All-star jamboree

Actors, rock 'n' rollers invade Music City

NASHVILLE — Nashville is hot again.

Nicole Kidman can be spotted at Starbucks with husband Keith Urban (or at least she could be before Urban checked himself in for alcohol rehabilitation in October). Ashley Judd is involved in a local political race. Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Barry Gibb and Jack White are Nashville-area homeowners, while Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler has made an offer on property, and Robert Plant just arrived to check things out for himself.

B.B. King and John Mellencamp are recording in Nashville. So is Jon Bon Jovi, following in the footsteps of Bob Seger and Solomon Burke, who cut new albums in Music City.

These famous faces blend (perhaps purposely) right into the laid-back Nashville landscape rather than alter it.

“It is more likely that the people will be changed,” says Luke Lewis, co-chairman of Universal Music Group in Nashville. “I don’t think some gang of superstars moving into town will change the town much. I think there are a lot of people happy to have them here.

“I don’t know any of us who haven’t had friends visit Nashville and realize what a wonderful place it is to live. The lifestyle is great — it is less expensive and less frantic, and the creative community is really vibrant.”

Hollywood’s perception of Nashville remains erroneous, says Karen Essex, a screenwriter and bestselling novelist.

“Nashville is actually much cooler than Hollywood,” she says with a laugh. “In Hollywood, celebrities live behind so much protection, whereas in Nashville, the celebrities are just folks, and they are everywhere you are, and they are completely accessible. They are people that you really get to know.”

Artists such as Donna Summer, Al Kooper, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald and Steve Winwood moved to Nashville during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when country music was experiencing unprecedented success.

“A lot of pop artists who felt they couldn’t relate to what was happening in New York and L.A. could really relate to Nashville because it’s a songwriting town and a musician’s town,” producer and Universal South co-head Tony Brown says.

After the boom subsided and the music grew a bit stale, a few of the boldface names moved elsewhere. But as sales increased again and artists with a nontraditional, more mainstream appeal (such as Urban, the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Rascal Flatts) became popular, Nashville regained its place in the media spotlight.

For evidence, look no further than the country-music focus in the November issues of Vanity Fair, People and Ladies’ Home Journal. (Even Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton opened their first Nashville stores this year.)

“Country music at the moment is probably as diverse as I have ever seen it, as far as the stylistic breadth of it and what you hear on the radio, from traditional to pop-sounding,” Lewis says. “It is pretty inclusive creatively right now, and that may be why some of these folks are gravitating here right now.

“There are great studios and players. It’s more about the song, I think, right now than maybe L.A. and New York are. If you are inclined that way as an artist, where else are you going to go?”

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