The Music of Nashville: TV's Only Country Fantasy Epic
Wednesday, September 09, 2015
It’s not secret that I love Nashville. Hell, it seems to me like the half the SF/F community does too: it’s a country epic fantasy.
What makes Nashville such a great show isn’t the fast paced storylines or the addictive, soap opera style cliffhangers, intense relationships or the glamorous cast with gorgeous clothes and fantastic hair, or even the music itself. What makes it great is that it is essentially about two complex, intriguing, ambitious women, their careers and their relationship with their art.
"Postcard from Mexico"
Created by Callie Khouri, who is perhaps best known for having written the screenplay for Thelma & Louise, Nashville is very much a show about two adult women whose main conflict isn't with each other (no catfights here, just well timed snark), but with those who stand in the way of their careers and their independence. Complete control over their lives, that’s all they want. Why must it be so difficult? Well, because that makes for good songs along the way.
Sure, their skirts are short, their heels are high and their hair is big but that's all cosmetic. Here are two women with talent and strength more than all of the men on the show combined, and they know it. Of course, this is about two women who are musicians - singer-songwriters with huge talent, which means the show has some fantastic music in it too.
Callie Khouri’s husband happens to be superstar music producer T Bone Burnett, a man who has produced albums for everyone from Elton John to BB King, Elvis Costello to The Wallflowers, Natalie Merchant to Willie Nelson. He’s also worked on and composed music for TV shows like True Detective, scored films like The Hunger Games and been executive producer for films like Walk the Line, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski. The man’s a legend in the music industry - and practically a god in country music. And, of course, he took on the job of Nashville’s executive music producer with aplomb, calling in all sorts of singers and their songs. Season Two saw Burnett’s second in command artist and producer Buddy Miller take on the role, continuing to do the job just as well.
All the songs heard in the show are performed live by the actors themselves, some of whom are involved in the songwriting too. Local Nashville talent is used constantly, with musicians, bands and songwriters all being brought in to help create original music for the characters. On a few occasions, the show has featured some great covers of country music hits as well. Admittedly, there’s plenty of stuff about lying and cheating, broken hearts and cars (especially in Juliette’s early career), but the growth of each artist in the show can easily be charted with the development of their music. Well - most of them. Some of the male stars are one-trick ponies (I’m looking at you, Luke Wheeler) but hey, we can’t all be Juliette or Rayna.
The two women this show centres on are Rayna James (Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), both of whom are country music stars in their own right. They’re similar in certain ways, these two women, but also complete foils for each other. When the show starts out, Rayna’s sales are flagging. Her star is falling, especially with the younger audiences - just as Juliette’s is rising even higher. But Rayna has staying power. She’s a bona fide country superstar and has been for years. Juliette, most people think, is a flash in the pan.
Both women need a little of what the other has - Rayna needs a fresh new sound to reach a younger demographic, Juliette needs the maturity it takes to build a career out of more than just pop tunes for teens. They’re on the same record label, they both want success and while they don’t like each other at first, there’s no denying the respect they have for the others’ success and ambition. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, these two have come a long way so far, with each other as well as in their other relationships. And most importantly, in their music. I could easily write just about the songs these two women sing, but to take a wider look at the music, I’ve covered more of the show's artists.
Rayna James - "This Time"
Rayna may be the star of the show but her relationship with Deacon also takes centre stage for large chunks of the show. The two dated for years while they performed together early in Rayna’s career, but Deacon’s alcoholism and Rayna’s ambition never mixed. Eventually, Rayna left him, paid for his rehab and moved on to marry ‘good guy’ Teddy (the most annoying character on the show).
Though Rayna and Deacon continue to write and perform together, and remain very much in love, their timing is never right, no matter how much they try. But Rayna, ever the pragmatic, career-oriented artist, never lets their fraught relationship stand in the way of their successful songwriting. This particular song is featured in season two of the show, at a point when Rayna, having just bought out her contract and started her own label, needs a potential hit single for her new album fast. Regardless of all their drama, she asks Deacon to write the song with her and of course, as always, they somehow produce a charming little country melody and perfect harmony in a couple of hours. Because that’s how real talent works when you leave all the other drama aside.
Everything about Juliette is incredible. Her talent, her drive, her wardrobe and her amazing self destructiveness. Here’s a woman who doesn’t seem to know how to be happy. And she’s great. A trailer park kid from Alabama with a junkie mother, all she knows is that she wants to be the biggest star around.
Starting off as a teen queen with a song called "Boys and Buses", she soon evolves to grittier, more heartfelt songwriting, though not without complicating her personal life and her career. This song basically says it all - no matter how much Juliette grows, rest assured she’s going to be where trouble is.
