Although Nashville started out as one of the most critically acclaimed pilots of the 2012 television season, it’s now fighting for survival. The show’s fate regarding a third season probably won’t be announced until next week’s ABC upfronts. Part of Nashville‘s struggle can be traced to the show’s belief that “more is more” when it comes to characters and storylines, although it seems to have realized this and recently offed certain characters with flailing plots, like Mayor Teddy Conrad’s power-brokering father-in-law and his psycho-mistress-turned-second wife.
These lame Nashville storylines detract from what has always been the show’s strongest suit: its music. Nashville not only showcases radio-ready songs every episode, but uses its remaining plots to explore country music, from label machinations (villainous major-label execs like Oliver Hudson’s Jeff Fordham might as well tie their up-and-coming stars to railroad tracks) to songwriting efforts. The show has spun gold out of the gears involved in tour production and promotion, as well as the dirty corporate business of getting a song onto country radio’s notoriously tight playlists. Nashville’s explorations of the music industry and the creative process make it like nothing else on TV.
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Nashville’s musical efforts may secure its survival. While other shows feature a sole revenue stream (at least until syndication kicks in), Nashville’s music has resulted in weekly iTunes releases, along with entire soundtrack albums. The fourth one on Big Machine Records (home to country stars Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts) was released on May 6, following a few albums devoted to individual characters like Clare Bowen’s Scarlett, or Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette. Several members of the cast are in the midst of a short concert tour, without the two female leads, Connie Britton and Panettiere. (I attended the kickoff concert in Chicago and talked to the cast and one of the producers.)
These sources may help offset the show’s weak ratings, although Billboard reports that the show pulls in key demographics: In its Wednesday hour, the show ranks highest among women 18–34 and women 18–49, “drawing approximately 2 million” in these age brackets. Billboard continues, “in the 18–49 adults demo, Nashville does better than CBS’ The Good Wife (although worse than ABC shows that are likely to be canceled, such as Mixology and Suburgatory)”.
And the fact that Nashville has any Billboard chart impact at all may make a strong case for its third season. The same Billboard article cites that three million Nashville tracks have been downloaded, with the highest numbers going to the Scarlett-Gunnar duets “Fade Into You” and “If I Didn’t Know Better” at around 250,000 each. The last television show with Billboard chart presence was Glee, which offers more than one hundred tracks a season to Nashville’s sixty-something. Glee has made an asteroid-sized impact on Billboard, especially during its glory era a few years ago, besting both Elvis Presley’s and the Beatles’ records for total number of hits. The key difference: Nashville offers mainly original, previously non-released songs, whereas the majority of Glee’s are already pop standards. Like Glee, Nashville has a weekly audience of millions to push its performers and songs.
In season one, Nashville’s original music executive producer T Bone Burnett—a music industry icon, as well as show creator Callie Khouri’s husband—pulled songs from established artists. His friend Elvis Costello contributed “Twist Of Barbwire,” which became a standard for Nashville character Avery Barkley (played by Jonathan Jackson). Lucinda Williams offered “Bitter Memory” as a duet for fictional country star Rayna James (portrayed by Britton) and real country star Brad Paisley. “In the beginning, because people didn’t know the show, [we used] existing songs,” describes Bowen. “But now, something like ‘Black Roses’ [currently the show’s most popular cut on iTunes] was written specifically for Scarlett, because people are looking at the character. [The producers] get like 200 songs a day sent in—probably more than that.” Now that Burnett has moved on to other projects, the show’s new music executive producer, guitarist-songwriter-producer Buddy Miller, has kept the quality of the song selection intact.
With its fourth album release, Nashville’s musical canon overflows with great tracks. Panettiere’s “We Are Water” was shown on the show only briefly as Juliette attempted to write a song in the midst of that horrible Dante storyline, and it’s one of the highlights of the entire collection. “Don’t You Want To Be My Girl?” a rare Gunnar-Avery duet, isn’t even on iTunes, although the duo did perform it at the live show. Sam Palladio, who plays Gunnar, agrees, “That’s one of my absolute favorites. My buddies John And Jacob wrote it. For some reason, that’s one of the very few that haven’t made it onto iTunes. They put it on a Target special edition album, and that was the only place you could get it, which is crazy.” The songs then segue into the musical storylines: As Rayna starts her own label, discussions of dueling shelf dates and even social media come into play, and are all the more interesting as unexplored TV fodder.
There’s a special “meta” hurdle here that’s difficult for a show to pull off. Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, a show about a show, failed because neither the fictional show nor the real one was funny (or any good at all, really). 30 Rock succeeded with a similar premise because it focused on behind-the-scenes antics; any skits from TheGirly Show (its fictional product) were depicted as ludicrously over-the-top. NBC’s now-cancelled Smash, a show about a Broadway musical that also delved into the creative process, became a Broadway musical.
