'Nashville': Jonathan Jackson on Enation, Songwriter Co-Stars and Avery's Fate (Q&A)

The angst-ridden rocker tells THR about filming the ABC country music drama that's somewhat critical of the major labels his band has never tried to chase.
Courtesy of Press Here Publicity
Jonathan Jackson + Enation

ABC's country music drama Nashville continues to center on a handful of musicians, each uniquely struggling for their time in the Music City spotlight. While Connie Britton's Rayna James and Hayden Panettiere's Juliette Barnes teeter between being duet partners and chart-topping enemies — thanks to a fresh back-stab or a soapy scandal between the sheets — the show's other onscreen hopefuls are just trying to grab enough gigs to get them out of serving drinks at the Bluebird Cafe.

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Can the same be said offscreen of the cast, composed mainly of songwriters who spend their nights off in Nashville studios and on the Grand Ole Opry stage? To start, Jonathan Jackson, who plays angst-ridden rocker Avery Barkley, is releasing his fourth album with his band Enation, also featuring drummer (and brother) Richard Lee Jackson and bassist Daniel Sweatt.

"This is our first project as a three-piece over the last 10 years," he tells The Hollywood Reporter of Radio Cinematic, out Oct. 14 via Loud & Proud Records. "The first single, 'Everything Is Possible,' is a song we've had for years, and it's always been an anthem for us — no matter how difficult or dark things get in life, keep pushing forward."

Jackson chats with THR about releasing independent music while on a show that criticizes major labels, how he actually compares with his onscreen alias and what he's learning on set and on tour with fellow songwriter-actors Chip Esten, Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen.

After acting for two seasons, how does it feel to be back in the music game?

The three of us have been playing together for over 10 years, so there's a tight-knit friendship, and musically, we speak the same language. This is our first project as a three-piece over the last 10 years — we've had different members in the band, but it's always the three of us at the core. Inevitably, it makes each instrument vital while arranging, and vocally, there are some different places that we went to that I haven't done before. But the first single, "Everything Is Possible," is a song we've had for years, and it's always been an anthem for us — no matter how difficult or dark things get in life, keep pushing forward.

How did you put together this album while filming?

I spent the last year and a half demo-ing a lot of music — when I had even half of an afternoon off, I'd run down to a studio. We combined that with old band demos, and as soon as we wrapped filming — I think it was on a Wednesday — I was in the studio on Thursday, and we started full-on recording. We had the songs and a decent amount of arranging, so it was actually a smooth process.

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How close is your musical identity to Avery on Nashville?

I share a certain angst, musically, that Avery has. At the beginning the show, [season one executive music producerT Bone Burnett gave each character a musical identity, and everyone knew that Avery wasn't going to be a country artist but rooted more in rock 'n' roll, folk and Americana. I have a lot of those influences in common with him, but Avery's a little more roots-oriented, and I'm a little more anthemic, European rock, more Peter Gabriel and U2. But we're similar lyrically, and in purpose of music, which for us at Enation to go deep and move people and change lives, like R.E.M. and Radiohead.

Nashville plots have revolved around the industry of music — selling tickets, launching artists and trying social media marketing. What have you learned from the scripts for your own music career?

Well, it is [dramatized] but it's focused on being authentic. We've had so many Nashville artists and industry people tell us how accurate the show is in portraying those things, which is a huge compliment to what we're trying to do. But I've been an independent artist for a long time, and I never looked to sign to a major label because I've heard many horror stories. I certainly learn things from the scripts, but I haven't walked through those experiences.

I identify with the emotional reality of what it means to be a songwriter and put yourself out there, day in and day out, and give yourself to what you're creating. I understand that struggle, and the commitment it takes to be an artist. Also, wanting to protect your music — wanting to get it out there, but not wanting to give it all away at the same time, and that's a difficult balance, where art meets commerce.

What's it like to work on a show with so many fellow actor-musicians?

Incredible, and the tour was a fun and brilliant way for us to see what we do. It was this moment where we got to connect with fans of the show — you know it's there because you meet people on the street and whatnot, but to actually be in a concentrated area, play the show music and experience the energy and how people are emotionally connected to these songs and characters was really fun.

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Having everyone play some of their original music was a great part of it because, for the most part, we're all songwriters. Chip will show me songs he's working on, and we'll see each other perform at the Opry or go see Clare and Sam, and it's inspiring to see what they're doing. It's always been very supportive with this cast; we started together with the pilot and we've been blessed to see the show this far. It's certainly been an inspiration as I've gone off and worked on this album.

What have you learned from them musically?

We spent time in the tour buses, just talking about how some of us are better at connecting with audiences and delivering songs. It's just like acting — we're always trying to dig deeper and refine. With Clare, I think her emotional vulnerability as a performer is beautiful. Sam has a visceral energy when he performs — how much he's enjoying what's happening and how he feels the music. Chip is a very deep thinker and performer; the most profound moments are when I hear the passion in his original music. A lot of times, Deacon's [Eston's character] music is relatively subdued, and when Chip is doing his thing — I saw him perform a Jimi Hendrix song, and it was phenomenal! — you don't get to see that side with Deacon. Everybody on the show has different qualities that jump out.

What's the plan for the upcoming season? Will viewers hear Enation material via Avery, and does your shooting schedule allow for touring?

That's up to ABC. One of the songs I wrote, "The Morning of the Rain," was on the show — they've been really supportive. I think it depends on the storyline and how those two creative worlds line up, so we'll have to wait and see if that makes sense. In terms of touring, we love playing live, so even while the show is filming, we'll fly to places on weekends. We're planning a tour in spring, when season three ends.

What are your season-three hopes for Avery?

A lot of people seem to be rooting for Avery and Juliette — season two ended in a difficult place in their relationship. But I think it's something to root for, because they're two characters who are very strong-willed and relatively stubborn at times, and yet they both seem to have found the best in each other. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.

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Avery, in season one, was pursuing his music career from a very self-destructive, narcissistic place, and kind of losing himself in his ambitions and not treating Scarlett [Bowen's character] well. He seems to have learned his lesson from that, and in season two, he wasn't doing his own music much since he was producing. I think, in season three, it'd be fun for him to reimagine some of his own music, but from a more humble, selfless, creative place. There's a wide-open space for that, but I have no idea where it's going. That's part of the adventure.

Radio Cinematic is out Oct. 14 via Loud & Proud Records, and Nashville returns to ABC this fall.

Jackson will perform live in Nashville as part of Summer NAMM’s Music Industry Day on Saturday, July 19, at 1:15 p.m. To purchase tickets($10 in advance, $20 at the door), click here.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee