LivingMichelle Adams

Holly Williams on Saving Small-Town Tennessee Charmers

LivingMichelle Adams
Holly Williams on Saving Small-Town Tennessee Charmers
 
 

“I could just see it,” says Holly Williams with an excited trill. “Oh, this house has so much amazing potential.” She is talking about Fox Country Farmhouse, in Cornersville, Tennessee, the original old-home overhaul undertaken for her vacation-rental company, White’s Room and Board. But she could also be reminiscing about her first steps through the doors of 126-year-old Sweeney Cottage, in Leiper’s Fork. Or recalling her first night in the two-room hillside tree house at Centerhill Cabins.

Holly bought Fox Country Farmhouse off Craigslist. The renovations took about a year and three months. “It was really challenging,” she says, “but I could see the vision that first time I went.”

That same thrill of discovery rushes through the singer-songwriter and Southern-home enthusiast whenever she comes across another neglected house that needs to be saved. It’s what tells Holly that she’s found her next project. Of course, if she could dig up the time (and “the dough,” as she likes to say), she would probably rescue them all. But she’s only one woman. And her main line of work is still music.

The granddaughter and daughter of country legends Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Jr., Holly has been writing songs and playing gigs since she was a teenager. In her 20s, she got into retail with her Nashville boutique, H. Audrey. Then, on the cusp of her 30s, she married musician and artist Chris Coleman and started a family that includes three kiddos: Stella June, Lillie Mae, and baby Arlo.

Making a home for herself, her new husband, and their future children is actually what led Holly to leap into life as a historic-house rehabber. “I’d always been a lover of antiques and old homes, but I didn’t get serious about it until after I got married,” she says. “That’s when I really got into designing interiors and flipping houses.”

 
 
 
 
 

Fox Country Farmhouse, like all of the White’s Room and Board retreats, is a beauty with plenty of toughness. Holly’s got three young kids and a breakneck schedule, so she wants “a gorgeous home that can handle some real-world wear,” she says.

The past, the present, and family mean so much to me. I try to always create homes where those three things can live together.

Since 2015, Holly has renovated and sold eight houses. Then, last year, she launched White’s Room and Board as a hospitality-focused offshoot of White’s Mercantile, her modern-day general store. (Both businesses are named for her maternal grandparents, June and Warren White, a pair of cotton farmers and artists, whom Holly considers to be among the most notable influences on her ideas about Southern style and living well.)

 
 

“The kitchen in Cornersville was a wreck,” Holly says. “But it had that beautiful, huge, vaulted ceiling and that incredible old brick fireplace in the middle.” She painted the walls, ceiling, and even the floors; added some Thibaut wallpaper accents; and installed wall-to-wall Omega cabinetry. “Now you want to cook every meal in there.”

The most picturesque of the currently available White’s properties is Sweeney Cottage, a 1,200-square-foot house built in 1892, where (before buying and restoring it a decade later) Holly lived as an unsigned twentysomething musician, making her rent money by working at the sandwich shop next door. She became the owner, along with Leiper’s Fork preservationists Aubrey and Michele Preston, in 2016. “It’s just a dream of a small-town Southern home,” Holly muses.

[Tour Holly Williams’s 126-year-old Southern cottage.]

Meanwhile, the most ambitious room-and-board renovation was Fox Country Farmhouse, her stately farmhouse on a seven-acre spread in Cornersville. “I found it for $120,000 on Craigslist,” Holly says. “For a farmhouse only an hour outside of Nashville, that’s crazy cheap.” The downside: “It was falling apart. It was in terrible shape.”

 

Like her kitchens, Holly’s bathrooms are lovely (though wholly utilitarian) spaces. At Fox Country Farmhouse, she’s used a Kohler trough sink and faucets; Tabarka Studio floor tiles; custom Country Living wallpaper; a spacious subway-tiled shower; and her always-mandatory antique soaking tub.

 

Holly saw only potential, though. “I fell in love with it from day one. I loved the original beadboard, the original floors. I loved the layout, even the way the staircase is right in the front. I loved the old barn in the back, and I loved the little creek that barely runs, except if it’s raining, when it really runs,” she says. “Even my mom—who tells me I’m crazy on every single project, saying, ‘You’re insane. This place is horrible’—even she said, ‘You know, it’s really bad and old and smelly, but this place has something about it.’”

But just because she loved the old farmhouse doesn’t mean the rest was easy. “It was such a long process, probably about 15 months. And if I had known going in how long it would take, I probably would’ve never done it,” Holly admits. “That house had to have a lot of HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning] and plumbing work done, along with all of the cosmetic stuff. It was tough. But I’m so glad I stuck with it.”

 
 
 
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“Off the bat, I wasn’t sure about a bunch of cabins in the woods on a steep hillside. But then I got charmed,” Holly says. “I could work on the porches. The views are incredible. Those gated, wooded 12 acres are just the most comfortable, warm, cozy. It just felt very private, very serene.”

As for the third White’s getaway, Centerhill Cabins, it was not love at first sight. “A friend of mine owned the cabins, and he wasn’t trying to sell them to us, but he was saying, ‘I think I want to unload these great cabins. Y’all need to go out there and spend a songwriter’s weekend.’ But, gosh, the first time I went, I got out of the car, and I was like, ‘No way!’” Holly remembers. “It didn’t look great. My husband was like, ‘Check it out again.’ And when I went back in, I was like, ‘You’re right. You know what? These are perfect.’”

Down a long, winding drive, tucked into 12 wooded acres, and perched on a hillside that dips hundreds of feet until it reaches a twisting, rocky ravine (and eventually a churning river), Holly’s hidden cluster of cabins (one big house, one small house, and a stilt-supported tree house) is, despite her initial negative impression, a quaint, present-day monument to rustic down-home Americana. “That tiny little guest cabin,” she says, “it looks like something out of a Mark Twain novel to me now.”

 

Sometimes, a place’s potential is just buried beneath a few layers of fallen leaves and another few layers of the wrong paint. “Many times, especially in Tennessee, we’re surrounded by hundreds of rental cabins that are just boring, old, artsy-craftsy, and brown-walled, but I wanted to do something different that was warm, chic, and Southern,” Holly explains. “I’m so in love with history, and I have such a passion for the past, whether it’s trying to bring the original general store back with White’s Mercantile or being a lover of antebellum homes,” she adds. “But I know our traditions aren’t just in the past. They’re still evolving every day.”

 

“I may throw in a beautiful, antique French leather club chair with a nice Woolrich flannel throw. That gives a nod to cozy cabin style without overdoing it,” Holly explains. “Even painting an interior a very pale gray instead of beige or brown. I’ve tried to make the cabins feel very modern, as well as clean and fresh and warm and woodsy and luxurious.”

 
 
 

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Written by S. Pajot  |  Photographed by Marta Xochilt Perez  |  Produced and Art Directed by Michelle Adams