Good-bye Nashville, a Series That Was Almost Always in Tune

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Tonight ABC will air the final episode of Nashville, the soapy primetime drama set in the country-music capital. Nashville was never an especially high-rated show, nor did it draw an overwhelming amount of critical acclaim (except for maybe a few music critics), so in a way it’s a wonder that it held on for four seasons. But I always liked it.

Nashville arrived with a lofty pedigree; co-creator Steve Buchanan has been a Music City insider for three decades. But the real marquee name is Buchanan’s fellow co-creator Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay for 1995’s Something to Talk About and directed 2002’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, both films significant box-office successes. She also won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for writing 1991’s Thelma and Louise, one of the most influential and controversial movies of the ‘90s. Her husband, T. Bone Burnett, Fort Worth native and Grammy-winning producer of Robert Plant & Allison Krauss’s Raising Sand and the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack (among many others), served as the show’s executive music producer during Season 1. Buddy Miller, one of the top names in the Americana world, signed on for the same post during Seasons 2 and 3.

A list of people who have written or co-written songs featured in the show might surprise people who never watched it, especially if they happen to be country and Americana fans: Kacey Musgraves (“Undermine,” Season 1); Elvis Costello (“Twist of Barbwire,” Season 1); Patty Griffin (“We Are Water,” Season 1); Lucinda Williams (“Bitter Memory,” Season 1); Ashley Monroe (“A Life That’s Good,” Season 2; “Lately,” Season 2); Kim Richey (“Why Can’t I Say Goodnight,” Season 2); Allison Moorer (“This Time,” Season 2); Gretchen Peters & Mary Gauthier (“How You Learn to Live Alone,” Season 2); Rodney Crowell (“Good Woman — Good to Me,” Season 3); and onetime guest star J.D. Souther (“The Rivers Between Us,” Season 3).

Huntsville’s own Cody Johnson, one of the rising stars of the Texas circuit, got on the show with the Season 3 co-write “Broken Song.” Plenty of other Nashville songwriters — Shane McNally, Josh Osborne, Matraca Berg — are not strangers to Billboard’s mainstream country charts. But the unsung heroes of the show are the scores of session musicians, fine players like Greg Leisz, Viktor Krauss, Sam Bush, Glenn Worf and many others, even former Arc Angel/Eric Clapton guitarist Doyle Bramhall II. Some cast members took their musical endeavors seriously enough to take their act out on the road, too, visiting Houston's Revention Music Center just last month.

Whether or not it was a factor in the show's demise, the quality of the music on Nashville definitely declined after Miller left. Still, it was always worth watching for more than just the music, even factoring in the annoyingly constant cross-promotion with other ABC shows like Dancing With the Stars and especially Good Morning America. It also managed to be more than a chance to watch Connie Britton every week, although that alone would have been more than enough; Britton’s best work here easily rivaled what she did on Friday Night Lights. Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes was always a worthy younger foil for Britton’s (mostly) level-headed superstar Rayna James, and did some especially fine scenery-chewing during Juliette’s addiction arc. As Juliette’s now ex-husband Avery, Jonathan Jackson was up to the challenge of not being walked all over; a lesser actor could have easily been.

But also to its credit, Nashville was never just the Rayna and Juliette show, either. It had a classic star-crossed couple in Scarlett and Gunnar (a.k.a. “The Exes”). Rayna’s daughters — perhaps the most talented musical act in the cast — were always sweet as pie, at least until the elder one started feeling her teenage oats this past season. I have warm feelings for Chris Carmack’s Will Lexington, whose struggle to be accepted as an openly gay country artist has been one of Nashville’s more interesting recent subplots (and is still a little ahead of real life). But my favorite character of all will always be Charles Esten’s Deacon Claybourne, and not just because his ongoing state of “confusion” is a long-running inside joke with my better half; I always thought Deacon was the show’s improbable moral center and the one guy in the cast I might actually like to hang out with backstage at a show. Since-departed Oliver Hudson made a great villain as the über-oily music exec/manager Jeff Fordham, too. But that said, I’ve long since made my peace with Nashville’s eventual end, because for me it was never the same once the great Powers Boothe (another Texan) left the show.

Its cancellation is not that big of a shock, really; throughout TV history, musical series have traditionally never been huge ratings-grabbers. (Witness Cop Rock.) The current exception is Fox’s Empire, which easily could have been sold in a pitch meeting as a “hip-hop Nashville,” but it’s so over the top that its abundant train-wreck qualities have been duly rewarded in the ratings. Earlier this year, HBO’s Vinyl debuted to much fanfare thanks to the fingerprints of Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, but misfired with critics and many viewers. (I’ve only watched the pilot, and found the orgy of sex, drugs and rock and roll exhausting even by Scorsese standards.)

Going forward, grieving Nashville fans may well come to adopt Roadies, the forthcoming Showtime series set in the backstage world of big-time concert production. Like Nashville, Roadies might be a little too inside-baseball to really catch on with a mainstream audience, but you never know. Creator Cameron Crowe knows from soundtracks at least, so there’s always a chance.

And Nashville’s final curtain call may yet turn out to be a later date than this evening — according to Yahoo! TV today, both fans of the show and a few co-stars are exploring ways to continue production, with or without stars like Britton. But whatever happens, Callie Khouri, the cast and everyone else associated with the show (but especially all those musicians and songwriters who gave the show at least a sheen of authenticity) can hold their heads up with pride. Nashville may not go down in history as the best-ever primetime TV series set in a musical idiom — an honor that seems destined to rest with The Monkees in perpetuity — but it at least deserves a spot in the conversation.

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