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NASHVILLE — When ABC’s much-promoted Nashville premiered Wednesday night, local anticipation was high in Music City. After the campy extremism of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville and ham-fisted melodrama of Gwyneth Paltrow-starrer Country Strong, fear of cliché-driven embarrassment was rampant. But Oscar winner Callie Khouri delivered something even more terrifying: the truth.
While some of the acting, especially Hayden Panettiere’s brazen paint-by-numbers vixen Juliette Barnes, was a little stiff, what locals — particularly those working in the industry — saw was the very same watershed facing many of today’s superstars who took the genre from working class-niche to stadium-sized.
Opening with “reigning country music queen” Reyna Jaymes (Connie Britton) — tired and worried about affording the lifestyle she’d grown accustomed to, leaving the kids at home, applying her greasepaint and hitting the stage at country’s hallowed Grand Ole Opry — the shiny veneer is quickly punctured. A Greek chorus of suits in her dressing room bring bad news about a stiff single and sluggish ticket sales, punctuated by a bitchy visit from rising sensation Barnes.
Barnes, a libidinal power-blond in a short dress and push-up bra, is a spoiled supernova who comes on to Jaymes’ bandleader Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) and producer-songwriter Watty White (J.D. Souther), as well as indie hipster aspirant Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson) in the short walk from her dressing room at the Opry to Jaymes’. Barnes represents the current youthquake of Hot Young Things a la American Idol‘s Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler and, yes, Taylor Swift.
Driven by fame, not music, the seemingly manufactured star is short on talent and long on ambition: the new heat-seeking-missile business model. For established superstar Jaymes — like real life’s Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Martina McBride, who, despite awards, historic sales and fan loyalty, are being pushed to the side — this is a nightmare come to life.
The conflict gets fast-tracked in Jaymes’ dressing room: Ankle your tour, open for Barnes as a “co-headliner” (“Who goes on first?” she asks rhetorically) to amp up the legitimization of the new world order — or be dropped. By Monday, the nine-time Grammy winner must give the new label head her decision.
Authenticity and local color dominate, as well as masterful use of real music cues ranging from vintage Tammy Wynette and John Conley to current hitmaker Miranda Lambert (Barnes’ sound is somewhere between Swift’s twangier tunes and Lambert’s more pop-leaning fare). Establishing Nashville shots capture the rolling hills, local bars and civic institutions — think: Chamber of Commerce porn. Bluegrass legend Del McCoury cameos in the Opry hallway; CMA female vocalist of the year Pam Tillis and local songwriter Gary Nicholson appear in the Bluebird Cafe’s songwriters round. Even White, the eminence grise of measured reality, is played with gentle reassurance by iconic artist-songwriter Souther.
Like any great primetime soap, there’s more-than-merciless business shifting to drive the plot. Beyond the old guard being shoved aside by a bloodless industry only concerned with the money, local politics and high hormones bubble. A chilling Powers Boothe plays a vicious local powerbroker — and Jaymes’ father — intent on building a baseball stadium by destroying the emerging black political leader. His method: enlist his own spineless son-in-law, who naturally is resentful of his wife’s success and pining for his own time in the spotlight.
Bratty Barnes’ promiscuousness (one can assume) finds her bedding Jaymes’ producer, only to overhear unseen from his bed a late-night visit from the desperate superstar who tells the truth about Barnes’ lack of talent — heightening their already fraught dynamic. Never mind that the ingenue casts off the producer with a curt “don’t come here without calling” toward show’s end, only to straddle Jaymes’ bandleader after a shameless attempt to use money, sex and songwriting to poach him for her band after the Bluebird Cafe’s writers night.
Nashville might not have this amount of bed-hopping, but the jokes about AutoTune to fix can’t-sing newbies are real. Same goes for the bottom-line decisions made without regard to the long-term sacrifice or level of fame the now-middle-aged stars once provided.
“It wasn’t that long ago, I was the future of country music,” Jaymes laments to her bandleader/former paramour Claybourne. “And I’m not ready to hang up my rhinestones yet.”
Created by Grand Ole Opry head Steve Buchanan, this is the white-knuckle truth of a high-gloss industry reliant on old-guard superstars, now facing a new world order and merciless future. The power grabs, dejection and inevitable downsizing are portrayed full-tilt and to the hilt — and the season’s unraveling will no doubt provide humiliation aplenty, both through vocalizing what goes unspoken in a realm where fame, trajectory and money trump talent, reason and decency.
Tawdry, juicy, wicked, extreme: Nashville is everything that made Dallas and Falcon Crest must-see TV — but based in fact as opposed to pure fiction. Giddyap!
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