Let’s not kid ourselves. ABC’s new primetime musical drama series Nashville will never be mistaken for Robert Altman’s classic film of the same name. It’s a hot-and-steamy county music answer to NBC’s Broadway-centric Smash.
Near-Shakespearean conflicts include those of a middle-aged country diva (think, Faith Hill) who’s struggling to save her fading career while juggling the demands of being a good mother and a loyal political wife—all while managing a lingering obsession with her guitarist and cowriter and staving off a rising fresh-faced pop tart who’s equal parts Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. And that’s just one string in this fiddle. Everybody seems to be sleeping with, or has slept with, everybody else at one time or another.
Yet, this glamorous Southern melodrama is more than just Dallas with pedal steel. This Grand Ole Soap Opry is packed with real-life archetypal characters and places that lend it a certain twang of authenticity. Much of that is due in part to Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri’s painstaking attention to detail.
Each week, Khouri and her writers dream up as much sex and political intrigue as you can legally present in an hour of network television, then turn it on a dime into full-blown musical numbers. The plots land in the hands of a large Altman-worthy ensemble: Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), Powers Boothe (Deadwood), and Eric Close (Without A Trace). They’re joined by an attractive cast of relative newcomers including Australian soap star Clare Bowen and English songwriter Sam Palladio. The tunes, supervised by Khouri’s Grammy and Oscar winning husband, producer T-Bone Burnett, are pretty damn good, too.
"We’re the turducken of television," Khouri recently told TV Guide’s Michael Schneider. "We’ve got music, drama, comedy, politics and the best-looking cast since good looking casts were invented, all packed into 42 minutes."
Music City is as much a living character in Nashville as it is the setting for a whole mess o’ love makin’, heart breakin’, guitar pickin’ and back stabbin’. And plenty of its favorite sons and daughters show up.
It was something of a stroke of genius to cast real life songwriter’s songwriter J.D. Souther ("Take It Easy", "New Kid In Town" and more) to play the fictional Watty White, the Nashville maven who we are told discovered not only aging country diva Rayna but most of the stars who inhabit the Bluebird Café's galaxy. Nashville based guitarist, producer and songwriter Colin Linden, who has appeared both onscreen and on the music tracks for the show, has an insider’s view on the production and can vouch for their attention to musical authenticity. "Fundamentally, most of the people involved with the show really know a lot about making music, so it is less a matter of sweating the details, and more a matter of depicting things as they are," Linden says.
And while he doesn’t move in the same social circles as Rayna or personally know any troubled pop princesses like Swift-Underwood hybrid Juliette, Linden says, "There’s no shortage of real life characters [like them] in all walks of Nashville life. Southern culture is conducive to that. The interaction between the musicians is mostly very accurate. Obviously, the conflicts and trials and tragedies of the characters are written in, but the overall approach to how musicians and songwriters relate to one another is just like it is."
If there’s a real life model for Watty White, it may partially be the show’s in-house talent magnet, T-Bone Burnett. With Burnett at the helm, nobody should be surprised at the faithful sound design of the backing tracks and repertoire. Having made his name in film with soundtracks for O Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain, Burnett’s tastes are as bona fide as his contact lists.
Buddy Miller, co-producer of music for the series, told Rolling Stone recently that he and Burnett agree that getting the best songs is a major part of the show’s realism. "I think that’s one thing that’s really important. You just don’t want to do a crap song."
As such, Burnett has put together some seriously great material for the cast to sing. Fans of the recently suspended duo The Civil Wars probably already know that John Paul White’s "If I Didn’t Know Better," "No One Will Ever Love You," and Joy Williams’ "Back Home" have been featured prominently in season one, and other characters have spotlighted Elvis Costello’s "Twist Of Barbwire," and Gillian Welch’s "Buried Under." “There are a lot of songs in the hopper right now,” J.D. Souther recently told Jeremy Egner of the New York Times, “because everybody in town wants a song on this show,” and I spoke to at least two other prominent Nashville songwriters who wouldn’t go on the record talking about the show because they didn’t want to jinx their chances of making the cut. "I love the songs on this show," says Linden, again. "They represent the best of what is happening in Nashville, and the songs don’t have to only appeal to country radio. But these tunes are really resonating with people, so the music is actually expanding and, I think, improving the genre. I don’t have any songs in the show, yet," he laughs, "but I have played on a whole bunch of them."
Hollywood has come a long way since session singers like Marni Nixon dubbed in Natalie Wood’s parts in West Side Story, and the fact that the whole cast, not just lead actresses Britton and Panettiere, actually sing their character’s songs, and that they’re good at it, is something of a surprise. Britton and Esten had an iTunes hit with their duet, "No One Will Ever Love You" and Panettiere recently released her Juliette Barnes single “Telescope”. Englishmen Sam Palladio is currently capitalizing on his Nashville status to introduce his own music to American via the synergy of a well-placed smartphone ad which runs in the show’s time slot. Even the child actresses who play Rayna’s adorable daughters Maddie and Daphne, the adorable Canadian sisters Lennon and Maisy Stella, were cast because their exceptional harmonizing skills had already made them a YouTube sensation. In a case of life imitating art (which was already imitating life), Bowen and Palladio sang a duet at the actual Grand Ole Opry on November 18 and in December, the Nashville cast album on Big Machine Records, Scott Borchetta’s upstart Nashville label that became a major force when they took a chance on an unknown teenager named Taylor Swift.
"There is a scene in the second episode," says Linden, " where Juliette and Deacon are having a writing session that turns kind of sexy and Juliette is playing a genuine 1930's Martin acoustic guitar. To me, that guitar is almost as sexy and beautiful as the gal! And the recording studio scenes are filmed in some of the best studios in Nashville including Ben Folds’ Studio, Ocean Way Nashville and House of Blues Nashville." Every bit of gear is genuine, pickers play the exact makes and models of guitars and amps, and singers sing into the perfect microphones, and the studio walls are even adorned with gold and platinum awards and framed covers of Mix Magazine (a top studio magazine). The walls of record company cover art for the mock-up album covers for Rayna and Juliette look ready to be front racked at Walmart.
Finally, Linden concludes that, while dramatic films like Crazy Heart were painfully accurate, and comedies like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind are also "way too close to the truth," he feels that Nashville may be "one of the best and most accurate portrayal of musicians on TV or in the movies."