[This piece contains spoilers from the ABC show Nashville — read at your own peril. — Ed.]
Let us now consider Nashville, ABC’s one-hour, primetime, moderately prestigious grand ole soap opry that seeks to triangulate Glee and Dallas by depicting the tawdry, bed-swapping, alarmingly pouty-faced back- and onstage shenanigans of (fictional) country music stars. Each episode boasts a handful of new songs — some pretty good, a few transcendent, most of ‘em for sale. (We’re on our second season and, out this week, our third full-length compilation.)
Is this a good show, you ask? Yeah, hmm. It has a funny way of mingling fascination and frustration — the sonically sublime and the dramatically ridiculous take turns showing up as each other’s plus-ones. Great pedigree, though, starting with creator Callie Khouri (whose Thelma & Louise script won an Oscar in ’92) and her husband, the indomitable T Bone Burnett, who started out as executive music producer. (He quit this year, reportedly frustrated by the network’s meddling treatment of his wife; the great Buddy Miller has ably taken over.) Despite little previous musical (or at least country-musical) experience, the cast members sing their own songs, and hack it just fine. And you get rare, genuinely engrossing insight into the songwriting process — you see the struggle, the traded lines, the demo-to-arena-stage gestation. The drama gets a little corny — OK, really corny — but the tunes get, and deserve, a ton of respect.
Almost all those tunes are originals — many predate the show, but unless you’re a regular at the Bluebird (the real-life folksy Nashville club held as Nashville‘s artistic oracle), most will be new to you. The real-life songwriters are ringers, names discerning country fans will surely recognize, from Shane McAnally to Kacey Musgraves to Brandy Clark to Caitlin Rose to Patty Griffin to Lucinda Williams. (Happily, the women dominate the men here, in every aspect.) Below, I’ve highlighted 11 tracks from Nashville‘s first three comps as a portal into the series — what works, what doesn’t, what it all says (or tries to say) about “real” country music.
First, though, for orientation purposes, a brief, painless plot summary: Nashville is built around the benign feud between Rayna James (a Faith Hill/Shania Twain veteran-superstar type, mom-friendly but still fiery, played by Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (a younger, volatile, frequently unpleasant pop-crossover queen played by Hayden Panettiere — who insists she’s not sending up Taylor Swift, and really Miranda Lambert works just as well, though both seem way nicer than her character, at least in public). Work/life problems abound for both: For Rayna, it’s a failed marriage and rocky personal and professional entanglement with her ex-guitarist, Deacon (Charles Esten); for Juliette, it’s a host of soapy indignities too complex and daffy to get into here. (She leaves a Tim Tebow analog at the altar, for starters.)
Below them fame-wise are a pack of young, pretty and pretty-vacant singers and songwriters climbing the mountain and/or one another, most notably Gunnar (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett (Clare Bowen), who generally are a pain in the ass as a putative couple, but we’ll get to that. OK, let’s do this.
The weirdest recurring Nashville plotline is that Juliette, despite being the most commercially successful artist in the show’s universe, should be embarrassed because her music is poppy and marketed to “tweens,” a word the show frequently deploys as an expletive. At one point she’s even chastened for having (gasp!) backup dancers, and bolsters her cred by dropping a dorky I Can Play “Real Music” Too acoustic mini-set into her concerts, which was a suspect move when Stone Temple Pilots did it back in 1994. Is this baroque Taylor Swift shade? Maybe, but it’d help if “Telescope” wasn’t one of Season 1′s better songs; ditto the even tween-ier “Boys and Buses,” co-written in real life by the great, backup-dancer-averse Brandy Clark.
And so early in Season 1, Juliette proves her actual worth by penning this steely, moderately rootsier tune with Deacon, the show’s (brooding, whining) martyr of musical purity, amid bouts of skinny-dipping. And while this is pretty good, too (Kacey Musgraves had a hand in it), it’s far from the Great Leap Forward for Juliette that the show intends; that all these characters allegedly undergo seismic artistic/emotional growth but always wind up sounding more or less like their original selves is one of the show’s biggest problems outside the stupid love triangles, to say nothing of repeatedly accusing your most compelling character of not being country enough. Rockism!
