It's been several decades, since The Monkees and The Partridge Family, that a television show about fictional musicians has turned its actors into real-life singing stars. Maybe it was MTV's fault, or the flood of reality programming, but the '80s through '00s were painfully short on shows capitalizing on the dramatic opportunities begged by even the most quotidian musician's life. Not until Nashville, ABC's hourlong soap set in the country-music capital, did viewers weaned on American Idol-ish competition shows realize that other forms of music could be ready for prime time too.
True, even without all the music, Nashville would be one of the better dramas on network television. It's a well-written, well-acted, totally immersive window into a glamorous but treacherous segment of American society. Imagine Scandal with fewer skeletons in its characters' closets (but not many), or The Good Wife set backstage at the Grand Ole Opry instead of courtrooms. But Nashville, created by Thelma and Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, came up with an ingenious twist: on this show, the songs and the characters are for all intents and purposes inseparable.
For example, it's not uncommon for one character to break into a song that not only advances his or her own storyline, but as the scene dissolves into a montage, comments on the show's other subplots occuring simultaneously while never compromising its integrity as a discrete piece of songwriting. That's the kind of storytelling that often can make so-called real-life country music come up wanting.
Since Nashville debuted in the fall of 2012, one of the biggest real-life Nashville labels, Big Machine (home to Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line, among others), has released four double-length albums of songs featured in the show. Heading up Nashville's quality control, meanwhile, are two of the most respected names in Americana music: T-Bone Burnett during Season 1 and Buddy Miller this past season.
These songs are usually hanging around the top of iTunes' country chart, if not the top of Billboard's airplay survey. To Charles "Chip" Esten, who plays super-soulful longtime sideman/fledgling solo artist Deacon Claiborne, it's not completely fair to subject the two to a side-by-side comparison.
"There are certain songs on country radio that are absolutely infectious and great," he says. "They'll get you going when you're on the way to work or when you're out at a barbecue with some friends, our songs would not fulfill that purpose. But if you took that song and put it in the middle of a Deacon scene, it would have no place at all."
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Still, more than a few observers prefer Nashville's brand of country music to Nashville's. Claire Bowen, whose sweet-natured former waitress Scarlett O'Connor nearly wrecked both her career and her health with amphetamine-like pills as an opening act on a high-profile tour she wasn't ready for, won't go so far as criticizing other artists' music, but she does allow that "country music is in a really different place right now, but you don't get more country than Buddy Miller and T-Bone Burnett."
"I mean, it's better than a reality show where it's just all hype," the Australian-born Bowen adds. "I'm sorry, but I think those things are vile. This is actually showing the happiness as well. We would never put anything on the show that would offend Nashvillians -- we belong to them; it's not the other way around."
Earlier this year Big Machine released an album of songs Bowen had sung on Nashville as Scarlett; now she's working on her own album with Burnett as executive producer. Esten, a former musician who fronted a band while in college in Williamsburg, Va., is prepping an album himself. He and O'Connor will both perform songs from the show and songs of their own at Houston's Freedom Over Texas festival Friday. If all of that sounds horribly confusing, both actors say their experiences interacting with the actual citizens of Nashville have amounted to excellent rehearsal.
"I've heard people say that have to hit pause, because [they] don't want to go back to that place: 'That happened to me,'" Esten says. "In fact, some people swear that there's cameras [following them], like they're paranoid. It's just about them -- we found this piece of their life and we're using that.
Between the abundant bed-hopping that happens on any other prime-time soap, Nashville takes viewers into the songwriters' swaps, backstage meet-and-greets and publishing-house pitch sessions that are Nashville's real currency. That's why people at the very top of the business continue to tell the cast they've got it right.
"I remember the first time it really happened," Esten says. "I was standing in line at the airport to get a ticket and there beside me was Jason Aldean. He says, 'Hey man, how's it going?'"
Nashville had only been on the air a few episodes at that point, Esten relays, and the actor was convinced that Aldean must have been talking to someone else. But the "My Kinda Party" singer was insistent.
"I said, 'It's going good,'" recounts Esten. He says, "'Y'all are doing a great job.'
"On the outside I was very cool, like, 'Hey, thanks man, I really appreciate that," he admits. "But on the inside I was like, 'THANK YOU JASON ALDEAN.' It meant a lot."
Chip Esten & Claire Bowen perform at 7:05 p.m. Friday on Freedom Over Texas' Southwest Airlines Stage. See freedomovertexas.org for more details.
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