Nashville’s New Tune: The Black Keys

Dan Auerbach’s Eighth Avenue recording studio is at the center of the Nashville’s new wave

Photo: David McClister

Patrick Carney (left) and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.

It’s a blustery winter morning, and Dan Auerbach, the guitarist/vocalist of the Black Keys, is driving through downtown Nashville on his way to Easy Eye Sound, his recording studio on the city’s thriving Eighth Avenue South. Although Auerbach was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, Music City has been a part of his life since his teenage years. Growing up, he regularly made trips south with his father, an antiques dealer who would set up shop at shows at Opryland and the Nashville Convention Center.

“We’d come down about three times a year,” Auerbach says. “After he was done each day, we’d go to Robert’s Western World and hang out, listening to great music.” After Nashville, father and son would head to Memphis, then drive through northern Mississippi and soak in the Hill Country blues of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, which deeply influenced the Black Keys’ bashing blues and rock ’n’ roll.

When Auerbach and his partner in the band—the tall bespectacled drummer Patrick Carney—began touring, in 2002, they visited Nashville often, playing in small clubs while the high-gloss country of Faith Hill and Kenny Chesney reigned supreme. But it wasn’t a place they necessarily
felt like they had to be. Then, in 2009, Jack White opened his Third Man Records studio and store, tapping into a burgeoning music scene in which nary a twang could be found in a city the Black Keys now call home.

The Keys have become one of the music world’s rare commodities: a slow-burning superstar act. The two men, born eleven months apart, grew up just houses away from each other in Akron. But they were hardly close. Auerbach was kind of a jock (captain of the soccer team) while Carney hung back, preferring the role of nerdy misfit. So before they ended up jamming in Carney’s basement late in high school, they had barely spoken. Carney’s dad, a reporter, schooled him in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones while Auerbach’s father took him on a head-first plunge into the music of Robert Johnson, Kimbrough, Hank Williams, the Grateful Dead, and classic soul artists. His mother’s side of the family had gatherings that were spent in a circle singing three-part harmonies. “Playing old spiritual songs, bluegrass songs, blues songs, folk songs, a lot of Stanley Brothers tunes, a lot of Bill Monroe songs,” recalls Auerbach, “which are basically blues songs sung by white people.”

With a mutual love of raw Memphis blues, Carney and Auerbach released their debut album, The Big Come Up, in 2002, with each subsequent album garnering them more attention and bigger audiences. Like any couple, the duo went through a rough patch, barely speaking for almost a year in 2009 before releasing the aptly titled Brothers. Its breakthrough single “Tighten Up” catapulted them into rarefied air. Following the late-2011 release of El Camino, they headlined their first arena tour, and El Camino went on to nab Best Rock Album honors at the Grammys this past February, along with two more awards for the single “Lonely Boy.” Auerbach himself took home another award for producer of the year.

That’s a long way from dingy basement studios and clubs in Akron.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get my head around it,” Auerbach says. “We’re two dudes from Akron. And to play this type of music that has so much history in front of thousands of people is a little bit of a mind f**k.”

But despite the head-spinning success of recent years, Auerbach got clarity on one thing: He wanted to be in Nashville. After spending more and more free time in the city, befriending creative types such as designers Matt and Carrie Eddmenson of Imogene + Willie as well as other musicians, such as Patrick Keeler of the Raconteurs, he was introduced to a different, younger side of Music City. “I went to a lot of house shows, punk rock shows,” Auerbach says. “Things you wouldn’t necessarily do with your dad.”

He moved for good in 2010 and even got Carney to put down roots in town (though Carney is a little more restless and also rents a loft in New York City). Shortly thereafter, Auerbach opened Easy Eye, a studio that has quickly gained a reputation for high quality. Auerbach himself makes sure all the guitars are perfectly tuned. “You’d be shocked at how many studios don’t even have guitars to play,” he says. In addition to recording El Camino here, Auerbach has recorded a myriad of other musicians, including the legendary New Orleans keyboardist Dr. John, North African blues artist Bombino, and local songstress Nikki Lane, whom he met at a flea market, where Lane sold him a vintage 1950s trapshooting jacket. “She was hustling me for money, and I paid more than I should,” Auerbach says, laughing. “I had no idea who she was. Then I saw her sing, put two and two together, and went back to the flea market and introduced myself.”

Aside from the music (the Keys are currently working on their eighth album) and his young daughter, Sadie, Auerbach’s other love in Nashville is the flourishing culinary scene. He’s become a foodie-about-town, from extolling the virtues of Vietnamese pho to turning into a regular at Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a classic meat-and-three around the corner from his studio. “I eat everything there, but I try not to eat there every day,” he says. “To say that I moved to Nashville for the food wouldn’t be far off.”

And whether he’s hitting a show at the Basement (which Auerbach points to as the linchpin in the Eighth Avenue South scene) or making a run to City House for late-night belly ham pizza, it’s safe to say that Nashville has been good to Auerbach and the Keys. “I love it here, but it is kind of weird,” Auerbach says. “I’ve got more friends here in two years than I ever did in Akron.”