Fawn Weaver considers herself an introvert, one who has to work to connect with people outside of her immediate family. While that makes sense as she is a researcher and writer, our first impression of Fawn was a collective “wow.” This is a woman who fills the room with energy and passion for her varied projects. As author of the best-selling book Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage, her curious nature is well documented. But, it is her next project that we are currently excited about — the quest to discover the story of whiskey maker Nearest Green, the slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. It is with great pleasure we introduce you to Fawn Weaver, today’s FACE of the South.
How did you begin your journey to uncover the story of Nearest Green, the slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey?
My husband Keith and I were traveling on business and happened upon a story in The New York Times by Clay Risen indicating there was a possibility that a slave taught the most famous American whiskey maker the fine art of making whiskey. The article was based solely on oral history, so I wondered if there was more.
Your tedious research uncovered thousands of documents related to Jack Daniel and Nearest Green. What was the most revealing thing you found in this pursuit to uncover the history of their relationship?
This is such a challenging question because no one thing led to the definitive history between Nearest and Jack. In order to uncover the history of a former slave, you really have to look closer at those who they were around that were white because so few records exist on slaves. In digging deeper into Jack Daniel’s life and history, I was able to begin piecing together the story of Nearest Green. But everything from the original 1967 biography of Jack Daniel that mentioned Nearest and his boys 50 times throughout the book, to the metal bottle jug stencil that read “JACK DANIEL” found on the Dan Call Farm under the ground where Nearest was rumored to have distilled, to the 1972 Tennessee Historical Quarterly magazine that listed Nearest Green as their first head stiller (now commonly called a master distiller) ─ tax records and leases that show when Jack Daniel began and where he began and so many other documents and artifacts helped me piece this story together. But there was no one “aha” artifact that told it all.
You have decided to write a book about Nearest Green and also introduced Uncle Nearest 1856, a whiskey named after him. With both of these initiatives, what do you hope to accomplish and why?
In writing the book, my hope is it will live on paper and on the big screen, allowing this generation, as well as future generations, to know the great contribution of Nearest Green. It is also an incredibly timely message because of the positive relationship Nearest and Jack established that continued with their immediate descendants who then impacted an entire community. When I think of Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey, I see that as an entry into an industry Nearest was so instrumental in growing. In the future, I can see Nearest Green Single Barrel Whiskey, Nathan Green Blended Whiskey and so many others that will ensure his name becomes a part of whiskey culture. I traveled around the world for a book I wrote years ago, and no matter where I went, if I mentioned the names Jack Daniel or Johnnie Walker, they recognized them immediately. My goal is 10 or 20 years from now, when I am traveling the world with my husband, we can mention the name Nearest Green and it be known in every country we visit.
The proceeds from the whiskey also allow me to move full speed ahead with all of the other projects currently underway honoring Nearest. The reason I believe each one is so important is America was built, in great part, by African-Americans with us contributing greatly to nearly every aspect of American history. But so rarely do we see a spotlight shone on someone who helped fuel one of the most known brands in American history. My hope is by doing this, we will begin to see more companies step forward and honor those who have been forgotten in their history but were imperative to their start. By sharing the story of Nearest with the world, my prayer is those who learn of it will gain hope from this unusual relationship of respect and honor between a white and African-American during a time when that was (unfortunately) not the norm.
In May, Brown-Forman officially recognized Green as the first master distiller, and Daniel is now listed as the second master distiller. Can you speak to why Green is only now being recognized and why it took so long?
That is truly a question for Brown-Forman, and I make sure to never speak on their behalf. What I can say is all of my research has concluded when Jack Daniel was alive and when the distillery was managed by his descendants, Nearest Green and his family were always acknowledged and well-known around Lynchburg. There is only one photo I am familiar with that includes Jack Daniel with his team at the distillery. I certainly do not think it was a coincidence that the man seated to his immediate right was George Green, son of Nearest Green. What I will say is I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to lead the research that led to this incredible acknowledgment.
Other than publishing the book about Nearest Green, what other ideas do you have to raise awareness about his story?
There are actually 12 projects I have launched in connection to honoring Nearest Green. Most of them are being done through the Nearest Green Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization I began shortly after realizing this story was so much bigger than a book, movie or a whiskey. The first to be completed, ironically, is a cemetery project. When Nearest and his children and grandchildren were alive, it was common for African-Americans to be buried in an area away from the whites (commonly referred to as a “colored cemetery”). For this reason, nearly all of Nearest’s family are buried in a nondescript cemetery in Lynchburg on land behind a church immediately across from what was once known as the white cemetery – the place where Jack is buried. Something about that never sat right with me, so one of the first projects we began was a full beautification project of the cemetery where all of the African-Americans in Lynchburg are buried, complete with its own entrance, sign and a permanent 10-foot memorial for Nearest. We will rededicate the cemetery on December 2, 2017, with the entire town gathering to honor Nearest and the African-Americans who helped build Lynchburg.
The second project being released is the republication of Jack Daniel’s Legacy, his official biography. I wrote a new forward and preface for the book, and the 50th-anniversary edition will go on sale next week with proceeds going to the Nearest Green Foundation. We launched a scholarship program for the descendants of Nearest Green earlier this year as it’s my belief the best way to raise up a generation of leaders is higher education. Nearest nor his wife and 11 children could read or write, so my hope when revealing Nearest’s legacy of excellence to the world was to restore that in his own bloodline. We have already granted full scholarships to seven of his descendants and are underwriting their education at schools like Texas A&M, University of Texas, Missouri State and Auburn University.
Who was an early mentor to you?
This is going to sound odd, but every early mentor I’ve had was on paper. I am still this way a bit, where most of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned have come through others’ writings. I think it’s Warren Buffet who once said that he tries to share with people all the time that the key is not learning from your own mistakes but rather from the mistakes of others. It’s keys like these that I have taken with me and applied to my own life. If I were to choose the books that have had the greatest impact on me and have helped guide my life, I’d have to choose Max Lucado’s It’s Not About Me, Jim Collin’s Good to Great and Ken Blanchard’s Lead Like Jesus. I have an incredible, tight-knit family, and we all mentor each other in one way or another, so I am incredibly fortunate.
Your husband Keith is the Executive Vice President of Global Policy and External Affairs at Sony Pictures Entertainment. How do you balance your busy life with a high-profile husband and lots of travel?
Oh my, oh my … I have no idea! This week alone I will be on my third trip cross-country, but I am so grateful because Keith and I stay connected even when we are apart. I am also fortunate to lead a great team of people who I can manage from anywhere in the world and who work incredibly hard every day. They help provide the margin that allows me to better balance what would otherwise be an exhausting life. Keith and I depend on one another, God, and apply a whole lot of grace ─ to ourselves and each other. We renew for a full 24-hours at the end of each week. Some call it a Sabbath day of rest, some call it a gap day or stop day, but bottom line is everyone we do business with knows from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, we are not available. We shut everything down and just focus on our family and all things good.
You are the author of Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage. Can you share some of your favorite quotes from the book?
Two of my favorite quotes are: “Happily ever after is not a fairy tale it’s a choice,” and “Happiness in marriage is a joint production. It is about mutual respect and an equal admiration of one another.”
What is a valuable piece of advice you have been given?
If you look for good, you will find it. Focus on the now, and all you need will be found in that present moment.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding God, family and friends?
A great book that challenges me to be a better person, music and nature. Rounding this answer out with a fourth: peanut butter … not kidding … I’ve tried!
Meet more amazing Southern women in our FACES series.