Shortly before ABC’s new music-themed drama “Nashville” was set to begin filming, the producers had a problem: Three moments in the pilot needed musical numbers, and absolutely nothing fit. When one person wanted to cave and just use songs that sounded “good,” the others immediately shot that down. Good wasn’t good enough.
Around that time, before they were officially in panic mode, series creator Callie Khouri and executive producer R.J. Cutler were at the legendary Bluebird Café in Nashville, listening to more music, when Khouri received an e-mail from her friend John Paul White. White, of folk duo the Civil Wars, sent three songs — would any of them work?
All three, as it happened, were perfect.
“Somehow, each one of these songs miraculously hit the bull’s-eye, threaded the needle — whatever metaphor you want to use — in a way that no other of the hundreds of songs we heard had been able to,” Cutler said, still sounding incredulous months after the fact. “We couldn’t believe it. Seriously, we were like, ‘What just happened?’ That’s gotta fit in the category of a television miracle.”
Cutler’s story explains a lot about why the pilot of “Nashville,” a drama about the unique and cutthroat culture of Music City, immediately stands out among the other musical shows in primetime — even if it comes down to the wire, no one on the show will settle for simply “good enough.” With Khouri’s husband, famed record producer T-Bone Burnett, signed on as executive music producer, the show is infused with a gripping authenticity that can only come from people with intense passion for the music world. As a result, “Nashville,” premiering in October, is poised as the best chance for a breakout hit among this year’s new fall shows.
ABC is marketing the series as a battle between old and new, and maybe that is the sexier spin. Connie Britton stars as Rayna Jaymes, an adored country music legend whose iron grip on the charts is starting to loosen after several decades. That’s thanks to 20-something country-pop crossover sensations like Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, who has a sweet smile but boasts a nasty streak. The new president of their record label comes up with a great idea: Send Rayna and Juliette on tour together, with Rayna as the opener. Thus sets up a familiar “All About Eve” scenario, which both Britton and Panettiere delight in playing.
While the Rayna versus Juliette story is the main plot driving the pilot, the show itself provides an additional hook through an incredibly detailed portrayal of the music scene, one that goes beyond country music — which is what most people think of when they hear “Nashville.” Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Thelma & Louise,” lived in Nashville, and has a deep appreciation for the city’s one-of-a-kind music culture.
“We’ve seen a lot of caricatures of Nashville, but we’ve never really seen the actual place as it is,” Khouri said. “People think of country music because that’s the product that’s exported from there. But there’s actually a wide range of music and incredibly talented musicians of every description. . . . It’s a very unique city with a lot of different layers.”
Khouri wants to shed light on that impossible-to-describe Nashville experience, like when you hear a song a thousand times on the radio, and then hear it performed at a small club by the songwriter. Or when you go to dinner one night, and the next night see your waitress sing a mind-blowing set. Powers Boothe — who plays Rayna’s evil business tycoon father on the show — was moved to tears when a group went to the Bluebird Café, Khouri recalled, and he heard an old Conway Twitty track performed by the original songwriter.
Burnett agrees a big draw for the project (besides wanting to work with his wife, Khouri) was the chance to broadcast traditional American music to the mainstream. There’s never been a platform built like this for that type of music to be broadcast into the culture this way, he said.
“The reality of Nashville is that it’s the most robust and thriving music scene in the world,” said Burnett, a musician who has been producing albums for decades, from Roy Orbison to Elvis Costello and worked on films including “Walk the Line” and “Crazy Heart,” for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Song.
“To me, the most interesting thing about Nashville is what a thriving music scene it is all the way around,” Burnett said. “You have these extraordinary rock ’n roll bands, bluegrass and traditional bands. You have this incredible, probably the most profound, gathering of songwriters in history.”
So far, he and the “Nashville” team have worked to incorporate all kinds of music, from Costello to Ray Price to their pals the Civil Wars. Praising the musical talent of the cast, Burnett said that Jonathan Jackson, who plays an aspiring singer/songwriter on the show, wrote one of his own songs for his character.
Mixed in with the drama between the veteran and rookie singer (Juliette thinks Rayna’s old and past her prime; Rayna thinks Juliette’s voice sounds like “feral cats”), many other stories fill the “Nashville” pilot. There’s Rayna’s issues with her manipulative father who controls everything in the city; Juliette’s drug addict mother; the love triangle between Rayna, her husband, and Deacon (Charles Esten), her band leader and ex-boyfriend; and the curious case of Scarlett (Clare Bowen), the shy poet who works at the Bluebird Cafe, and might just be a brilliant songwriter. Plus many more.
Khouri says some episodes will focus more on other plotlines, and there’s no requirement to have a certain quantity of music — characters won’t break into song because the show needs to fill a soundtrack.
“The thing about the music in this show is it’s always part of the very real fabric of what’s going on,” Cutler said. “There’s a large cast of characters, many of whom work in the music industry . . . and so it’s part of this very realistic presentation.”
Now that the show has been picked up to series, it still needs a massive library of songs — though Cutler says even with the daily grind of producing a weekly show, the music aspect has turned into a well-oiled machine. Not that they’re expecting every song to arrive via miracle (one of the songs John Paul White delivered wound up as the key song in the pilot, a haunting duet delivered by Scarlett and her Bluebird co-worker, played by Sam Palladio). It has gotten easier to find tunes, with help from music executives at ABC Studios and Lionsgate, which produce the show. Plus, of course, Burnett’s extensive experience and volume of contacts in the industry. (“It’s kind of a family operation,” Khouri adds of the music-finding process.)
Mostly, as they gear up for the show’s official launch, Khouri and her fellow producers are looking to break out of the traditional kind of musical series, both in terms of what people know about Nashville specifically and about the music world as a whole.
“Because shows that have music as an element have been in the TV public in the last few years, I felt like people were ready for this next step to see how it’s made,” Khouri said. “Where it comes from, who writes the songs, and the people who actually make music behind the scenes.”
(one hour) premieres Oct. 10 at 10 p.m. on ABC.