Rock ’n’ roll meets right-at-home
Photography by Reeves Smith
There are some places you walk into and they immediately feel like home. That’s exactly how it is walking into the Green Hills-area residence of Bebe Buell and husband James “Jimmy Walls” Wallerstein. At least it is once you walk past the full suit of knight’s armor.
It is that juxtaposition of memories and mementoes with modern humor and eccentricity that makes their home so familiar and fun. Look just a little closer in any direction and true treasures are revealed, from the collections of marble eggs passed down from her mother, Protocol School of Washington founder Dorothea Johnson, to the middle-school photos of her daughter, actress Liv Tyler.
“Everything has a story,” Buell says. “I don’t have one thing in my house that does not have a story.”
Like the photograph of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe in her dining room that used to hang in the couple’s own dining room in Connecticut. Or her mother’s silver collection. Or Chinese urns filled with pet ashes. Or the original art gifted from exes like Mick Jagger. Or photographs with her and Hugh Hefner. It’s not exactly the life history that just anyone can acquire over the years.
But Buell isn’t just anyone. She is pretty much a pop-culture icon who has had a front-row seat to some of the greatest creative minds of our time, while making plenty of noise of her own. And her home with Wallerstein is an homage to all of that.
Buell was discovered by the Eileen Ford of Ford Models after high school. She left her native Virginia for New York City, where she soon became involved with legendary rock musician Todd Rundgren. She was “Playboy” magazine’s Playmate of the Month in November 1974, and the scandal of being the first fashion model to appear in the magazine led to her being dropped by Ford Models. She then signed with Wilhelmina and often appeared in “Cosmopolitan” and international editions of “Vogue.” In 1977 she gave birth to her daughter Liv with Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler.
Buell, one of the main inspirations for Penny Lane in the Oscar-winning film “Almost Famous,” has been close with some of the most creative people around, including Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Joey Ramone and Ric Ocasek, who produced her first four-song EP, “Covers Girl” (1981). It featured The Cars on backup and was one of Rhino Records’ first mainstream releases.
After coming to Nashville to contribute to an Eddy Arnold tribute album, she convinced Wallerstein this was where they needed to be.
“I got sucked into the thing they call the vortex of Nashville,” she says. “You know they say you don’t pick Nashville, Nashville chooses you. The only thing Nashville’s missing is an ocean. But if the New Madrid Fault does what they say it’s going to do, we’ll be beachfront property.”
Her home is an eclectic collection of family heirlooms and rock ’n’ roll history, with a Restoration Hardware chandelier thrown in. It was one of the first pieces Buell purchased when arriving.
“I’m not a big shopper. Although when one must shop, I shop,” she jokes.
The laundry room is a poster gallery of shows she has played and attended, while the hot-pink bathroom downstairs is inspired by the erstwhile Elaine’s restaurant and bar in New York. It was known for its regular crowd of celebrities, musicians and writers.
“The first time I went there in the ’70s, I went into the bathroom and just every square inch was filled with pictures. And so I swore one day I was going to duplicate that bathroom, and I finally got a half bath where I could do that,” she says.
The bathrooms are everything at Buell’s home. Upstairs is the “Dog & Skull,” with luxe black wallpaper embossed with gold skulls. The paper is offset by framed 1920s dog postcards that Wasserstein’s mom collected as a child. In the master bath, Buell’s standalone bathtub is lined with rubber duckies.
Her bedroom is a mix of animal and floral prints and bright, bold color, inspired by designer Diana Vreeland’s living room.
“I’m Cancerian, and I think I’m a natural nester,” she says. “My daughter is like me, too, but she doesn’t get as attached to things as I do — the stupidest little things that I just can’t throw away. But I’m not a hoarder because I’m too organized and too clean to be a hoarder.”
Buell never stopped making music over the years, either in her own band or guest performing with others. Her first live show in Nashville was at the Bluebird Café on Mother’s Day 2014.
“They let me come in there with full band and make some racket, which was a lot of fun,” she says. “And four sold-out shows later, it’s become the place where I go to test new material and to bond with real people. Those audiences are half tourists and half die-hard Nashvillians.”
You can find her playing regularly at 3rd and Lindsley and Basement East and The Basement, and as a guest vocalist with Thee Rock n’ Roll Residency at Mercy Lounge, and with The Long Players.
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In April, Buell released what she says is her most personal album to date, “Baring It All: Greetings From Nashbury Park,” produced by Wallerstein.
“I have a message about ageism and sexism, and that’s one of the main reasons why I, at 64 years old, am carrying the flag for us all,” Buell says. “There’s no reason why all the charts should be dominated by children. It’s fantastic that there’s so much creativity, and when you think about how young the Stones and The Beatles were when they got started, they were babies. But there’s a whole bunch of people out there making music. You don’t want to say, ‘Oh I play the oldies,’ because no, my music is now. It’s current. I don’t play oldies.”
She finds inspiration for her music all over Nashville, even in her own backyard, which she says is built on top of a Civil War battleground and brings a beautiful energy to the space. And the atmosphere is not too different from growing up in Virginia.
“It brings me back to my childhood, the smells,” she says. “I’ll be walking down the street here and suddenly something will come under my nose that I remember from when I was 8. The smells of the South — you can’t get them anywhere else.”