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posted: 10/8/2012 6:00 AM

ABC's 'Nashville' aims to strike a chord with viewers

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  • A country superstar (Connie Britton) struggles to stay on top in ABC's "Nashville" premiering Wednesday, Oct. 10.

    A country superstar (Connie Britton) struggles to stay on top in ABC's "Nashville" premiering Wednesday, Oct. 10.

By Emily Yahr
The Washington Post

Shortly before ABC's new music-themed drama "Nashville" was set to begin filming, the producers had a problem: Three moments in the pilot needed musical numbers, and absolutely nothing fit. When one person wanted to cave and just use songs that sounded "good," the others immediately shot that down. Good wasn't good enough.

Around that time, before they were officially in panic mode, series creator Callie Khouri and executive producer R.J. Cutler were at the legendary Bluebird Caf in Nashville, listening to more music, when Khouri received an email from her friend John Paul White. White, of folk duo the Civil Wars, sent three songs -- would any of them work?

All three, as it happened, were perfect.

"Somehow, each one of these songs miraculously hit the bull's-eye, threaded the needle -- whatever metaphor you want to use -- in a way that no other of the hundreds of songs we heard had been able to," Cutler said. "We couldn't believe it. Seriously, we were like, 'What just happened?' That's gotta fit in the category of a television miracle."

Cutler's story explains a lot about why the pilot of "Nashville," a drama about the unique and cutthroat culture of Music City, immediately stands out among the other musical shows in prime time. Even if it comes down to the wire, no one on the show -- debuting Wednesday, Oct. 10, -- will settle for simply "good enough."

With Khouri's husband, famed record producer T Bone Burnett, signed on as executive music producer, the show is infused with a gripping authenticity that can only come from people with intense passion for the music world. As a result, "Nashville" is poised as a breakout hit among this year's new fall shows.

ABC is marketing the series as a battle between old and new, and maybe that is the sexier spin. Connie Britton stars as Rayna Jaymes, an adored country music legend whose iron grip on the charts is starting to loosen after several decades. That's thanks to twentysomething country-pop crossover sensations like Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, who has a sweet smile but boasts a nasty streak. The new president of their record label comes up with a great idea: Send Rayna and Juliette on tour together, with Rayna as the opener.

While the Rayna versus Juliette story is the main plot driving the pilot, the show itself provides an additional hook through an incredibly detailed portrayal of the music scene, one that goes beyond country music -- which is what most people think of when they hear "Nashville." Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Thelma & Louise," lived in Nashville, and has a deep appreciation for the city's one-of-a-kind music culture.

"We've seen a lot of caricatures of Nashville, but we've never really seen the actual place as it is," Khouri said. "People think of country music because that's the product that's exported from there. But there's actually a wide range of music and incredibly talented musicians of every description ... It's a unique city with a lot of different layers."

Burnett agrees a big draw for the project (besides wanting to work with his wife, Khouri) was the chance to broadcast traditional American music to the mainstream.

"The reality of Nashville is that it's the most robust and thriving music scene in the world," said Burnett, a musician who has been producing albums for decades and worked on films including "Walk the Line" and "Crazy Heart," for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Song.

So far, he and the "Nashville" team have worked to incorporate all kinds of music, from Costello to Ray Price to their pals the Civil Wars. Praising the musical talent of the cast, Burnett said that Jonathan Jackson, who plays an aspiring singer/songwriter on the show, wrote one of his own songs for his character.

Mixed in with the drama between the veteran and rookie singer (Juliette thinks Rayna's old and past her prime; Rayna thinks Juliette's voice sounds like "feral cats"), many other stories fill the "Nashville" pilot. There's Rayna's issues with her manipulative father (Powers Boothe); Juliette's drug addict mother; the love triangle between Rayna, her husband, and Deacon (Charles Esten), her band leader and ex-boyfriend; and the curious case of Scarlett (Clare Bowen), the shy poet who might just be a brilliant songwriter. Plus many more.

Khouri says some episodes will focus more on other plot lines, and there's no requirement to have a certain quantity of music -- characters won't break into song because the show needs to fill a soundtrack.

"The thing about the music in this show is it's always part of the very real fabric of what's going on," Cutler said. "There's a large cast of characters, many of whom work in the music industry ... and so it's part of this very realistic presentation."

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