It used to be—back in the days before 24/7 cable TV and the ubiquity of the interwebs in our lives—that Nashville was known in popular culture for pretty much one thing: County Music. Back then, there were a lot of syndicated country music shows that generally ran for half an hour and were broadcast on Saturday evenings. Then sometime later, there was a short-lived network series called XXXs & OOOs, which featured a theme song by Trisha Yearwood (and that’s really all I can remember, other than that it wasn’t very good).
Somewhere in between, acclaimed director Robert Altman made Nashville, his Oscar-nominated (it won for best song for “I’m Easy”) and critically-lauded film about the city and its love/hate relationship with the country music industry. Altman’s Nashville used the city’s country and gospel music business milieu as his focus, juxtaposing it against the campaign of a third party presidential candidate. It’s a good movie—you should watch it if you’ve never seen it—but keep in mind, it’s very much a product of its times. Since then, Nashville’s been featured in several movies, but none we care to remember with any affection or regularity.
Now, ABC is banking on Music City, putting big bucks behind the promotion and the production of Nashville, the soapy new television series written by Academy Award winner CALLIE KHOURI (Thelma and Louise) that debuted last night, right after the Emmy Award-winning comedy juggernaut that is Modern Family. Starring Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Powers Boothe, Eric Close, Jonathan Jackson and a whole bunch of vaguely familiar character actors and dewy-eyed ingénues of both the female and male varieties—along with an ensemble of homegrown actors, many of them Nashville theater royalty, including Ed Amatrudo, David Alford, Todd Truley, Jake Speck, Jeremy Childs, and J. Karen Thomas, who add authenticity and atmosphere to the proceedings and make it more fun to watch for those of us who actually appreciate live theater in a town that’s always treated actors like the proverbial redheaded stepchild of lore—Nashville shows promise, even if the political subplot almost sent me in search of BBC America’s repeat of this week’s episode of Copper or for some Real Housewives behaving badly.
Of course, there is the possibility that people out of town, as it were, will find the political shenanigans compelling during this election season, but we doubt it. It seems superfluous and tacked on in order to appeal to people who won’t admit they like country music. And the fedora-wearing Boothe (no politician in Nashville—or power behind the throne, for sure—would ever wear such ridiculous-looking headgear) seems more like an ersatz J.R. Ewing instead of a Belle Meade financier and dealmaker by the name of Lamar Wyatt.
We have faith, however, in Khouri’s ability to write characters and stories that are believable and accessible. She did her time in Nashville, waiting tables and acting while writing the screenplay for Thelma and Louise that catapulted her to notoriety, so there is a certain authenticity to the people, places and things she’s written into her ambitious new series that ABC has given over to one of its most popular time slots. Adding to the series’ Music City bona fides and air of music scene sophistication is the role played by T-Bone Burnett, who just happens to be married to Khouri, in supervising the series’ music, lending further gravitas to Nashville in the process.
And make no mistake about it, it’s the country music business that provides the inspiration for Nashville and it is the show’s treatment of that particularly unique part of our fair city that really rings true, thank the lord. The luminous Britton, whose onscreen presence is so palpable you fully expect her to step out of the widescreen and sit down in your living room, gives a convincing performance, delivering her lines with conviction and a Southern accent that sounds like she’s one of us. As Rayna James, a legendary country songbird, Britton sings her own songs (she acquits herself admirably on that score) and she is very much the star of the show (although I kept hoping the rubber-suited man would emerge from her dressing room closet to give it to her and give it to her good).