Notes on Nashville: The Finer Points of Sex and "Songwriting"

There's a saying in the music business that you have your whole life to make your first album, and a few months to make your next one. The second episode of a new TV show isn't quite the same thing (production schedule, for one), but it is just as useful for potential fans to decide whether or not they'll be signing on for the long haul. Anyone can get lucky once.

ABC's Nashville is still feeling its way around, but I liked what I saw enough that I'll be back. Since the network has been touting the show as "Wednesday's No. 1 new drama," I take that to mean ratings for last week's premiere weren't quite everything ABC was hoping for. Is there another new drama on Wednesday? (Note: The Nashville Business Journal reports that Wednesday's ratings were down 26 percent from last week; I hope it can hang on an entire season.)

But rooting for the underdog is a country-music tradition almost as old as the Carter Family, so here we go.

The episode, "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You" (a Hank Williams song that is sadly never heard), opens with our heroine Reyna James, the seasoned diva who loves her new album exactly as much as her record label and country radio do not, literally stuck in traffic because her younger rival Juliette Barnes is filming a video for her tween-friendly new single.

The ingenue is cavorting on a statue in downtown Nashville with a bunch of models in red tank tops and Daisy Dukes, in a scene exactly as awful as it sounds. The director feels the same way and says so; Juliette wants him fired when she overhears.

The bulk of the episode concerns the repercussions of two offers Juliette made Reyna's guitarist/bandleader/old flame Deacon in the premiere: To write a song with her, and to leave Reyna to come out on tour. Deacon is as loyal to Reyna as he is still very much in love with her, and now committed to an "intimate" tour of just the two of them since last week Reyna shot down their mutual record label's idea of "co-headlining" an outing with Juliet toot sweet.

Juliet makes it almost impossible for Deacon to resist, though, spiriting him away from the rehearsal studio in her vintage pickup to an idyllic piece of land she says Tammy Wynette used to own. She wants to get started canoodling right away, but he holds off. "This is not how songs get written," he says.

"It's what songs get written about," she replies.

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She's not wrong, and in fact the theme of songwriting as sexual sublimation concerns most of Deacon and Reyna's dialogue in the episode as well. After much bickering -- about among other things, the 1938 Martin guitar of his and Juliet's mutual co-write Juliet sends Deacon as a gift -- Reyna furtively slips into the Bluebird late in the episode to sit in at Deacon's regular gig, which she hasn't done in some time.

Their hushed and haunting duet, a mature ballad about denial and surrender, is easily the best original song in the episode and Connie Britton's best performance in the series thus far. (Juliet, who showed up too, gets completely schooled and looks like she knows it.)

But Juliet, for her part, is more than just a calculating maneater. She visibly rankles at the suggestion that her music is just teen-pop fluff -- Reyna tells her she and Deacon's tour is "a show for people who love actual music" -- she kicks out another assistant after he crows how much teens will love that now-completed fountain video.

She seems genuinely interested in learning the songwriting trade from Deacon, at least as much as getting into his pants. Later on, she tells him, "something about you makes me want to grow up."

Reyna's hands are somewhat tied throughout all this, because a) she's married, although obviously not to the man she truly loves; and b) she and her husband Teddy are undergoing a thorough background check at the moment. Said digging also turns up quite a bit on Reyna and Deacon's mutual past; they were a couple until he went to rehab -- without which he'd probably be dead now, says Reyna -- and she started dating Teddy.

Her practically estranged father the badass Powers Boothe, aka unelected ruler of Tennessee, is running Teddy for Nashville's mayoral vacancy. This is a "vegetable plot," a sop to viewers who don't give a fig about demos, singles, iTunes and tour support. It's kind of a potboiler too, as the background check deepens.

Mr. Reyna is up against her old friend Coleman, Powers Booth's ex-protege whose opposition to a new major-league baseball park (is Nashville getting a team?) at a recent city council meeting prompted Powers Boothe to draft his son-in-law to run against him.

Unfortunately, Teddy was involved in a bad real-estate deal with something called Cumberland Plaza, to the tune of about $75 million, and may not have been entirely forthcoming to the investigators. By the end of the show, he is burning pieces of paper in the fireplace.

Interesting aside to all these political swirlings: Through two episodes of wheeling and dealing, no one has mentioned that Nashville is also Tennessee's state capital at all (that I can remember). And as long as show stays on the air, the Austin chamber of commerce should consider resigning for missing one hell of an opportunity. The city looks gorgeous.

Finally (finally), we come to my favorite subplot, the one about talented, star-crossed couple Scarlett and Gunnar; what names they give these people. Last episode Scarlett put some of her words (she's a "poet") to one of Gunnar's tunes and they sang it at the Bluebird's open-stage night. Happening to overhear it was famous producer Watty White, and now he's interested in either Reyna recording it or possibly Scarlett doing it herself.

She's reluctant because she wants to stand by her boyfriend, the front man of an atrocious "alt-country/punk" project. (His gig this episode did not go well, but he may have found him another piece of tail on the side after messing around with Juliet last week.) Scarlett eventually goes to see Gunnar's hillbilly cover band at some low-rent honky-tonk called the Broken Spoke (ha) to tell him she's decided against the demo, and he tries to talk her out of both the decision and the boyfriend.

This will all play out in the next few episodes I'm sure, but when she gets there, Gunnar's band is playing "I'll Be There," a hit for Texas' own Cherokee Cowboy Ray Price in 1953 (supposedly Hank Williams didn't want it), and later for Johnny Bush, Gail Davies and Martina McBride. Any show that makes room for a song like that, I'll keep watching.

Next week: Juliet and Deacon get naked. I think.

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