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Commentary: Steamy 'Nashville' gets the music right

Posted 7:00pm on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012

Watch any commercial for ABC's new hit series Nashville, and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a torrid, inane soap opera -- a show about country music people constantly fighting, scheming and/or sleeping together.

It is and it isn't.

While I understand sex sells, using it to hawk Nashville strikes me as a classic case of ignoring your greatest asset: a surprisingly candid look at the music business, shot through with genuinely great country music. That's not to say the series, created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise), doesn't have its share of Machiavellian power struggles, steamy love scenes and tense confrontations.

But what has hooked me over the course of the show's first five episodes is that the characters, apart from their pulpier moments, feel authentic and grounded in a world of making music that's extraordinarily difficult to get right. The characters are relatable, in large part, because their songs are.

Nashville is easily the most high profile, mainstream piece of TV entertainment about the music business in some time. It manages to convey the daily grind of the music business -- the lucky breaks, the hard work and the unforgiving winds of change. (I don't quite count HBO's underrated Treme, which deftly chronicles life in the trenches for New Orleans musos, since it's on cable.)

Nashville focuses on fading legend Rayna James (Connie Britton), whose reign as one of Music City's biggest stars is being threatened by young starlet Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). Caught in between the two is veteran sideman Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), while the dysfunctional James clan, headed up by Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), is enmeshed in all sorts of political intrigue.

Khouri, the top-shelf cast and her staff of writers and directors smoothly juggle the various plot threads, while also including a small universe of ancillary characters, like struggling songwriter Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen) and her brooding boyfriend Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson), who connect with legendary producer Waddy White (J.D. Souther).

But what unifies the show is its terrific soundtrack, which is overseen by Khouri's husband, the Fort Worth-reared producer T Bone Burnett. (It's no coincidence that he had a hand in 2009's Crazy Heart, the last feature film to vividly and accurately capture backstage life.)

Burnett, working from real-life demos from musicians like Kacey Musgraves, Tyler James and the Civil Wars' John Paul White, applies his sharp, curatorial ear to what Nashville sounds like right now. He doesn't simply give into glossy pop -- shades of Taylor Swift or Lady Antebellum -- nor does he fall too far into the folk revivalist camp.

Instead, he provides a middle ground, where smart songwriting coexists with commercial considerations, and the result is a dazzling feat: songs often advance Nashville's plot while managing to obliquely comment on it, and the audience's intelligence isn't insulted by ham-fisted musical choices.

The fact that so many of Nashville's fictional singles are enjoying real success -- four are in the top 50 of iTunes' Most Popular Country songs chart -- only reinforces Burnett's contribution. Other musically driven series like Glee or Smash treat their songs as just another potential piece of the profit pie; Nashville considers them as integral to the show as costumes or camera lenses.

So don't be fooled by the sexy ads or the promise of an intergenerational cat fight. That's just what gets viewers in the door.

What hooks them, and keeps them coming back for more, is Nashville's never-ending stream of exceptional music -- and a smart, honest look at how it gets made.

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