Nashville is pushing songs by performers portraying country stars who sing these same songs. It smartly devotes a lot of effort to the songs behind its stories and characters; without them, the entire show would fall apart. When Rayna and Deacon sit down to write a hit single for her new album, the end result (“This Time”) sounds like a hit single. Juliette’s epic “Nothing In This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again” is exactly the song a young girl would write after her mother overdosed. “A Life That’s Good,” Deacon’s theme, captures his ache to escape his addicted past, even though it was written by Sarah Siskind several years ago.
As the show nears the end of its second season, Nashville is touting its songwriters as an integral part of its creative process, as on the recent special Nashville: On The Record (a televised version of the show’s weekly webcast). The Nashville live tour kicked off in Chicago a few days after the special aired. Charles Esten, who plays Deacon, explains, “People have been asking, ‘When are you going to get on the road?’ So we just [decided to] put our toe in the water and see what the results are, not at stadiums or arenas or anything but these great musical venues.” The Chicago show, at Joe’s Bar on Weed Street, sold out in minutes, as the venue holds about a thousand people. From there, the tour headed to sold-out shows in New York and D.C., adding an extra date in Philadelphia at the Tower Theater. Nashville executive producer Steve Buchanan—also president of Opry Entertainment, the parent company of the Grand Ole Opry—likely intended to start the cast off easily at these smaller venues before jumping to more intimidating ones. (Those Glee tours traveled to much larger arenas, resulting in a concert film.) But there was a cool degree of verisimilitude in having these TV stars perform at Joe’s Bar, a venue well-known on the country-music circuit, offering frequent events for Chicago’s US99, a titan of the country-radio industry.
At the Chicago show, the hundreds who snagged the scarce Nashville concert tickets made up a devoted crowd. The majority were twentysomething girls, who screamed like the Monkees were in town. The performers—Jackson, Esten, Bowen, Palladio, and Chris Carmack (Will)—rotated the familiar Nashville hits, sometimes playing backing band for each other; an Esten number featured Jackson on guitar and Palladio on drums. Esten stresses that there was no “dictate from above” about what the set lists would entail, giving the performers a chance to try out their own songwriting efforts. Palladio commented before the concert that he wanted to show the crowd “that we can sing and play instruments live, and actually we’re pretty good songwriters” (another weird Monkees connection, because the last person I ever heard say something like that was Mike Nesmith in an old rerun). In the middle of a rousing chorus, Esten leapt off the stage and grabbed a shot from the bar, bringing it back to his microphone. The crowd screamed, with some yelling out, “Don’t do it, Deacon!” melding Esten with the alcoholic character he plays on the show.
Pulling all these performers and writers together, producer Buchanan had a vision for Nashville. He describes the show as “really about the music industry, where live performance is a part of storytelling. And there’s no better place to source songs that do that than Nashville.” Carmack says that the producer will encourage the cast to check out local acts, like a recent Monday-night outing to catch the Vince Gill side-project band The Time Jumpers. For Palladio and Bowen, who moved to Nashville straight from London and Australia, respectively, the town’s close-knit community helped alleviate any culture shock. Bowen states, simply: “It’s my home.” Palladio agrees, “It’s kind of the perfect town for songwriting. I’ve made a lot of close friends, a lot of collaborators, and some of my best music ever over the last six months.”
Every Nashville episode could read as a giant tourism ad for the city: The real-life Bluebird Café, where a few characters work (the show has created a Bluebird replica set for filming) has been selling out nightly, and has trouble keeping souvenir merchandise like T-shirts in stock. The Tennessean cites a recent survey by the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau that found that “nearly 1 in 5 visitors who had seen the show chose to come to Nashville specifically because of the show.” Still, amid the speculation on whether or not the show will be back for a third season, The Tennessean also reported that Nashville is exploring a move to another city famous for its music scene: Austin, Texas, home of the South By Southwest Music Festival, as “economic incentives for film projects would likely be easier to come by” in Texas or Georgia, another scouted location.
But moving Nashville from Nashville could be the show’s death knell. Nashville is the show. The producers, cast, and writers have created a kind of vibrant songwriting lab: The recent episode “Your Good Girl’s Gone Bad,” featuring Scarlett’s onstage nervous breakdown, offered Gunnar’s devastating ode to Scarlett (“It Ain’t Yours To Throw Away”) as well an emotional plea by Rayna (“Wrong For The Right Reasons”). The show’s musical releases remain at the top of their game.
Meanwhile, ABC apparently believes that stunt-casted guest stars will draw viewers, so the show has featured everyone from Kelly Clarkson to NASCAR star Austin Dillon to Michelle Obama (alongside American Idol’s Kellie Pickler, who thankfully got second billing to the FLOTUS), which may aid ratings, but hardly seems helpful for overall plotlines. Nashville should continue to streamline its many soapy plots and characters, and focus on the creative town that shares its name. Its storylines still need to reach the same heights as its songs, but Nashville’s musical output makes the show worth saving.