Updated Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 07:01 AM
“Nashville,” the salacious drama about the country-music business that had its premiere on ABC in October, has been fastidious in capturing the city’s details: the petty and shortsighted intergenerational squabbling, the paunchy managers with sport coats the color of drywall, the awful fonts on the album covers. This Nashville is a city of flash, which valorizes fame and arena-size ambitions and the machines at work to make those things happen.
But the real showstoppers on “Nashville” have been something else: small songs, sung closely, in intimate rooms.
There was “If I Didn’t Know Better,” the breathy, naughty duet sung by Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) at the Bluebird Cafe that kicked off their songwriting partnership. Later in the season came the tragic “No One Will Ever Love You,” sung by the superstar Rayna James (Connie Britton) and her bandleader-guitarist-ex-boyfriend Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), also at the Bluebird, in what was presented as a return-to-form moment for artists who’d been through the pop wringer.
Those songs are among the standouts on the official “Nashville” soundtrack album (on Big Machine), which was released Dec. 11. (Songs have also been released to iTunes each week over the course of the season.) And in the show these performances were shot lovingly, and delicately, an implicit argument for the city’s small-batch, handmade traditions, and a counterweight to the drama that inevitably comes with scale. Or maybe it’s just an old-fashioned argument about authenticity, skillfully executed.
For a show that features two rival country superstars as centers of gravity — Rayna James and the teenage phenom Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) — “Nashville” certainly privileges the small. A look at the credits explains why: The soundtrack producer is T Bone Burnett, one of the most dedicated roots-oriented producers in the country, and one of the executive soundtrack producers is Buddy Miller, one of Nashville’s many great left-of-center singer-songwriters. They also produced several of the songs on the show.
Given the influence of Miller and Burnett it’s no surprise that “Nashville” is a sneaky front for traditionalist values. (It may also be an unspoken rejoinder to the reality docudrama of the same name that was broadcast on Fox for two episodes in 2007 before being canceled.) Nashville is a city that resists modernizing except when its arm is twisted; that’s captured in the story line about Juliette, which borrows bits of Taylor Swift’s biography (pink cowboy boots make an appearance) but also some things from Miranda Lambert. That also serves as the shadow narrative of Rayna, a Faith Hill-like superstar in search of new mojo who chooses to work with a heavy-drinking rock producer on new music, much to her label’s chagrin. It’s also a blow against the soap-opera-handsome Deacon, who’s been sober for years, and who serves as this show’s moral and musical center.
Even Juliette is revealed to be a traditionalist in one of the early episodes in which she courts Deacon, both musically and sexually, in part by presenting him with a rare 1938 Martin 00-42 guitar. She also dreams of playing at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville’s hallowed stage, though in the real world there’s no way a singer of her success wouldn’t have already done so.
That’s the Nashville this show privileges, though — tradition-minded and suspicious of outsiders. The soundtrack goes out of its way to ground the show in the city’s un-flashy side. The alt-country Allison Moorer sings background vocals on one song, and the perennially almost-made-it Sarah Buxton on another. The recordings feature well-regarded Nashville musicians like the mandolinist Sam Bush, the fiddler Casey Driessen and the guitarist Ilya Toshinsky. In one episode the local roots rocker Lindi Ortega appears to spoil Avery Barkley’s (Jonathan Jackson) dreams of opening for the Lumineers.
But these are insider references on a show that is more “Desperate Housewives” than “Austin City Limits.” When Miller and Burnett make music for Rayna and Juliette, they rely on musical density and heavy Auto-Tuning, which falls somewhere between a true-to-life representation of pop-country and a critique of Nashville’s center, a not-so-subtle assault on the town’s mystique. If a bunch of actors (some with formal musical backgrounds, some without) can come along and, in the right hands, make music as credible as the people who get paid to do it as a career, then has the music been devalued? That’s a case only an outsider would make.
With that in mind, one of the slickest choices on this soundtrack is the inclusion of “Telescope,” which on the show is one of Juliette’s big hits; she’s shown filming a big-budget video for it that brings traffic to a standstill, including a car Rayna is driving. Metaphor much?
But that song is also sung by Rayna’s two daughters at a school talent show, the original’s dense pop arrangement forsworn for an acoustic treatment with a lone guitar and handclap percussion. (Seemingly everyone on the show has a daughter or a young sister who’s a fan of Juliette, one of this show’s smart twists.)
Rayna’s daughters are played by Lennon and Maisy Stella, Canadian sisters whose parents perform as the Stellas (they appeared on the CMT reality competition “Can You Duet”); the sisters have a YouTube channel of their own in which they cover songs by moody female singers, including a cover of a Robyn song that verges on a Tune-Yards performance.
Their version of “Telescope” is striking — one of the great performances on the show, and also on the soundtrack. The album also includes the original version sung by Panettiere, at the end, under the name “Telescope (Radio Mix),” those final two words like a graffitied-on insult. But even though it’s rowdy and sassy and polished — or maybe because of that — it’s great. Not even “Nashville” can derail Nashville.
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Connie Britton and Eric Close in an early December episode of ABC's "Nashville."