Hayden Panettiere, left, plays Juliette Barnes, a wildly popular country-pop princess, and Connie Britton stars as Rayna Jaymes, a humble wife, mom and country music superstar in ABC's ‘Nashville.’ (Andrew MacPherson/ABC)

It’s important to note that on ABC’s new drama, “Nashville,” the series drives the music, not the other way around.

That’s a vital distinction to make upfront, because if you’ve heard about “Nashville,” it likely has been about how the show is simply another “Glee” or “Smash,” only with country music. That’s incorrect. On “Nashville,” the characters don’t randomly burst into song or put on a show for the viewers. Instead, the series is shaping up to be an intricate drama about people who work in one of the most cutthroat industries in the world, and the music expertly threaded through the scenes is a bonus.

At its core, “Nashville” is an intriguing story about accepting harsh realities but not settling for them. It’s a theme that drives the many story lines woven throughout the first episode, which centers on Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton, riveting as usual), a humble wife, mom and country music superstar.

However, as the humorless new president of her record label says, she’s becoming increasingly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that she’s won nine Grammy Awards, or has been with the same label for two decades, or is a beloved figure in Music City — her latest album isn’t selling. And if she doesn’t pair up for a tour with Juliette Barnes, a wildly popular and conniving 20-something country-pop princess (Hayden Panettiere), the label is going to stop promoting Rayna’s music altogether.

Rayna’s frustration over her situation — as the record label head patronizingly tells her, “you have to find your place in a new market” — is engrossing to watch because it reflects the current reality of the industry, as artists with a pop sound infiltrate the country music world and some veteran singers struggle to get songs on the charts.

“Why do people listen to that adolescent [stuff]? It sounds like feral cats to me,” Rayna rages after learning that she’ll have to open for Juliette on tour and that her longtime producer is working on Juliette’s new album. “Why does everybody keep pretending she’s good?”

We learn that it’s because Juliette sells records. Vocally gifted or not — “Thank God for Auto-Tune,” someone mumbles during a Juliette recording session — she’s the No. 1 crossover artist in the country and acts like she deserves every bit of success. Juliette doesn’t hesitate to bark orders and trample over anything or anyone that stands in her way. Panettiere plays the character a little too mean, as Juliette is all seductive smiles to any man that comes along, spoken for or not, while terrorizing the women.

There are clues that Juliette isn’t as coldhearted she seems, including brief glimpses of her background — her mother was a drug addict — that could provide reasons for this nasty demeanor.

The pilot episode is visually striking, featuring lovely views of farmland, rich colors of the Tennessee skyline and menacing shots of giant buildings downtown. It also sets up countless future plots about the characters’ personal lives. There are so many story lines that it starts to feel overwhelming by the time Rayna’s father (Powers Boothe), a Nashville corporate kingpin, convinces Rayna’s husband (Eric Close) to run for mayor so he can control the city’s politics as well as its businesses.

As with any good drama, there’s a love triangle, and it turns out Rayna’s real soulmate is probably her lead guitarist, Deacon (Charles Esten). But Deacon’s niece, Scarlett (Clare Bowen), provides the most interesting side story. She works at the city’s famous Bluebird Cafe and thinks she’s just a wannabe poet until the sound guy, Gunnar (Sam Palladio), points out that she’s actually creating song lyrics.

A duet involving Scarlett and Gunnar provides both the music for the episode’s ending montage and the best example of how the show uses its soundtrack to fit the mood of every scene — no surprise, considering the show’s executive producer in charge of music is Academy Award-winning musician T Bone Burnett. (He’s married to the show’s creator, Academy Award-winning writer Callie Khouri.) That level of attention to detail is no doubt an agonizing process, though certainly worth it, already putting the show a step above its musical brethren.


(one hour) debuts Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on ABC.