Notes on Nashville: Drama and Deceit In TV's Music City

I barely watch episodic TV, let alone write about it, but ABC's Nashville made the idea irresistible. A 9 p.m. network drama set in the glamorous and backstabbing world of country music, amid the landmarks and tourist traps of the modern-day "Athens of the South," it offers sudsy tension and hopefully a decent tune or two. (It delivers, mostly.)

Its pedigree is pretty decent, too: Nashville was created by Thelma & Louise scribe Callie Khouri, but the real grab for me was her husband and Executive Music Producer T. Bone Burnett, the Fort Worth-born Grammy and Oscar winner behind O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart, but also lots of records I love by the likes of Los Lobos, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris.

The show stars Connie Britton of Friday Night Lights (about the last network drama I halfway followed) as a Faith Hill-type diva, "country music's reigning queen," who suddenly finds her spot on Music City's pedestal in peril thanks to Taylor Swiftian newcomer Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). But Reyna, whose name actually means "queen," is a down-to-earth sort of diva, albeit one with some pretty serious, completely understandable daddy issues.

After a bit of Eli Young Band's "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" and lots of pretty Nashville sights (LP Field, Printer's Alley), we meet Reyna as she is leaving her well-appointed house somewhere in the 615 area code. Her husband, as yet nameless but literally saddled with their kids, mentions the the family is currently "cash poor." Next she's coming offstage after singing at some sort of Grand Ole Opry tribute to one of Nashville's most beloved songwriters and producers, and a convenient device to introduce the show's considerable cast of characters.

Just backstage, we meet Deacon Claybourne (Charles Estes), Reyna's faithful (perhaps too faithful) guitarist and bandleader; his niece Scarlett O'Connor, (Clare Bowen) a poet lyricist-in-training who works at the famous Bluebird Cafe; her boyfriend Avery Barclay (Jonathan Jackson), working on an "alt-country/punk" project as well as a wandering eye; and the sage, kindly Waddy White (actual musician and songwriter J.D. Souther), the reason for all this celebration who calls Reyna his "little songbird."

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Also backstage is Juliette Barnes, currently abusing her mousy assistant in a surefire Subplot In Waiting. The assistant is running down a Vogue shoot and Good Morning America appearance as Juliette is sampling her new perfume line, except there's no scent. Oops. Then, when her estranged mother calls, she really goes off on the assistant ("But I just changed your number") and throws her phone in the trash. "Change it again."

As luck would have it, or perhaps not, Reyna and Juliette happen to record for the same label, whose A&R rep brokers a meeting in Reyna's dressing room with her manager Glenn (Ed Armatrudo), top producer Randy Roberts (Burgess Jenkins), and maybe one or two others; it's a pretty fact-paced show to be set in the South.

Barnes gives her a backhanded compliment about her mom listening to her music in the womb. Turns out Reyna's ticket sales in Indy and Austin are soft, so the label proposes a "co-headlining" tour with Barnes (as in she'll be opening for the newbie). She doesn't say no, but later watching Juliet perform on TV, clicks off the set with a disgusted "shut up." Ha.

And so Nashville is off and running. In the course of the next three commercial breaks, we also learn...

  • Nashville's present mayor is retiring, setting up a campaign that will lift the show into the realm of politics as well as showbiz. At his announcment, we meet Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), a local philanthropist and ruthless "captain of industry" (which industry isn't specified, probably all of them) who just happens to be father to Reyna and her sister, the much more dutiful daughter Tandy (Tami Hoag). I will watch Boothe in anything, and here he is in fine reptilian form.
  • Later at dinner, Mr. Wyatt proposes running Mr. Reyna, whose name turns out to be Teddy (Eric Close) -- a businessman who has been wiped out in the nation's recent financial difficulties -- as mayor on the condition that he "grow a pair." He also says things like "fate is what befalls a man who fails to act," which makes me miss Deadwood a little less. The other candidate is some old friend of Reyna's and decent human being Coleman Carlisile, who is probably going to get screwed over sometime real soon... and in fact is by the end of the show.
  • Small wonder, but Reyna cannot stand Juliette. She rankles when the ingenue's current hit single comes on in the car, and especially when her two daughters ask her to turn it up. Juliette's music is "adolescent crap" that sounds like "feral cats" to the Queen. "When are people going to stop pretending she's good?" she wonders later. Both stars have a pretty sharp set of claws thus far.
  • Juliette, hellcat that she is, is after Deacon from the start. She approaches him outside the Bluebird and offers him double what Reyna is paying her to become her new bandleader - but also to co-write with her, which the queen won't do. Her current Achilles heel is of course her junkie mom, who calls her at the studio (strung out, of course), looking for money. Then she starts making out in a closet with Producer Randy. Late in the episode, Randy comes scratching around her door, only to be turned away because she is currently straddling Avery with the Wandering Eye. Wicked!
  • Deacon appears to be a man of integrity and the top songwriter in town, so of course he and Reyna have a collaborative history that goes far beyond the stage. After she storms out of rehearsal, she and him talk about old times: "You're not some overnight sensation, but you are sensational overnight, to the best of my recollection," he says. So why hasn't she ever recorded any of his songs? "I figured they were all about me," she says. "They are."
  • Reyna, who is proud of her album that is a "stiff," is not long for her record label. After thinking over the offer of a co-headlining tour, she tells the president - who has been going on about the "older business model" being "irrelevant" - she says "you can kiss my decision as it's walking out the door." Further foreshadowing comes in Reyna's mention of wanting a drink at legendary Nashville bar Tootsie's, but the biggest bombshell comes from her dad Mr. Wyatt, who reveals that long before all those Grammys and CMAs, he paid for her first album on "that pissant record label." That might take a whole season to work out.

All in all, the music wasn't bad; neither was the show. Miranda Lambert, "Stand By Your Man" and, best of all, John Conlee's "Rose Colored Glasses" showed up (though not for very long). The supposed hits by both Reyna and Juliette are both a little second-rate compared to Carrie Underwood or Little Big Town's best work, but perhaps that's by design.

Considerably better were a slow, sad, traditional ballad sung by Deacon at the Bluebird's open-stage night, and then a jazzy, torchy number during the ending montage sung by Scarlett in her "first time in front of a mike before" (yeah, right -- it was the best thing in the show). In the audience, Waddy White happens to see this and calls Reyna so she can listen. He catches her as she's waiting to go onstage at Mr. Reyna's mayoral announcement. The wheels are turning.

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