Aubrey Preston grew up in the knuckled Appalachian foothills of East Tennessee, where music flows out of the mountains like water and an omnipresent fog makes the craggy peaks appear to meet the clouds. It's the kind of place that can turn a boy into a dreamer. And, as dreamers do, Preston left in his 20s to explore the world beyond. This particular bit of geography, though, tends to tug its people back. Which is how Preston found himself, six years later, a successful real-estate magnate in Colorado who wanted nothing more than to return home.
In 1992, Preston settled his young family into a turn-of-the-century farmhouse about 30 miles south of Nashville. Leiper's Fork, however, was no manicured suburb — more like a country lane lined with a few falling-down buildings, remnants of the village's boom days a century ago, when the Middle Tennessee Railroad stopped here. But the trains quit running in 1927, and it was as if the village went to sleep. "You could see the makings of a city that never really developed," Preston recalls. "I just had a feeling this community could still blossom, in a way that allowed both the newcomers and the old-timers to win."
In this photo: Bruce Hunt (from left), Marty Hunt, and Aubrey Preston spearheaded the revitalization of Leiper's Fork.
So he set out to wake up the town. Preston didn't get far before crossing paths with Marty and Bruce Hunt, who'd decamped to these parts in the '70s with a similar vision. Together, the three possessed the power to pull off a project of this scale. The Hunts brought their knowledge of Leiper's Fork—and the respect of its longtime residents—to the table, while Preston supplied serious funding. In the course of 18 months, he purchased several commercial buildings, a handful of decrepit historic houses, and some 2,100 acres of rolling land to protect it from overdevelopment. "I've seen that movie too many times," he explains. "Revitalizations can start out with a lot of idealism, then newcomers show up and the original charm is lost."
After the Hunts bought three more abandoned storefronts and enlisted their neighbors to pitch in, the Sisyphean task of renovating all the structures began. (Marty herself spent three months scrubbing caked motor oil off the floor of the 1914 general store.) When a building was finished, Preston and the Hunts listed it for no more than what they put into it. Creating the ultimate small-town utopia, not turning a profit, was the point.
In this photo: Once the sun sets in Leiper's Fork, you can often find the locals at , playing music around the fire pit.
Preston started talking up the place to his friends, who spread the word among their friends. And slowly, one by one, they came: The Nashville record producer whose new business—the old grocery—anchors the local music scene. The San Francisco antiques dealer who set up shop in the onetime general store, selling apothecary cabinets and gargantuan wooden clock faces. The Manhattan mall developer who went from pitching investors on Wall Street to tending the vegetables and herbs that inspire his café's menu. As Preston says, "Birds of a feather flock together."
Today, Leiper's Fork feels like a sort of Mayberry-meets-Marfa. Though the town claims a full-time population of less than 500 residents, its proximity to Nashville makes it an easy stop for well-known bands and artists. There's enough traffic to support a boutique hotel, and people from the city have opened shops here—and committed to reverse commutes—just to be a part of it. "We played to the strengths that were already here," Preston says. "People ask, 'What's the population?' Well, we're just a wide spot in the road. But we've defined our village by people gathering together, and we've created a place. What really defines us is a state of mind."
Click through to meet six faces behind the Leiper's Fork renaissance.
Artist Lisa Fox had never heard of Leiper's Fork when Aubrey Preston hired her, in 2000, to paint a mural in a manse he was renovating—even though she lived 10 miles down the road. But once she sized up the town, Fox found it difficult to leave. "Every afternoon, I ate lunch with guys who spent their days hauling hay and chasing cows," she remembers. "I felt at home."
Twelve years later, Fox is still here, running , which represents work by major artists, including Yugoslavian abstract expressionist Anton Weiss; Ohioan Leslie Shiels (that's her painting, Eleven Alone, to the left); and Tennessee's own Butler Steltemeier, whose quirky animal portraits are collected by Al Gore and Whoopi Goldberg. Not that Fox's exhibit openings are hoity-toity affairs; the party usually spills out the door and onto the gallery's expansive lawn for live music and dancing. "It's always kind of a hang," she says. "Since we're out in the middle of nowhere, I made it a point to create that vibe."
To Rob Robinson, the word provisions means more than just milk and eggs. His sells those, a tank of gas, and the best fried chicken in town—all served with a side of honest roots music. It's not unusual for an impromptu hootenanny to break out in the parking lot come nightfall, and Robinson also books big-name acts like Keb' Mo' and Rodney Crowell to play the cozy indoor stage.
In fact, the producer and songwriter discovered Leiper's Fork while working on a record in Nashville, and moved here with wife Shanel and kids Olivia and Bo in 2006; the family became only the third owners of Puckett's, established 1955. "We've still got that old country-store appeal," says Robinson, "where you sit down on the bench with an ice cream, and your blood pressure drops about 20 points."
If David Arms were forced to choose a title, it would be artist. And he does show his paintings in a restored barn on the edge of Leiper's Fork. But he also partnered with a fragrance company to turn his studio's scent into a citrusy patchouli-and-sandalwood room spray. Then there's his line of ties, made from vintage fabrics in conjunction with Nashville haberdasher Otis James.
As for that day job? Arms's latest canvases echo the area's rural pleasures—wrens and sparrows perch on mandolins and old china. "This felt like the most authentic place to exhibit my work," he says of opening last year. "At what other gallery do horses stick their heads in the windows?"
"I live in an 1860s farmhouse, drive a '56 Ford pickup, and bring my dog to work every day," says Alex Cirimelli by way of explaining her 2003 cross-country move from San Francisco, where she served as a buyer for a high-end interior design firm. "I'm still in the business of design and buying, but it's for my own shop."
Make that her second shop. After outgrew its first location, Cirimelli relocated to Leiper's original 1914 general store. Her inventory has since spread like kudzu to cover all 2,500 square feet with the likes of early-20th-century pharmacy cabinets, European pocket watches, and vintage musical instruments. "I wanted a better quality of life," says Cirimelli. And, boy, did she get it.
Take one bite of the Santa Fe Kick sandwich—piled with Tennessee grass-fed beef and tomatoes grown just down the road—at , and you'd never guess that the man behind this locavore delicacy used to be a mall developer in New York City. Five years ago, Paul Schertz (a.k.a. Joe Natural) ended up in Leiper's Fork on a bit of a whim: "First, I started listening to country music, so I headed to Nashville for a concert," Schertz remembers. "Then, someone suggested I check out Leiper's Fork, and that was it. A few weeks later, I'd bought the farm."
These days, he begins each morning with his hands in the dirt, harvesting arugula, carrots, and kale, and tending to his goats and chickens, all of which supply his café—where the only thing better than that roast-beef sandwich may be the vanilla-frosted strawberry cake or the honey from the hives out back.
Ann Johnson freely admits that the house she bought in 2000—once the center of an illegal moonshine operation—was a dump. "But little by little," she says, "I turned the dump into a shack. I turned the shack into a cabin. I turned the cabin into a retreat. And now it's paradise."
At what's become Leiper's Fork's premier inn, , you don't just rent a room, you inherit the estate: a two-story wood-and-stone cabin that sleeps six, a fire pit, a pond, and 22 acres of land to roam. Each morning, guests can pick between Moonshine Hill's custom coffees: White Lightning and the Hillbilly Blend. Stay over the weekend and get free cover to the concerts at Puckett's Grocery, too. (From $275 a night.)