on Saturday, November 4. The winner will then walk away with the grand prize of a monthly residency at Humble Baron, performing on a state-of-the-art stage that was designed by the former technical director and engineer for Prince’s Paisley Park.

Renovation vs. demolition

In addition to the former Bedford County Box Factory, Nashwood, Inc. also recently purchased the former U. S. Bank Building on the historic Shelbyville Square – a space he plans to develop into retail and office spaces. He also says that he’s exploring the possibility of developing a welcome center in that space as well.

“I love to google images of these buildings as they were originally built for inspiration,” he says. “I want to understand how it was built and what it meant to the community at the time. I need to understand the intentions of the original creators, so our projects can build upon that.”

He says he’s interested in acquiring other historic properties as a means to preserving local history – rather than see them demolished in the name of growth. He gets that eye for preservation from his mom – a spunky, former hairdresser who taught him lessons about stewardship.

“I come from very humble beginnings and the ethos of respect, hard work, and care and maintenance was instilled in me by my mother at an early age.  Stewardship to me means that you should care for and be thankful for where you are and what you already have,” he explains. “So, it’s never about when I get this house then I’ll start cleaning it or when I get this car, I’ll maintain it this way. It’s doing those things now and being grateful, which for me has resulted in more opportunity and satisfaction along the way.”

Weaver often circles back to both the form and function of a property. The throughline – to use a Hollywood term – is to find the intersection of community history and rural innovation. He wants to reimagine historic spaces into their highest and best use. Its intent is smart, respectful, measured growth that makes life better for the community.

“I think there are hopes and dreams that unify us. We all on some level want the same things – the house, the car, to be able to attend our kid’s baseball game. The thing that fuels that is the ability to have prosperity in whatever form that takes for you and your family. That comes in the form of economic development and growth,” Weaver explains. “But I’m not interested in superimposing Nashville into these small towns. The community would reject that for good reason.”

Keith also says that he wants to give back in the communities where his projects exist by leveraging public, private, and government relationships to spur community projects like murals and more green spaces moving forward.

“I think you can do well and do good at the same time,” Keith says.  “I think bringing a preservationist mindset to the real estate game is key. The places that surround us, impact how we feel. Those things really excite me. We’re not just transients passing through. We love it here and we want everyone to experience this area the way we do.” •

{The Lynchburg Times is a nonpartisan, independent community newspaper serving Lynchburg, Tennessee and the surrounding counties. We are dedicated to public service journalism for the greater good of our community. You can support us, by clicking here.}

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