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The Black Keys: Chart-Topping Blues

by Jaan Uhelszki on September 23, 2014

Photo: Danny Clinch

It's an overcast day in Nashville, Tenn. gray, cold, with a hint of rain in the sky—not the kind of day that attracts six million tourists a year to the spiritual home of country music. But nobody comes to Music City because of the weather. They come looking for the Holy Grail of country music, where every cab driver, accountant and waiter is a songwriter and the kid busking on the corner of Lower Broadway with a George Jones songbook actually has a chance to be the next...well, George Jones.

But I’m not going to that Nashville. I’m going to the Nashville with the super-cool record stores, like the retail arm of Jack White’s Third Man Records—a tiny jewel box of a store where all of the employees wear black and yellow uniforms and sell only their own narrowly curated product—or the more informal and vastly superior Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, where you’re likely to run into Robert Plant, John Prine, Gene Simmons or Jim James pawing through the extensive bins.

The Nashville I’ve come to see is the one where Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney moved in 2010 after Auerbach pulled up his Ohio stakes and went south.

Four years later, it’s still inexplicable that they left Akron—a gritty post-industrial town known as the birthplace of rubber companies, waffle cones, caramel corn, oatmeal, Alcoholics Anonymous and a rampant contrarianism in its natives. The city of Akron is a silent partner, the third member, and a talisman for Carney and Auerbach.

“Hi, we’re The Black Keys and we’re from Akron,” Auerbach said at their recent show for SiriusXM in their adopted hometown this May. It is impossible to imagine them saying, “Hi, we’re The Black Keys and we’re from Nashville.”

Some people opine that like Chrissie Hynde, Devo, Jim Jarmusch, Maynard James Keenan, Joseph Arthur, and even Alice Cooper band members Neal Smith and Glen Buxton four decades before them, The Black Keys didn’t want to fall victim to “The Akron Curse”: the oft-bandied, “You have to leave town in order to make it.”

So, in August of 2010, Auerbach drove the 508 miles south with his then-wife and daughter, Sadie, to change his juju. “There were more options there on every level—music, restaurants, everything,” Auerbach says.

“I gotta be honest,” Auerbach told Bon Appetit magazine back in 2012, “I moved here partly because of the food.”

That may be more true than anyone ever suspected, especially after he took the readers of an effete food magazine through a whirlwind tour of Nashville’s hot cuisine, ending up at the City House, his then-favorite eatery. “If I’m not touring,” says Auerbach, “I’m probably there eating the octopus with butter beans, the North Carolina mussels with linguine and the belly-ham pizza.”

“I hate to make it all come down to food, but Dan really cares about what he eats,” says Carney. “When it comes down to certain things, I’m just indifferent.

“I’m the kind of person who, if I’m at a restaurant, I’ll just say, ‘I’ll have what he’s ordering.’ That’s pretty much how I got to Nashville. The same thing happened when I moved to New York from Akron. I was going through a divorce and I wanted to spread my wings a little bit. I never thought I’d live in New York but my brother Mike was moving there, so I basically tagged along. Then after about a year, Dan decided to leave Akron and move to Nashville. I was having a little too much fun in New York. So I just tagged along. Pretty much ordered what he ordered.”

To see exactly what was on that menu, I’m in a cab careening toward the outskirts of Nashville, 10 miles southwest of downtown.

The word “house” hardly does justice to the space that Carney shares with wife Emily and theirtwoIrishWolfhounds,DarlaandCharlotte. Very simply, it looks like something out of Downton Abbey. It’s set back from the road, with a long, winding driveway that takes you through a copse of trees and such beautiful foliage that you feel like it’s spray-painted. The road stops abruptly at what looks like a medieval gatehouse with a brick overhang, and then out of the fine mists, a stone storybook house appears.

There is a tasteful austerity and meticulousness in the furnishing, and it’s so unnervingly clean that you feel like you could do surgery on the kitchen floor. That is, if you weren’t distracted by the precious little breakfast nook painted celadon green—in what was once a wine cellar— or the double fireplace in the living room. There’s a keen attention to detail, from the strategically placed tea tables to the way that Carney’s collection of Harmony Korine paintings are hung. “Harmony is always telling me which of his paintings to buy. It’s a little like insider trading,” laughs Carney about his friend and former neighbor.

All of it seems outwardly at odds with The Black Keys’ messy, straightforward aesthetic, but it’s not.

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