Deacon has spent his life pining for Rayna, playing guitar in her band and writing songs with her. He has more to maintain than he knows what to do with, and writing songs with her isn’t enough. At some point Deacon decides that after decades of being half of the Rayna and Deacon saga, he's had enough. He writes a solo album, gets a couple of his young friends to help out as his band and puts the whole thing together at the neighbourhood bar, the Bluebird Cafe, famous for being the real life venue that many Nashville stars have cut their teeth at. Deacon’s in a good place here, but if you’ve seen even a single episode of this show, you know it won’t last.
By the way, the actual Bluebird Cafe is where Taylor Swift was discovered at age 15. Also Faith Hill. Also Garth Brooks. Did I mention Taylor Swift?
Deacon’s niece Scarlett arrives in Nashville as the domestic/emotional/financial support of her then-boyfriend Avery, who wants very much to be a star. Scarlett is a quiet, dreamy type who writes poems and hides away from the spotlight, until her friend (later boyfriend) Gunnar discovers her latent songwriting talent.
Scarlett begins to perform solo, digging deep into her secret diary of poems for darker, more personal songs - like this one, which is about her abusive mother. It’s a strange, heavy, moody song, particularly striking for its contrast with Scarlett’s usually shiny happy (mildly annoying) girl-child personality. It is, however, a sure sign that she’s being more confrontational and attempting to deal with her childhood trauma, though this particular tour doesn't end well for her and it takes her a little longer to find her groove (see: The Triple Xs).
Avery’s a character who has grown magnificently through the seasons. He’s also had a pretty short lived career as a solo artist, though has now become a pretty decent producer. Desperate for fame, he’s done some pretty awful things, though by the end of Season Three, he’s probably the one who has changed the most, and for the better.
What’s stayed the same throughout has been his impassioned creativity, with him taking on any gig he can get just to be around the music scene, including at one point, as Juliette’s roadie. "Kiss" is one of Avery’s few solo performances on the show, at a point when he think he’s may have had his big break, and there’s something appropriately very anguished about this song.
"Who Am I"
Will’s had a troubled and equally impressive journey in the course of the show. Desperate for stardom (who isn’t, on this show?) and certain that he’ll never make it if anyone finds out his deepest darkest secret, he’s had to spend a great deal of time pretending to be what he isn’t and playing up his machismo cowboy act. This track comes at a point when he’s finally starting to understand that he does not want to keep up a charade for longer.
"Adios Old Friend"
Gunnar is almost the most annoying male artist on the show, simply because he keeps falling into the same repetitive patterns of living like a man-child and passing off his adult responsibilities over to whomever his current girlfriend is at the time. His major defining moment has to do with his brother, who was more talented but wilder and unable to stay out of trouble. This song is about him - the only heartbreak Gunnar is able to process.
"If I Didn’t Know Better"
Here is some sexy bayou grooving courtesy of the Grammy winning folk/country band The Civil Wars, whose track is pretty straightforwardly covered by Scarlett and Gunnar. This is their first performance together at the Bluebird where they work as a waitress and a bartender.
The Civil Wars have also produced "Safe & Sound" with T Bone Burnett and Taylor Swift for the Hunger Games soundtrack. Everything comes together in country music.
This one time, Scarlett gets on Twitter and starts engaging with the haters. You know nothing good can come out of that, right? She’s had a rough, rough time with performance anxiety earlier, after one particular breakdown on stage as a result of some bad things she was indulging in and so no one would be surprised if she just shut down and hid. But since Nashville writes female characters that grow and change and push their own boundaries, Scarlett reacts in an uncharacteristic way. She gets confrontational with her audience, writes a new song, goes out on stage, puts her heart and soul out there and makes it clear that this life of performance and publicity and soon to be achieved fame is her jam.
So what if people had made fun of her weakness? Will she crawl into bed and stay there? Nope. She gets up on stage with two men who love/d her and sings her triumphant heart out. Scarlett’s songs are all very personal and many of them are pretty whiny too, but this one is defiant and confident and marks the change in her we’d all be waiting to see.
Incidentally, the Triple X’s only exist because Zoey (a solid character who sadly remains nothing more than just Token PoC #3) finally had enough of Gunnar and left him and the band right before a performance, forcing Scarlett to step in. But before she left, she was pretty great too. I’ve listed Hennesee before in another post but hell, it’s such fun so here it is again:
There are tonnes of great songs about Nashville and tonnes more to be said about each of the characters and their storylines, but now let’s hear from you: what are some of your favourite musical moments in the show? And if you haven’t been watching it, why on earth not?