ABC’s Nashville should be much worse than it is. With so many melodramatic storylines that are textbook ”nighttime soap opera,” its first season chould have derailed before it reached mid-season. Yet the fine acting by Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) and Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and the hand-picked music by T Bone Burnett and lift Nashville above the typical sudster.
When I began flirting with country music a year ago, I was an early enthusiast of Nashville. The series was created Academy Award winner Callie Khouri, a writer known for depicting strong women characters in all of her films. Khouri is the writer of Thelma & Louise (as well as the underrated rom com, Something to Talk About). In Nashville she’s come up with three more compelling women: Britton’s Rayna James, Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes and Claire Bowen’s Scarlett O’Connor.
Rayna is a Faith/Shania/Martina-type country singer whose prime years occurred during the 90s and early 2000s. In her we see a woman doing her best to maintain the same level of success that she earned when she had top 10 singles and held concerts in sold out arenas. It’s tough, though, as Rayna has two daughters and a husband who is trying to establish his own identity outside the shadow of his famous wife. Britton has a history of bringing heart and empathy to her roles and she does it again with Rayna. Even when she’s losing control of her marriage and her children, we’re always on her side and that’s because of Britton. Casting this great actress as the veteran performer was genius. Plus she can sing.
Panettiere has a trickier role. In early episodes, Juliette is a Taylor meets Brittney sex kitten rocketing up the country charts by singing glossy country pop and flaunting her tight, young bod. Yet Juliette yearns to be taken seriously as an artist and pursues the one man she believes can give her that cred, Deacon (Charles Esten), a talented singer/guitarist who happens to be the bandleader of Rayna’s band, as well as her former lover (one of the many soap opera elements the show features). Juliette’s image softens as the season progresses. The episodes that delve into her dirt-poor childhood and her drug-addicted mother give Panettiere the opportunity to shine. She is a much finer actress than I ever imagined and really deserves all of the acclaim she’s received for Nashville.
Clare Bowen’s Scarlett O’Connor is an unassuming poet (and Deacon’s niece) who isn’t out to become a country star. She’s content supporting her dicky boyfriend, Avery – expertly acted by Jonathan Jackson. A chance performance at the famed Bluebird CafÁ© draws the attention of a seasoned manager (played by singer/songwriter JD Souther) and Scarlett is thrust into becoming a recording artist. Scarlett reminds me of Kacey Musgraves or Miranda Lambert, storytellers whose songs of everyday life and strong female empowerment don’t necessarily fit in the mainstream country male-centric world of booze, trucks and girls in tight clothes. In Scarlett we see a star being born, whereas Juliette is a star burning bright and Rayna may be a star in her twilight. Scarlett doesn’t have the luxuries that the two other characters have. She struggles to make ends meet and must deal with Avery’s jealousy when she draws more attention than his own country band. Bowen does a wonderful job expressing Scarlett’s naivete and kindness. If there is one character you pray doesn’t become corrupted by fame and the jaded music business, it’s Scarlett. It remains to be seen what will happen to this character as her popularity grows. Bowen has the best voice of the three lead women; her singing is achingly beautiful.
Nashville actually succeeds on most levels, primarily when it zeroes in on these three strong women and their different choices in country music, As for the men on the show; Esten stands out as the breakout star. Esten allows his lady co-stars to shine whenever he shares the camera with them. He has a lovely singing voice and really walks the walk of a grizzled road warrior who has finally started to see the light after years in the fog of Jim Beam. Elsewhere, I was really impressed that the show tackled the plight of a gay country singer in the form of Chris Cormack’s Will Lexington. Obviously there are country artists who are gay; and many of them, like Will, closet their homosexuality for fear that they’ll never achieve success in one of the nation’s most conservative music formats. I have not seen any of season 2, yet, but Will has become a main character and it will be interesting to see how the show continues to handle this subject.
Weakest part of Nashville’s first season? No doubt about it, Rayna’s husband’s political ambitions and her manipulating, wealthy father. Eric Close, an excellent actor who starred on Without a Trace, does all that he can with the very stock character of Teddy, Rayna’s husband. I wish that Teddy were more interesting. Likewise, Powers Boothe, one of the great underrated character actors of our time, menaces so well as Rayna’s powerful father, Lamar, but like Teddy, this role feels like it was cooked up to add pizazz to the show. I think both characters and their storylines generally fall flat, despite the nice acting.
As for the music? It’s outstanding. No surprise there, though, since Burnett has been the mastermind behind so many great movie soundtracks. He has a gift for discovering music and choosing just the right song for a scene. Some of the songrwriters who have had music included in Nashville include John Paul White of the Civil Wars, Lee Brice, Kacey Musgraves, Gillian Welch and Elvis Costello. With the cream of the crop at his disposal, he’s picked some real winners for the first seasons, in particular ”If I Didn’t Know Better” sung by Bowen and her love interest, Gunner (Sam Palladio), and ”No One Will Ever Love Me” by Britton and Esten. I’ve read that Burnett has stepped down in season 2. But, his replacement is Buddy Miller, so I have no fear that the quality of the music in Nashville will remain excellent.
I haven’t started watching season 2, yet; it’s only two episodes in. However, rewatching season one has renewed my interest in Nashville. Even if the stories don’t keep my interest all season, I know that the music certainly will.