Nashville by Mark Stone
December 2014. I don't even particularly like country music. And yet, ABC's Nashville is one of the best surprises on network television over the last couple of years.
What first got my attention, even before the show had aired, was the name "T Bone Burnett". Burnett is an impressive artist with a distinguished career. He has toured with Bob Dylan, produced records for everyone from Roy Orbison and Leon Russell to Elvis Costello and Natalie Merchant, and done a fair amount of recording on his own.
I've noticed Burnett, despite my lack of interest in country music, for three creative contributions:
- His production of the critically acclaimed Alison Krauss - Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand, an album I dislike but whose creative ambition I admire;
- For the amazing soundtrack to the Cohen Brothers' film O Brother Where Art Thou;
- As the creative spirit and partial inspiration for the Academy Award winning Crazy Heart.
So when I heard that Burnett would be a producer and creative consultant on a TV show about the music scene in Nashville I was intrigued. The show is in it's third season now, and it does not disappoint.
The Music. What I dislike so intensely about every music-oriented TV show from American Idol to Glee is the emphasis on performance over composition. In other words, these shows feature nothing but covers, with no thought given to how the amazing songs they're covering came into being in the first place.
In particular these shows glorify song performers while ignoring, and thus implicitly snubbing, song writers. Without the creative process -- without the people who have gift for writing lyrics and setting them to music -- there would be nothing for these so-called artists to cover.
And that's what Burnett's genius brings to Nashville: first and foremost it is an honest and often painfully personal look at how music gets created. Nor is it strictly a show about song writing. Nashville offers a balanced view of those who aspire to create music, and those who aspire to breath life into those creations through performance. In this regard it is like no other show on television.
The show divides its attention between these two aspects:
- On the one hand, what does it take to get up on stage or into the studio and deliver a great performance
- On the other hand, what does it take to find your muse and really capture a great song -- music and lyrics -- in composition (including production and arrangement).
Much of the dramatic tension from the show derives from the characters' struggles with one aspect or the other. Indeed, the two main characters excel at both performance and composition, but every other character is in some deep way defined by their struggle with either performance or composition.
The Bad. Let's be clear. Nashville has plenty of flaws. In form, the show is essentially a soap opera. Big money, corrupt politicians, glamour and glitz, conniving record company executives, romance, heart break, infidelity... this is a show that unapologetically follows in the tradition of 70s evening soaps like Dallas and Dynasty. If you're looking for intricate story lines or character-driven narrative, look elsewhere.
The Good. And yet the characters are anything but shallow. With one or two exceptions, the ensemble cast present complex, nuanced characters whose personal struggles feel very real. Partly this is a testament to the quality of the acting. Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere are fantastic as the two lead characters, aging and traditional country star Rayna James and young superstar Juliette Barnes respectively. But the supporting cast deliver impressive performances as well, especially Charles Esten as Deacon Clayborne, Sam Palladio as Gunnar Scott, and Jonathan Jackson as Avery Barkley. By far the surprise tour de force of the show is Clare Bowen as the talented by introverted Scarlett O'Connor.
Partly the strength of the show derives from the themes about the music business with which the show grapples. Through the eyes of Rayna James we see what it's like to have grown up and achieved success in a traditional radio and record label oriented music business, and to then have to try and reinvent yourself to stay relevant in the fast changing contemporary scene of digital downloads and social media. Through the eyes of Juliette Barnes we see what it's like to be the fast rising cross-over star hip to the ways of social media and the 24 hour gossip cycle and yet struggling with the moment when she is not young enough or new enough to dominate the charts in a short attention span society.
There are other more controversial themes that are gently worked into the story: country music as an archaic hold out of homophobia when the rest of the music industry has largely moved on; country music as an old fashioned business that ranges from subtly sexist to blatantly misogynistic in its treatment of women.
Ultimately though, it all comes back to the music. Nashville puts the music at the center of the show. A mix of original songs, lesser known songs, and rising hits are featured, and delivered with great authenticity. Every actor and actress sings their own parts; no dubbing, no lip syncing, no auto-tune. In fact on some shows ABC has even worked live performances into the broadcast. The talent level is remarkable, and T Bone Burnett's creative touch unmistakable.
At a minimum I encourage you to follow the Scarlett O'Connor story line through the first two seasons to her performance of "Black Roses". The story about the writing of the song, and the story of Scarlett's life that inspired the song build to an electrifying performance. I still get goosebumps every time that song comes up on Pandora.
Has Season 3 featured more soap opera and less music? Yes, but it's still a show well worth watching, and a refreshing departure from what every other music-oriented show on TV is trying to do.