When we opened our Nashville store just over two years ago, Ronnie Dunn was one of the first through the door. Since then, he’s been one of Imogene + Willie’s biggest advocates.
That’s not to say he went right out and told all his best friends about us right away. Ronnie played us close to his chest for a while because, according to him, he wanted us to remain the best-kept secret in America. Eventually he gave in and started to tell his friends: We knew he’d let the cat out of the bag when ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons slinked in one day and told us who sent him.
We adore Ronnie, and not just because he supports our brand. For sure, we admire his taste – that’s a bit of a no-brainer, considering that he wears our Willie jeans pretty much every day. What we appreciate even more, though, is how Ronnie chooses to live his life. He’s got an enormous work ethic; he supports his local community; he’s smart, curious and engaged in the world around him; and – most admirable of all – he’s a real family man.
It’s this last trait that we wanted to explore when we asked our close friend Whitney Dunn to interview her dad for this week’s OV.
Whitney has her own special I+W back-story: she’s been in Matt and Carrie’s universe since shortly after they moved to Nashville in 2009. Early on, she made it a priority to reach out to the new kids in town. Matt, Carrie and Whitney have a common profession – Whitney is the co-owner of The Perfect Pair, an upscale shoe boutique here – but the most important thing they share is a big, beautiful friendship.
Their father/daughter interview took place last week at The Forge, a rambling Dickson County property that Ronnie purchased just over three years ago as a home-away-from-home retreat for his family, which includes Whitney, her mom Janine, sister Haley, and brother Jesse, who everybody calls Dubber.
Building the White Bluff property’s main home was a labor of love for Ronnie, who collaborated with area artisans to design and construct the stunning two-story barn structure. His hard work paid off in the shape of a space where his family loves to spend downtime playing, relaxing, being with friends, and just enjoying each other’s company.
Whitney: How did you find this property?
Ronnie: I looked for it for five years. I was looking on the south side of the town at first, but I couldn’t find a parcel this big – and nothing I saw had a river like this. A friend told me about this land. I wasn’t sure about the location, so it took a while for me to get out to see it. I actually started out here once and turned around. Luckily, he was persistent. When I finally did come out, I saw the bluff and all the hills and it just started singing to me. It’s that simple. I really responded to the vibe more than anything else.
Whitney: Why did you name it The Forge?
Ronnie: There’s an iron forge on the property. The town of White Bluff was built here around it in the mid-1800s. There’s a grave in the yard of a little girl who belonged to the Napier family, who were the founders of the forge. There’s also an old mound from that time that we’re planning to excavate. One of the guys has already found a hand-cut 40-foot beam out there. It’d be great inside this space, actually.
Whitney: When you started building the house what were your inspirations, architecturally?
Ronnie: I was using the footprint of the barn we have at our house in Nashville, which is 40 by 80 feet. It’s a 16-stall horse stable.
Whitney: When you first talked to us about this place, it was going to be a space for the tractor. Then the next thing we know, it’s a house!
Ronnie: Yeah, I was initially just going to do a tractor shed but the project just kept getting bigger. I started working on it in ’08. A lot of the guys out this way were out of work at the time. The city told me that for six months after the crash, there was only one building permit pulled in Dickson County – this one.
The price of lumber was way down, so all the building materials were priced next to nothing. We’d go buy a bunch of rough-cut poplar and started hammering.
The most fun part of doing it was using the local craftsman. Dave Harp of Cumberland Iron Works helped me find all the wood and limestone. Greg Vaughn and his brother Bobby deserve credit for handcrafting everything out here. They made the doors, the furniture, the light fixture… Rachel (Halvorson, the project’s interior designer) came up with the concept and their team executed it.
Ronnie: I bought an all-dozer at a fire sale, and when we got it up and running, we made trails all through the woods. Each veers off from the main road – we call it Red Dirt Trail – and is named something eccentric and specific to everyone in the family. For instance, Janine is hooked on Sonic peach tea; she walks around all the time with one of those liter containers of it. We make fun of her for it. She gets them to sell her gallon sized peach extract out the back door.
Whitney: I don’t know if extract is the right word: that’s too fancy. This stuff is more like syrup.
Ronnie: Well, anyway, she and all her girlfriends are running around with Sonic cups at formal parties – it’s a nice look. In honor of that, we have Sonic Drive.
Whitney: You named one trail Maniac Mountain for my avid outdoorsman brother.
Ronnie: And there’s Whit Circle for you, Haley Drive for Haley. We’re having fun with it. There are lots of things to lure the family out, get them away from all that crazy stuff going on in town. Our house in Nashville is always chaos.
Whitney: It’s a revolving door at that house – but in a great way. Everyone wants to come over; that’s how it’s always been. We always wanted everyone to come hang out with our family. This house is another place to do that but without all the distractions and the phones and the computers.
Whitney: You’ve really gotten into photography lately. There are some really beautiful pictures you took hanging on the walls here.
Ronnie: There are just such great spots to shoot out here. The fog rolls in the morning and at night – it’s like a Stephen King movie. Just a big white wall. It’s freaky! I was out here with Haley and her friends and we drove right into it, like a cloud. The next morning, it started to rise. That’s when I got the shot of the tree we have up in here. I won’t let them cut that tree down.
Whitney: Tell me about the fish in your pond.
Ronnie: It’s just stock – rainbow trout, five or six pounders. We put them in the big pond so the kids can go out and catch them. It just takes one to feed the whole family for the night. Janine takes them and cooks them up.
There are trout in the river, too. We were down there one day and here comes a guy in pair of water socks and shorts and a trout basket, walking down the middle of the river, fishing. He walked right down the backside of the property and out of sight.
Whitney: You can kayak there, too – though I don’t know if I want to do that after that snake story.
Ronnie: The property manager was down by the river and saw a commotion in the water; it was all boiling up. He looked down and saw two massive water moccasins – he didn’t know if they were mating or fighting. When the flood came through last year, all these big trees were uprooted. We’re theorizing that the snakes have a hangout in the tree roots that hangs out into the river. The guys and I are flipping coins right now to see who has to go out on the tractor and put a chain around the tree and pull it out.
Whitney: I love when we come out and you’re already here, moving trees. It’s like, since when did the old guy learn to ride a tractor so well?
Ronnie: It’s good therapy. We used to laugh at Dale Earnhardt years ago when he bought 350 acres and a ‘dozer with it. He just lived on the dozer when he wasn’t racing cars. It feels good to push the earth around, to move trees… Garth used to do it too, when he bought that land up in Hendersonville. I’d call him and say, “Hey, what you doing?” And he’d go, “I’m on the dozer.” You know, just hanging out.