Nashville Stars Step Onstage But Not Out of Character

Photos courtesy of Dancy Ware PR
Claire Bowen
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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