'Nashville' Review: ABC Drama Digs Deep into Today's Conflicted Country Music Scene

'Nashville' Review: ABC Drama Digs Deep into Today's Conflicted Country Music Scene

In some respects, ABC’s new drama “Nashville” is your conventional prime-time soap.

In other, more important ways, the show is refreshingly original. 

That’s mainly because “Nashville,” premiering at 10 p.m. EST tonight, is set in the world of country music, and the network is clearly dedicated to getting that world just right.

For a long-time country music fan like yours truly, a show like “Nashville” is a pretty exciting development. The genre is a large and active one but hardly mainstream; in my experience, today’s average top 40 listener probably hasn’t heard of any country artists between Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift.

A show where key scenes are set in Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café, or where you might see a random guy standing around holding a banjo, or where someone drops a casual reference to the CMAs (no, not the Christian Motorcyclists Association), will have a lot of appeal for hardcore country fans.

Going beyond the small details, the makers of Nashville also clearly understand the dynamics of the industry. The show centers on the rivalry between fading star Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) and new crossover sensation Juliette Barnes (“Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere). After the initial face off that’s been in all the commercials–the one where Juliette sweetly implies that Rayna is over the hill–we get a substantial amount of character development that shows there’s more here than meets the eye (or ear).

Rayna, though warm and likable, is also stubborn and hot-tempered and doesn’t really appreciate her husband, Teddy. As he’s played by the appealing Eric Close (“Without a Trace”), this causes one to seriously question her judgment. And Juliette, despite her sex-kitten act and musical weaknesses–leading Rayna to quip that she has a voice like “feral cats”–has a surprising respect for tradition and a desire to grow as an artist. The relationship between them promises to be fascinating.

With these two as the leads, the show does a great job exploiting the tension between traditional and country-pop that lies at the heart of today’s country music industry. The songs that the characters perform are no more black-and-white than the characters themselves. Juliette’s songs are fun and catchy, and it’s easy to see why even Rayna’s young daughters enjoy them. At the same time, Rayna and her friends have genuine ties to and love for a great tradition that they fear will be lost if the Juliettes of the world take over. (The face Rayna makes while watching Juliette perform is worth a thousand words, most of which would be expletives.)

The show also hints at the struggle faced by today’s female country artists. Despite the major success of a couple of female crossover artists, lately the genre has been increasingly dominated by young male country-rockers who don’t go for a very wide range of topics.

It’s been said that nowadays, it’s easy to play country bingo: Fill your squares with “beer,” “truck,” “cutoffs,” “tan,” “dance,” and “tailgate,” and you’re guaranteed a quick win. In that climate, there’s been a steep decline in the number of female singers who have been able to make it to the top and stay there. Basically, if your name isn’t Taylor, Carrie, or Miranda, you’ve got an uphill battle ahead of you. (In a sly nod to this reality, all three of Nashville’s main female performers are blonde.)

Given all this, “Nashville’s” central drama gains poignancy, while perhaps at the same time signaling that listeners are ready for something different.

So what of the music itself? “Nashville” serves as a showcase for some of today’s best artists, thus far leaning towards neo-traditional acts like the Eli Young Band, Greg Bates, and Edens Edge. Hearing my favorite band playing in the background of a TV show was a new experience for me, and, I must say, an enjoyable one.

As for the performance scenes, capably handled by Britton and Panettiere, so far they’re pleasant but not all that memorable. But there’s one moment that suggests better things to come.

“Nashville” has its predictable stretches, and it’s obvious from the get-go that Clare Bowen’s shy young waitress, who just happens to write poetry in her spare time, will turn out to be the best singer-songwriter of them all. But it’s a treat to watch her get there, and to hear her sing the sweet, haunting “If I Didn’t Know Better” (even if duet partner Sam Palladino can’t quite match her).

Powers Boothe in Nashville

The song was actually made popular by country-folk duo the Civil Wars, but it fits the situation beautifully while heightening the drama.

The show’s weakest moments involve Rayna’s father, Lamar Wyatt. Veteran character actor Powers Boothe goes big, broad, and clichéd as a powerful political operator; he’s so over-the-top sinister he might as well have a mustache to twirl. As Lamar has just tapped son-in-law Teddy to run for mayor, his story line unfortunately isn’t likely to go away any time soon. But there’s more than enough juicy drama and good music in AMC’s “Nashville” to make up for that, and fans of both will have plenty of reasons to root for show’s success.