originally written for NoDepression
When the TV show Nashville left us last season, Juliette Barnes (played swimmingly by Hayden “Save the cheerleader, save the world” Panettiere) was burying her mother and, apparently, swallowing her first welcome dose of reality. Meanwhile, Rayna James (the incredible Connie Britton) was faced with her own reality check in the least cliffhangery of all television cliffhangers.
I mean, come on. They’re not going to kill off – or even “maim off,” if that’s a thing – the Queen of Country Music and Deacon the Well-Intentioned.
Jaymes’ daughters Maddie and Maisy James (played by real-life sisters Lennon and Maisy Stella, who really are that good) were tugging on their own pathway to fame. And Gunnar (Sam Palladio) was proposing to Scarlett (Clare Bowen) as she was starting to rethink her failed relationship with Avery (Jonathan Jackson).
I hammer out these plotlines because, remarkably, show creator Callie Khouri has imagined a soap opera around Nashville’s music scene which is almost believable. Any of us who have tried out the whole move-to-a-music-town-to-try-to-make-it thing have known people like Gunnar, Scarlett, and Avery. We even know the Juliettes and Raynas and, lord knows, dozens upon dozens of ex-alcoholic sidemen with razor-sharp bullshit detectors, who deserve a shot of their own at a solo career. We’ve seen them at open mic nights, places like the Bluebird, and witnessed the occasional newcomer waitress who’s coaxed onstage by some boy and winds up stealing everyone’s hearts.
It’s exaggerated and sensationalized, sure, but this is the music industry in all its far-reaching scenarios – the real humanity behind the mega-hits, the bad decisions, the socially awkward behavior, the sycophants, the money men, the over-sensitive acting out and misunderstanding and jealousy, and the way it all becomes the songs people cling to when they’re going through something.
Then again, it’s not surprising. Khouri has seen a bit of the music industry, being married to one of Nashville’s most talented producers-of-discriminating-taste. She’s made a career of building soap operas rooted deeply in real life, following the sensationalization of working class people out to the most natural imaginable conclusions. So the story of Nashville hasn’t surprised me one bit.
What has surprised me is the music.
Now, let me take a moment to recognize that Connie Britton is not a singer. She’s an extraordinary actress who never really sang until she got this role. I read an article about her a while back where she was telling an interviewer that T Bone’s attitude was ostensibly “all women can sing”, that he trusted her to rise to the role, and she did. Frankly, half the artists with major radio hits are not great singers, anyway. Unless you’re P!nk or Kelly Clarkson or Beyonce, it’s not really your job to be an artful and imaginative vocalist. Your job as a major pop star is to have boundless energy, be attractive, be relatable, and entertain people. Connie Britton plays that version of the Queen of Country Music beautifully. Masterfully, you might even say.
Panettiere, meanwhile, actually possesses real-world musical skill. She’s a trained singer who has recorded a number of songs for Disney and released a (corny pop) album back in 2008. It’s not surprising that Burnett, as the guy in charge of the show’s music in Season One, chose songs for Juliette Barnes which were catchy, fun and accessible, and not necessarily easy to sing.
It’s a shame, though, that the songs Rayna James sang were not at all believable as major radio hits. Some of the songs were so bad, I started to wonder if they were chosen on purpose to underscore the fact that Rayna James is supposed to be struggling with her recording career, while someone more catchy and accessible to mainstream audiences (Barnes) runs away with all the big hits.
But, that doesn’t really hold up when you consider the “old songs” she and Deacon wrote together back when they were on the top of the charts. Those were bad too, hardly the stuff of star-making radio hits. So bad, in fact, I found myself wanting to fast-forward through them. The only song that really connected as a believable monster radio hit was “Wrong Song,” a tune Rayna supposedly co-wrote with Juliette, to stage her comeback. Of course, the secret is that Juliette really wrote most of that one herself, with Rayna contributing only the bridge.
T Bone Burnett is a master of Americana music, so it’s easy to imagine him reaching into that familiar bag of tricks for Rayna James’ songs, where plenty of songwriters exist who write for not-masterful vocalists. Lyric-centric songs with small-range melodies are easy to find in the Americana world. Nashville – and, for that matter, the greater singer-songwriter circuit – is teeming with writers who can create compelling music that almost any emotionally-committed person could sing well. These songs have non-traditional melody structures, which often doesn’t matter for the singer-songwriters for whom they are bread and butter. Those folks aren’t trying to be major radio stars, so their songs can be more about what kinds of emotion and humanity the singer can bring, rather than what kind of artistic vocal prowess s/he can unleash. In other words, they’re perfect songs for bad singers who are incredible actors.
But, you can’t become the Queen of Country Music with those songs. Those songs exist in contrast to the very existence of a Queen of Country Music, and the fact that this show was asking me to believe Rayna James became a megastar on the strength of those songs, just struck me as frustratingly incongruous.
I recently blathered about all this to my partner during a long-ish road trip until she chimed in to remind me this was a television show, by which I was so bothered. But, Britton’s such a remarkable actress, her character is so likable, so believable as a major radio star. The show has gone to such lengths to place her and Barnes within the context of the real Nashville, working in local bars and restaurants, the importance of the Opry and Music Row, and even major players in real-life Nashville (Lauderdale has made a few cameos, and Gunnar and Scarlett are always competing with actual up-and-comers like Lindi Ortega for gigs). It’s the best thing we here in the Americana/roots world have when it comes to mainstream America’s awareness of our existence, unless you count Mumford & Sons (which I simply can’t). Or, maybe I’m just disappointed that the unbelievability of James’ radio hits puts a chink in both Khouri and Burnett’s apparently unchinkable armor. Regardless, it won’t stop me from tuning into Season Two when it starts on Sep. 25, with hope. Maybe Buddy Miller, who is replacing T Bone as the show’s Head Honcho of Song Selection, will make everything right again.