The popularity of all things Country has a tendency to peak and trough through the decades. The current resurgence with the likes of Country to Country and Nashville Live going from strength to strength could arguably be attributed to the success of a certain, long-running, television series; with this in mind, Helen Tope takes a look back over the seasons to explore why it appears to have made such a huge impact.
Nashville, a blend of television and performance, is a prime-time drama that goes straight to the heart of Country music. With the series coming to an end this summer, there is no better time to become acquainted with a programme that offers not only a narrative soaked in the history of the town, but looks ahead to its future.
Nashville charts the lives of songwriters Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio), Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) and Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson), industry insiders struggling to get established. We also see artists at the top of their game, superstars Rayna James (Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), and what becomes clear is that staying established is far from an easy ride.
The series begins with a rivalry between Rayna and Juliette; a younger star rising to take the crown of Country’s best-selling artist. But Nashville quickly diverges from expectation. James, with her experience of working in a male-dominated industry, knows a rivalry with a younger star will only end one way. She instead looks to the pioneering spirit of Nashville and starts her own record company, Highway 65. James’ gift for nurturing talent inspires her signings to write their own material. She creates new sounds, instead of rehashing hits from the past.
Juliette takes longer to find a way forward. Headstrong and stubborn to a fault, Barnes’ failure to recognise her brand is falling out of favour, drives her to near-destruction. Pitched somewhere between the chin-up grit of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and the pop sensibilities of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, Barnes takes what she thinks of as a winning formula and applies it to her broken life. Juliette believes that to perform is to wear a mask, but in doing so, she hides the part of herself that is most true.
By comparison, Rayna James is utterly at ease with herself. With a back catalogue of self-penned tunes, James’ warm, friendly persona is reminiscent of stars such as Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Highly popular, James is aware that she may be living on former glories. Her best move is to keep creating.
The faux rivalry between Rayna and Juliette, nothing more than a PR exercise, is taken to heart by Barnes. However, Wrong Song, performed by James and Barnes, highlights the cheapness of such an exercise. The song’s lyrics, bold, witty and knowing, rise above the petty drama of older woman pitted against younger. Instead, we see Rayna and Juliette as artists worthy of more than they are being offered.
What becomes clear from the earliest episodes, is that the music performs double duty. With many tracks written especially for the show, the music as well as adding colour, also illustrates the characters’ search for authenticity. Juliette’s business model of finding songs begins to look old-fashioned when compared to the artists who create their own material. Scarlett, Gunnar and Avery are Barnes’ contemporaries, but they feel worlds apart. Songwriting as craftsmanship is a theme that runs throughout the entire series, and what is equally important, we see them fail. Writing is never a straight line, and seeing the characters learn what works, and what doesn’t, is all part of their journey. Barnes’ success hangs on a barter system, between the rise and fall of her own star power, and who else might be competing for the best songs. By writing songs themselves, Gunnar, Scarlett and Avery forge their own path. It’s a slow-burn in getting to the top, but they win respect from an industry notoriously hard to impress.
The songwriters also flourish because they work together. Collaboration is everywhere in Nashville. Partnerships can be between family (Rayna and husband Deacon, her daughters Maddie and Daphne), friends (Will and Gunnar) or even strangers (Juliette’s ill-advised concept album). Again, the collaborations that work are grounded in authenticity. Maddie and Daphne’s duets are charming because their songs are underscored with the tensions that come from being real-life sisters. Nashville avoids the temptation to go cute with the child stars and gives them tough storylines and proper standout moments. Maddie and Daphne’s cover of The Lumineers’ Ho Hey is a Nashville classic, and rightly so.
The collaborations also show us something that is not immediately obvious to the characters themselves. The song writing between Scarlett and Gunnar results in a musical language that is instantly recognisable. The sultry, Southern Gothic tones in their music illustrates the bond between them. Love denied, love discovered. Their sound is deliberately different to the other artists. Scarlett and Gunnar’s music tells the story of their relationship: unique, complicated and impossible to pin down. Fade Into You, so inextricably linked to the duo, signposts their dependency on each other. The song’s motifs go around in a loop, while the lyrics tighten until we are surrounded. A seduction certainly, but whether it’s good for us, is another question altogether.
Working outside the conventions is one way to declare artistic independence, but when the mould becomes your safe place, breaking out is that much harder. Authenticity is nowhere questioned so rigorously than with the character of Will Lexington (played by Chris Carmack). Tall, handsome and personable – Lexington should be a household name. But struggling to keep his sexuality under wraps, Will is always on the outside looking in.
He hits every mark – wearing the right clothes, singing the right songs – but his lack of authenticity is palpable. His image (a perfect replica of all-American machismo) is too perfect a reproduction to ring true. It isn’t until he begins to explore song writing, with Gunnar’s encouragement, that he begins to break through.
Lexington eventually comes out, and the reception is mixed at best. Nashville’s depiction of how homosexuality is regarded in the Country music world is unflinching and unapologetic. Will doesn’t immediately get the love and support he deserves, and even loses out on lucrative deals because of his decision to come out. It’s an ugly side to a corner of the music industry that professes to be friendly and down-to-earth. In Will’s search for recognition, there are no easy answers, and Nashville deserves credit for not delivering them. Will’s success begins to grow in the later seasons, but his journey to the core – the establishment where he long to be – is by no means guaranteed. What he has instead is a unique position in the Country industry, and in the long run, it will prove to be of far greater value. Will, quite simply, has something to say that cannot be conveyed in a 3-minute hit.
Nashville not only reflects the real-life industry in its story-lines – in the music, we move from the pop sound of crossover artists typified by Juliette Barnes, to an emphasis on stripped-back performances; intimate sets at the Bluebird Cafe. As Country moves, stylistically, back to its roots, Nashville returns in the final seasons to a sound that’s as old as Country music itself.
In a series of fiercely energetic performances as Hallie Jordan, Rhiannon Giddens’ hybrid style of gospel, soul and bluegrass is as fresh as it comes. When we think that Nashville has already said everything it can about Country music, the series throws us a curve ball, with a sound that is pure and utterly authentic. Going Down the Road and Feeling Bad – a cover of the 1971 Grateful Dead track – is played at a blistering tempo. The song is a spirited rebuff to anyone who thinks Nashville is about audience-pleasing melodies and the comfort of easy listening. Giddens’ performance in Nashville shows the sheer range of what Country has to offer. Nashville hasn’t stayed in one place; it has sought out the new and the next with a fervour that would impress Jeff Fordham.
The series continually proves itself to be more complex than it is given credit for. When Connie Britton made the decision to exit the series in Season 5, her on-screen death was met with incredulity and disbelief. When Game of Thrones is reluctant to let go of its coterie of star names, the criticism levelled at Nashville – that it plays too soft – hardly seems fair.
Britton’s departure from the show has not only challenged what fans and critics thought Nashville was, but it hit the reset button on what the drama could be. In facing the unimaginable and then asking ‘what next?’, Nashville has taken itself to the next level. In seeking authenticity, the television series has proved that a programme about Country music can be every bit as thought-provoking as heavy-hitting, prestige drama. Nashville asks difficult questions, and the values of the Country music scene itself have been challenged. Gender equality, the treatment of LGBT artists, these are still issues the industry needs to resolve.
In thinking that we know Nashville, we risk falling into stereotypes. But if we examine it more closely, what we find instead is a landscape of sound that tells us about the importance of truth. Notes sung in grief, songs shared between friends, writing music that articulates what we cannot say out loud. Authenticity cannot be bought, it cannot be hired – it can only be found in work. Finding the right note to play? That’s just the beginning.
Helen Tope | Image: Contributed