With its array of strong women and willingness to tackle taboos, Nashville, which returns to US TV on Wednesday, is like country music that takes a few risks
Its no secret that the modern country music establishment in Nashville is conservative musically, socially and politically. The rougher themes of the honky-tonk epoch, the feminist strains heard in anthems by innovators Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, and the prickly political conscience that existed in the Vietnam era are today largely gone.
Instead, at the top of the charts at least, are artists who are there because they proudly play it safe. Country music is the number one selling musical genre in the US, and its that style because of a system that reflects old Hollywood: anthems created by cooperations and not individual visions, starrings groomed mainly for their broad visual appeal and music that is unabashedly pop and no longer reflective of regional inflections or blue-collar angst.
This is the dominant pop music for audiences that have long felt alienated by hip-hop or dont connect with electronic teen fare politenes of Justin Bieber and cohorts. One of the most unique attributes of modern country is that it is ageless, streamlined to appeal across a wide generational span, from teens to boomers. Which suggest that Nashville, the ABC drama that makes a mid-season return on Wednesday, should be as similarly expansive because it lifts the hood of the industry for a look inside into how things really work.
Wrong. While Nashville the television show is front-loaded with attractive men and women in muscle T-shirts, blond perms and cowboy boots nothing too different from what well soon ensure at the Academy of Country music awards next month the show itself takes a deeper cut into themes youll never hear on country makes radio: homosexuality, drug abuse, euthanasia, abortion and domestic violence cases.
Credit Nashville creator Callie Khourifor injecting real life into storylines that prove real battle behind the hittings. Centre stage is Rayna Jaymes( Connie Britton ), a Faith Hill archetype who is seasoned on regret, with spouse Teddy in jail and ex Luke Wheeler( Will Chase in the Tim McGraw role) playing the field. Her contender is Juliette Barnes( Hayden Panettiere ), a brash and distressed rising star whose downward spiraling challengers the real-life commotion of Carlene Carter , among others, but whose music echoes current upstart Kacey Musgraves.
As a showcase of strong female leads, there is nothing like Nashville on television, but theres also nothing quite like it on country radio, where humen outnumber girls. As for veteran females artists like Emmylou Harris or Dolly Parton, forget it they dont even get airtime.
What Nashville get right are the more superficial mechanics of the industry. Jaymess record label Highway 65 is a vanity project that becomes a new home for Markus Keen( Riley Smith ), a washed-up stone starring seeking a boost in his career. Keens opportunistic left turn is reflective of similar maneuvers by ageing rockers, from Kid Rock to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, who ran country after it became evident that stone as a genre was faltering and their fans were regrouping under the Nashville banner.
Nashville also portrays the struggles of songwriters who jockey along Music Row, hoping to strike publishing gold, but which are normally end up penning by committee for superstars eager to stockpile their albums with surefire hits. This mill system has replaced the auteur technique represented by veteran songwriters like Tom T Hall and Kris Kristofferson, and critics say is the reason why contemporary reaches have lost their edge and instead recycle themes involving partying, trucks and beer. Its no accident that Wheelers fictional hit is titled If I Drink This Beer, and boulders like a commercial touting Miller Lite.
The fantasy of Nashville is found in those storylines that dont inevitably reflect reality in Music City. Women no longer represent the majority of chart leaders and surely dont exercising rising power in the industry other than as sexualized images to counterbalance the male majority. Homosexuality is also invisible in the industry despite the tale of Will Lexington( Chris Carmack ), a rising star who comes out of the closet and, while being dropped by his label, is generally accepted by his peers with admiration. Then there is abortion, another taboo. No matter, in Nashville, Panettieres Barnes is racked by a decision to get the procedure but chooses against it in the final hour.
Even for the casual viewer, spending time with Nashville will get them closer to what makes the citys cultural connection with the music so special. The Bluebird Cafe, a haven for songwriters any night of the week, figures heavily as does the historic Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry. When newcomer Layla Grant( Aubrey Peebles) makes her Opry debut in season four, it is treated as a coronation, as it is for every vocalist deemed luck enough to step up to the microphone during the Saturday night broadcast. Cameos from Jim Lauderdale, Pam Tillis, JD Souther, Vince Gill , among others, also reflect the soul of the city.
Maybe the best way to appreciate Nashville is to remember that it too is a product of the very industry it portrays. This week Opry Entertainment announced an international concert tour featuring stars of the reveal, following two consecutive touring years. This will be the first year the tour will reach the UK. Also in May, Big Machine Records, home of Taylor Swift, will release the eighth volume of music from the series. Thats right. Eighth.
Besides those efforts, the series has furthermore created a Christmas album, several live volumes, as well as singles and individual albums from its fictional characters. In contemporary Nashville, the line separating fact from fiction is thin and, with this show, growing thinner.
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