Arts blog: ‘Nashville represents an interesting new TV trend’

Hayden Panettiere. Picture: Getty
Hayden Panettiere. Picture: Getty
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THE two young co-workers are drawn to each other, but she has a jealous boyfriend. Their simmering tension is consummated, not with a kiss but with a song.

The harmonies and the glances between them are so charged that, by the last verse, the situation has changed forever.

The duet happens in the first episode of Nashville, a new drama coming to More4 next week, set in the first city of country music and drawing on local references to bolster its authenticity. The young lovers work at the Bluebird Café, an actual singer-songwriter venue, and the producer nodding sagely in the audience is played by the real-life producer of The Eagles, JD Souther.

Other locations like the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium appear, while the characters span modern country music: established star Rayna James is a Shania Twain or Faith Hill type, though her career’s starting to fade; brash Juliette Barnes is a pop sensation whose music is loathed by Rayna but loved by teenagers (think Taylor Swift); others represent alt-country, rockabilly, western revivalists and Southern Rock.

Nashville has its soapy elements, as the characters get embroiled in complicated relationships and political shenanigans. But at its heart, it’s a musical with mostly original songs (though that steamy duet is a cover of a Civil Wars number). Whether it’s Juliette gradually revealing her childhood traumas as she tries to write a more adult song, or Rayna and her guitarist ex proving there’s still a spark between them, the music drives the story forward.

It’s an interesting new trend for TV. While the success of Glee and its iTunes revenue stream is most likely why the networks are approving musical shows, the high school choir’s cover versions don’t always relate well to the characters’ storylines. Often, a popular song is forced in, so that Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know, a bitter rumination on the end of an affair, ends up being performed by a boy annoyed at his brother.

Last year NBC launched, with great fanfare, a new musical drama called Smash (shown here on Sky Atlantic). Produced by Steven Spielberg and set amid the creation of a new Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, it featured original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, the composing team who wrote hit show Hairspray.

Nashville takes the TV musical a step further by insisting that the songs are both sung by and “written” by the characters as a way to reveal their emotional states. The music producer is Grammy-winning musician T-Bone Burnett, who’s called in the likes of Elvis Costello and Gillian Welch to make sure they sound believable. He’s said he wants the series to revive the importance of songwriting and challenge the American Idol model of pop..

But for all the talk of authenticity, Nashville, like Nashville’s country music scene itself, is a business: the idea came from Grand Ole Opry mogul Steve Buchanan as a vehicle to sell new music, released on Taylor Swift’s record label. And six songs have been in the country music charts – with the most successful being Telescope, a cheesy pop hit sung by Hayden Panettiere as Juliette.

For those who don’t care for country music, the show probably won’t work, but it’s an intriguing concept. And if the trend continues, we could be seeing more musical dramas – an all-singing EastEnders, anyone?

• Nashville begins on 7 February on More4.