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In his 27 years with the legendary Grand Ole Opry, Steve Buchanan knows country music. First starting as marketing manager and serving as president of the legendary concert venue since 1998, the executive has not only seen a who’s who of country performers take the stage but has also seen the corresponding drama that takes place behind the scenes.
It was that story that prompted Buchanan to take the first steps in 2010 to explore a scripted television series — and the Opry’s first — with country music as its backbone.
I have been with the Opry for over 27 years. I started as the first Marketing Manager and have been President since 1998. The result is ABC’s fittingly titled Nashville, a drama from ABC Studios/Lionsgate TV, which Buchanan will executive produce with the Grand Ole Opry through Gaylord Entertainment.
Friday Night Lights‘ Connie Britton stars as aging country superstar Rayna James, who thanks to sagging record sales, is paired with a rising star in Heroes alum Hayden Panettiere‘s Juliette Barnes. Buchanan teamed with documentary filmmaker RJ Cutler and took the project to Thelma & Louise scribe Callie Khouri and the rest, as they, is music (and now television) history.
While the series does not base any of its characters on personalities who have come and gone over the Opry’s 87 years, the ensemble cast stays true to Nashville form and reflects artists at various stages of their career.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Buchanan to discuss the evolution of the series, how the iconic venue will play a role and why country music is so ripe for the small screen.
The Hollywood Reporter: When did you first realize that the Grand Ole Opry was ripe for a TV series?
Steve Buchanan:The walls have come down that separated country music from truly mass culture, exposure and appeal. The Opry is the home of country music; it is a place where the artists and the music industry come together each and every week to catch up or meet new people. It is a place full of characters and behind-the-scenes drama. In the opening of our show, Callie Khouri brilliantly created encounters that are true to form. Rayna James would meet Juliette Barnes at the Opry. However, our artist-to-artist interaction in the show is a little different than the norm. The Opry, the music, and the city seemed to me ready for primetime.
What are some of the things you’ve seen that have inspired you to set a series against the backdrop of the country music industry?
I saw what was happening on scripted and nonscripted television. Music has started to play such an important and powerful role. Country artists were not only competitive, but also winning national talent competitions. Nashville has something special as a creative community and as a city. The stories behind the songs and the real events in artists’ personal lives and careers are just as compelling as anything on television.
How will the Grand Ole Opry play a role in subsequent episodes?
The Opry is a special place that we want to get back to soon. But it has to make sense. Callie and [showrunner] Dee Johnson work very hard with our writers to make sure everything is as it should be. Our characters don’t just pop up someplace without a good reason.
Do you shoot at the Grand Ole Opry? What kind of precautions does the production take? How did the stars react to filming in such a legendary space?
We shot the audience during one of our Opry shows. We shot at the Opry House for four days for the pilot — both on stage and in the backstage hallways and dressing rooms. RJ Cutler and Callie re-created the feel of any Friday or Saturday night at an Opry show where people are hanging out, playing music, seeing old friends and making new ones. Our cast was blown away just being there and on that historic stage. It is really cool because they love to come out to see the Opry. They have become part of the family.
How does Nashville compare with your original vision?
The show exceeds my expectations. I had an idea, a dream. I believed the time was right to do this show. I just had to find the right people to bring it to life. Jeff Frasco and Brian Loucks from CAA approached us about representation and this project is a result of that. They introduced me to some pretty exceptional people, but ultimately I felt RJ and Callie, as well as Lionsgate, shared the same vision for the show. And T Bone Burnett and our other music producers have done an absolutely amazing job with the music.
How did your initial idea evolve with RJ Cutler?
I was intrigued by his passion for music and authenticity. I felt he would take an honest approach as a documentarian. We both wanted to do a current, contemporary show: great television with music that propels the story and the characters. I think that with Callie we have been able to push the boundaries more and show a broader view of the music that emanates from Nashville. Also, I love the strength of the stories and characters outside of the music industry.
Are any Nashville characters modeled after performers you’ve worked with?
Our characters are unique individuals. They do share many similar life and career experiences. We pay close attention to the realistic nature of what happens in their lives. Comparisons can and will be made. Although, the easiest comparison is for our characters who are just trying to get a break into the music business. There is a whole lot of undiscovered talent running around this town.
Could you envision a Nashville night at the grand Ole Opry with the cast performing songs from the series?
Well, that sounds like an excellent idea. We have a very talented cast.
What is it about country music that has Hollywood calling? Nashville, Malibu Country, Blake Shelton on The Voice, Keith Urban on American Idol …
Country music is America’s music. There are more country radio stations than any other format. As well, the public is more focused on individual songs and artists these days. They are less bound by genre. Nashville has always been the home of many intriguing personalities. It is wonderful that the rest of the world is discovering that. And don’t forget about all the people living in the flyover states. They have known it all along.
Nashville airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC. Will you be tuning in? Hit the comments with your thoughts.
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