"Nashville": Come For The Music, Stay For ... The Music
Dustin is right: So far, "Nashville" is not entirely living up to our high hopes, no matter how much Connie Britton twangs her way through playing the part of a country music queen. Her character, Rayna Jaymes, and Hayden Panettiere's Juliette Barnes have been dancing around each other in various narratives that have only led them back to where we wanted them to be all along: the two women trying to work together/out-diva each other in an industry in which both are famous yet expendable. Previews for the next episode, airing in two weeks, hint at the impending drama, but viewers' patience likely has been tried by making us wait seven episodes to see the beginning of the battles promised in the pilot.
However, even though the soapy series is far from perfect, from its weak dialogue to unnecessary political plots, the wait for the Rayna-Juliette showdown has been worth it thanks to the show's music. Each episode features at least one good, and sometimes great, song. Creator Callie Khouri wisely turned to husband T Bone Burnett and others in the music industry, such as Buddy Miller, to harvest the real Nashville's talent pool for great songs from writers both up-and-coming and veteran. Better yet, ABC is spotlighting the songwriters online, taking fans behind the scenes and placing emphasis on the art involved, not just the business.
Here's the first feature of the On the Record series, focusing on the song "If I Didn't Know Better," written by John Paul White and Arum Rae. (You can also find a recording of the song by The Civil Wars, of which White is half, on that duo's free album "Live at Eddie's Attic.)*
These entries are generally more insightful than the actual show, and I appreciate the credit that is given to songwriters, most of whom usually go unnoticed outside of the industry. This is where "Nashville" succeeds where NBC's "Smash" largely doesn't. Sure, "Smash" enlisted Broadway heavyweights to write an original musical for the show, and the episodes are filled with nods to the Great White Way just as "Nashville" features nods to its setting. (Nice Hatch Show Print baseball cap, Juliette.) But "Nashville" actually feels like an ode to the those chasing their dreams of making music. Outside of the great original numbers for its Marilyn Monroe musical, "Smash's" characters' passion for their art and for theatre was easily lost as they were busy belting pop songs in "Glee" fashion. Those acts often distracted from the story, which ultimately lacked heart, instead of enhancing it. It's true that "Nashville" doesn't include dream sequences or outbursts of song typical to musicals; the only performances are just that -- artists recording in a studio or playing for a crowd. It's a different and safer dynamic, but it's working. It's believable.
Just look at this performance of "No One Will Ever Love You," another song co-written by John Paul White, this time with Steve Mcwean.
That duet is easily one of the best moments of the series so far, with Britton and Charles Esten (as Deacon Claybourne, Rayna's guitarist and former lover) conveying so much emotion in their voices and the looks they are giving each other. The song says everything, and it was a smart pick by the producers. I can put up with backstabbing and bed-hopping story lines if it means I'm also treated to moving musical numbers, which you can buy on iTunes just like "Smash" and "Glee" numbers.
"Nashville" is essentially like the music industry itself: You have to wade through a lot of crap to find a few gems. For now, it's worth it.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.
*The Civil Wars being on a break because of "irreconcilable differences" kills me.
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