The best musical performance in “Nashville’s” pilot fittingly comes not from one of the two main stars but from two no-names who, like their characters, are trying to get noticed. They succeed on that end — a legendary record producer happens upon their set at the also legendary Bluebird Cafe — but what will come of the potential big break is hard to say. In entertainment, the best aren’t always the biggest, and even the biggest can’t always stay that way forever. “Nashville” is out to chronicle the age-old quest for fame in the capitol of country music in the same vein that NBC’s hate-watchable “Smash” takes a look at Broadway. Here, however, are stronger characters, and the conflict between the dynamic leads of Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere already feels more believable and intense than the main rivalry of “Smash.” The stakes are higher, and twangier, and while there is plenty of soap in this drama, there may be just enough heart, soul and talent to make it worth the investment.
Nashville is a star of the series in its own right, from the numerous areal shots sprinkled throughout the pilot along with famous locations, down to the Loveless Cafe T-shirt worn by Rayna James (Connie Britton), one of the queens of country music. As the hot young chart-topper Juliette Barnes (a sexed-up and diva-like version Carrie Underwood), Panettiere gets the ball rolling by snubbing Rayna (modeled somewhat after Reba McEntire) backstage at the Grand Ole Opry at a tribute show for the aforementioned legendary producer. Brought into Rayna’s room specifically to meet her, Juliette at first ignores her outstretched hand and friendly welcome and later acknowledges her elder with the line, “My momma was one of your biggest fans.” “Bless your heart,” Rayna replies in true Southern fashion, “that is a charming story.” Rayna isn’t as popular as she once was — both her latest album and tickets for her upcoming tour aren’t selling well — and the dig from a young thing who needs auto-tuning and sings songs about drinking wine and wearing black mascara (or something) is only the beginning of the indignities coming her way. The women share a record label, and to save Rayna’s fledgling tour, executives want them to both “co-headline” one together, with the elder stateswoman opening for the latest star. The suggestion doesn’t go over well with Rayna. “Why do people listen to that adolescent crap?” Rayna asks her producer, Randy (Burgess Jenkins). “It sounds like feral cats to me. Why does everybody keep pretending she’s good?” Juliette overhears that comment; it doesn’t go over well, either.
This setup could go very badly, but by casting an actress such as Britton, creator Callie Khouri perhaps saved the show at the get-go. Entertainers trying to out-diva each other could easily turn into a scripted version of one of the many “Real Housewives” series mixed with a bit of ABC’s “Revenge.” Rayna has her pride, to be sure — she reminds the new head of the label of her nine Grammys and four CMA awards — but Britton infuses her with such a down-to-earth charm that one instantly warms to her. It’s almost unfair for Panettiere, whose Juliette is a more stereotypical bad girl: sleeping with Randy, who also is her producer; making eyes at (and probably also sleeping with) Rayna’s longtime bandleader and former lover, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten); chastising a beleaguered assistant when her mother tracks down her cell number (and quickly tossing the phone in the garbage); etc. She has good reason to want to dodge mom’s calls, however; she’s a drug addict and is hounding her famous daughter for cash. A phone conversation between the two puts Juliette in tears, but when Randy finds her in such an upset state, she quickly turns the encounter into a hook-up, eager to erase her pain. Panettiere manages to keep Juliette toned down and vulnerable.
Rayna has a different set of issues, such as Deacon, who still carries a torch for her and who could quite possibly be linked to one of Rayna’s deeper secrets. Her husband, Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), at least knows he’s playing second fiddle: “I know I wasn’t your first choice,” Teddy says in the middle of an argument. “I know you settled for me.” Rayna’s father, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), however, appears to know Rayna’s secret. His entrance into the mix along with the world of Nashville politics is a bit much, even if Boothe (perhaps best known for his role as whore house owner Cy Tolliver on “Deadwood”) is perfectly cast as the cold-hearted, corrupt and highly influential businessman. Rayna generally wants nothing to do with him, making appearances at his events for the sake of her sister, Tandy (Judith Hoag), who stuck with the family business. But with his friend the mayor stepping down from office, Lamar decides the unemployed Teddy (the victim of briefly mentioned bad business “deals”) should run to replace him, an even more convenient puppet to meet his needs. Teddy wants his turn in the spotlight, and now Rayna, who had already thrown her support behind opposing candidate Coleman Carlisle (Robert Wisdom), has a political campaign to contend with on top of her struggling career. Again, the venture into the political world of the city feels like a bit too much — the music world has plenty of drama of explore as it is.
Mostly, the political maneuvering seems designed to put a wedge between Rayna and Teddy. Juliette is busy putting one between Rayna and Deacon, whom she genuinely admires as a songwriter and artist even though her intentions to bring him into her band don’t come across quite as pure. She is wowed listening to him perform one night at the Bluebird and approaches him about recording his song — hooking him with just the right spot by playing to his ego as a songwriter, as Rayna points out. Rayna can’t blame Deacon for wanting to explore the opportunity to have his music heard by bigger audiences; it’s both a passion and a business, and there’s not much fun in being a starving artist. She’s also being told to branch out — “You’ve got to find your new place in a new market,” the label head tells her as he presents the ultimatum that she either tour with Juliette or face the label stop promoting her album. Juliette’s appearance is forcing each to confront what has kept them in their own comfort zones and what it will take to move on in life and in music.
On the opposite end of the fame spectrum are those two no-names at the Bluebird, Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen), Deacon’s niece. She’s a waitress who writes poetry; he’s a musician who wishes she would dump her questionable, alt-country-playing boyfriend Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson). Together, once he convinces her she’s been writing songs all along, they create a beautiful and haunting duo, channeling The Civil Wars in an acoustic number “If I Didn’t Know Better” at open mic night. (Their sound isn’t surprising considering John Paul White, one half of The Civil Wars, wrote the song.) All the leads can sing, with both Britton and Panettiere delivering solid if not memorable performances and Esten upstaging them with his strong vocals. But something about Palladio and Bowen is just magical. It helps that they are given one of the better songs of the episode; T Bone Burnett, executive music producer (and Khouri’s husband), has enlisted impressive artists to contribute, such as White, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller and Elvis Costello, promising that the music on the series at least will contain more depth than the standard pop country fare that typically charts these days. Their innocence — the joy of unexplored talent and all the potential that stands before them, mixed with their so-far unadulterated love for music and desire to strike it big — is a nice balance to the harsher business side of the industry and the ensuing battle between Rayna and Juliette.
The record producer in the audience is inspired by Gunnar and Scarlett, calling his friend Rayna to let her listen in on the song. Perhaps snatching up one or both of them will mean a fresh start for Rayna, let alone the newcomers. Perhaps it won’t. Success is hard to predict. But in their case — and in the case of “Nashville,” if it keeps its head above the predictable fray of most network soaps — the success will be deserved.
“Nashville” premieres at 10/9C today on ABC.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.