This is the big-whoop sultry duet from the show’s pilot, the equivalent to Glee‘s “Don’t Stop Believin’” — the number designed to hook you for good, or at least stave off instant cancellation. It worked well enough. And yet narrative-wise you may grow to profoundly dislike Gunnar and Scarlett, the star-crossed lovers involved, who are like Jim and Pam from The Office if Jim had a higher voice than Pam and did plenty of brooding/whining of his own. The will-they-or-won’t-they question was already briefly answered in the affirmative and no one much cared (including them), and the hell with it. Gunnar and Scarlett tunes are a decent staple here, though, and provide the show’s most convincing examples of How Songwriting Really Works.
A reverb-drenched, especially T-Bone-feeling Americana ballad, co-starring Rayna and Deacon, that is by far the show’s best song to date. So rad. Woulda killed on that recent Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell record. It also deepens the show’s narrative the way all these songs are meant to: It says more about their absurdly thorny backstory than an hour’s worth of goofy flashbacks, though of course we aren’t exactly spared those. Rayna’s “Stronger Than Me” from the second comp is great, too.
So Avery (Jonathan Jackson) starts out as Scarlett’s chump bad-boy beau, gets kicked to the curb, hustles his vaguely garage-y band (who are introduced via Elvis Costello’s “Twist of Barbwire,” though it’s unclear if it’s meant to be a cover within the show’s universe show or if Avery’s just that good) into a record deal masterminded by a shady label boss (played by a hilariously incongruous Wyclef Jean), who goads Avery into ditching his backing band to go solo as some sort of monstrous country-dubstep hybrid. But then Avery rebels, burns his masters in an oil drum, gets dropped, and returns chastened to the Bluebird, whereupon he sings this song, which is meant to be his rock-bottom, come-to-Jesus, this-is-the-real-me moment of clarity, and it turns out that this whole time he’s been James Blunt. Oh, well.
As Juliette, Hayden Panetierre is the show’s all-around MVP, handling all manner of ridiculousness with harsh grace, and she kills this weepy ballad, which happens to soundtrack the closing montage of Season 1, which happens to be the craziest thing that has ever appeared on television. Like 12 too many things happen; it’s like a screenwriting factory exploding. We get a surprise pregnancy, a surprise marriage proposal and a car accident involving two major characters, all in, like, the last 90 seconds. Genuinely more shocking and absurd than anything Game of Thrones will ever throw at you.
To repeat, the women dominate this show; the men tend to be whiny, feeble and oddly wishy-washy. What we’re missing is a genuine outlaw sorta dude, in the vein of Jason Aldean or (even better) Eric Church or (ideally!) Hank III. The closest we’ve come is a bizarre sequence in which Gunnar, despondent upon the violent death of his just-paroled brother, steals his brother’s notebook of seedy lyrics and tries to pass as a prison-steeled badass. It doesn’t take; a bar fight ensues. The titular metaphor here is pretty weird.
In fact, the most compelling male on this show at present is Will, who showed up late last season as an affable good old boy gently spoofing the frat-bro types who dominated real-life pop-country this year — think Florida Georgia Line and their fellow sexy-lady-on-a-truck-bed pledges. The joke being that Will is secretly gay, and womanizes excessively in a desperate attempt to conceal this fact, and thus is doomed to be publicly outed in some improbable and tasteless way real soon, but in the meantime he’s a hoot. This song is just OK, though — Season 2 awaits its first ringer.
Though this one gets close. Rayna’s young daughters are played by real-life sisters Lennon and Maisy Stella, who have a sideline uploading pop remakes to YouTube (they did the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on the show last year, a rare acknowledged cover song). A way more tolerable Karmin, the Stella Sisters are thus by default the most popular actual musicians in the cast (though Avery/Jackson just got a record deal); they were last seen serenading Taylor Swift at the CMA’s. Seek out their “Cups”/”Call Your Girlfriend” mash-up, by all means.
“Ho Hey” aside, the show’s musical universe is mostly fictional, with only a few other exceptions — Brad Paisley showed up as himself in the Season 1 finale. (His wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, has a reoccurring role as a pregnancy-faking homewrecker.) So lately, Rayna is shacking up with Luke Wheeler, an allegedly super-famous arena-cornball hybrid of Luke Bryan, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney; their duet here is a Gunnar-Scarlett co-write with a narrative path more impressive than the song itself. Wheeler’s cheesy, concert-starting catch phrase (“Wheels up!”) is pretty funny, though.
Finally, here’s Avery/Jackson/James Blunt with another goopy piano ballad, but this one gets to me in spite of myself. It’s that kind of show.