Country Music

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."

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...

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray