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ABC’s ‘Nashville’ Premiere Rings True

Nashville ABC
ABC

Hollywood has a long and sorry history of getting Nashville — and country music — wrong. From deliberately corny shows like ‘Hee Haw,’ to unintentional comedies like ‘Country Strong,’ Music City has always come off in movies and television as some sort of backwater town full of ignorant, cowboy-hat-wearing hayseeds, instead of a cosmopolitan cultural center that serves as home to the largest collective of top-quality musicians, engineers, producers and songwriters that has ever existed.

Not so with Wednesday night’s premiere of ‘Nashville’ on ABC. The new show hits almost uncomfortably close to home for modern-day Music City with its cast of desperate dreamers, hard-luck misfits and corrupt power brokers.

The show’s premise centers around Rayna Jaymes (played by Connie Britton), a 40-something country superstar whose newest album is faltering and who is consequently having a hard time selling tickets for an upcoming tour. Her label home of more than twenty years is under new management who do not profit from her past success, and their idea of a career boost is to team her with up-and-coming label mate Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere), whose very commercial brand of pop-country has made her the next big thing.

It’s an interesting metaphor for where Nashville really is as a culture right now, at a time when artists who would have been openly scoffed at by the business a decade ago, are now enjoying successful careers. The advent of Pro Tools has leveled the playing field for people who can’t really sing at a professional level, consequently turning visual marketing into the most important element of breaking many new artists. It’s a dirty little secret of the country music scene that many fans remain blissfully unaware of, but ‘Nashville’ dragged it unblinkingly into the light on Wednesday night, with one disgusted producer remarking of Barnes’ vocal performance at a studio session, “Thank god for auto tune.”

That kind of casual insider knowledge peppered the show throughout its premiere, from the easy ribbing between the musicians, to the delicate ego dance between the performers. What’s truly interesting about the female leads is that although Britton, as Jaymes, is definitely cast as the protagonist and Panettiere’s Barnes as the antagonist, the plot quickly reveals Jaymes’ flaws, making the character somewhat of an anti-hero. It turns out her marriage has been strained by her husband’s financial failure, not to mention the fact that she is still rather obviously stuck on her band leader, with whom she had a previous relationship that may have resulted in one of her children — a fact her husband is apparently unaware of. Her father is a corrupt and powerful player in Nashville’s business scene, and he hits upon the notion of installing his son-in-law as his puppet in a run for mayor — something Jaymes does not want to support, in no small part because of her own ego insecurities.

Panetierre gives a note-perfect performance as Barnes, rendering a character that’s easy to dislike in a way that’s both compelling and human. Barnes is certainly conniving, underhanded and none-too-nice, seducing men here and there as needed to get her way and generally behaving as a spoiled brat; but in a fascinating twist, we see her motivation in a couple of phone calls from her mom, whose presence in her newly-made fantasy life is so unwelcome that she employs someone specifically to keep her cell phone number out of her mother’s hands. It turns out that dear old mom is an addict, and in those tense scenes between mother and daughter we begin to understand the source of Juliette’s endless need.

That commitment to motivation is the greatest strength of the show; we can each see a little bit of ourselves in these characters, from Rayna’s jealousy and insecurity, to Juliette’s (sometimes literally) naked ambition — both of which are appropriate for their relative positions. The other characters, both large and small, are equally well-drawn, which ought to give the show plenty of fodder for further dramatic tension as it goes on.

Another thing ‘Nashville’ mostly gets right is that it recognizes that the outward trappings of country music are just costuming, like a clown wears a rubber nose. Unlike every other show about country music, there are no ridiculous attempts at overblown southern accents, or anybody wearing a cowboy hat in a recording session, or any of the usual nonsense about Nashville. The show portrays Nashville’s music industry as what it is; a big-money game played by people who are very serious about both music and business.

Oddly enough, perhaps the thing that’s least compelling about the show is the singing of its two leads, neither of whom has a voice of any great star quality. But then again, this is a show about the modern-day Nashville, and the bitter reality is, there are singers with hit records currently in the charts who don’t sing any better than either Britton or Panettiere.

That aside, ‘Nashville’ is a delicious mix of music, family tension, sex and business intrigue that seems likely to appeal to any fan of modern country music.

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