The breakout star of ABC’s new hit country music drama, Nashville, isn’t Hayden Panettiere, who plays up-and-coming new country star Juliette Barnes, nor is it Clare Bowen, playing the doe-eyed and jaw-droppingly talented new songwriter Scarlett O'Connor. Instead, the music of Nashville has been stealing the spotlight, one week at a time, powered by each actor's voice and the steady hand of the show’s executive music producer, T Bone Burnett — and a little help from some Canadian friends.
Showrunner and writer Callie Khouri, the woman behind Thelma & Louise, and married to Burnett, has created a drama that follows the ins and outs of Nashville’s fictional stars, with equal attention given to the soundtrack as to the story and city that bears the show’s name. Nashville’s episodal music rings different from current pop country radio, utilizing lesser-known songwriters to write made-for-the-show songs, such as Trent Dabbs and Kacey Musgraves on "Undermine," as well as covers of songs from artists such as the lady of Americana, Gillian Welch.
Sam Palladio (playing Gunnar Scott) and Bowen covered "If I Didn't Know Better" from the (technically defunct) Civil Wars, a stunning addition to the pilot.
And now Big Machine Records, the label behind Taylor Swift and the Band Perry, is releasing Nashville’s first soundtrack disc on Dec. 11. That’s a lot of musical weight behind a show that just aired its winter finale, after only eight episodes.
While there are primarily American names behind the series — Burnett and right-hand music man Buddy Miller sit up top — it doesn’t take long to find integral Canadian names behind the American brand.
Veteran bluesman Colin Linden, member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, has his fingerprints all over behind-the-scenes Nashville. A friend of both Khouri and Burnett, Linden was asked by the latter to play on the Blind Lemon Jefferson track “Matchbox Blues” in episode two, making a (vocally) silent appearance as a member of Deacon Claybourne’s band (played by Charles Esten) in the same episode, performing at real-life venue the Bluebird Café.
But, that’s not where Linden stops.
“One of the coolest things is they hired me to be guitar coach for several of the actors,” Linden explains, over the phone from a tour bus in Sault Ste. Marie, away from his Nashville home. He adds that he specifically coaches Esten and Palladio.
“All of the actors do all of their own singing, and they’re extremely musical so for me, my role in terms of coaching them isn’t so much teaching them to look like they’re playing, although that is part of it, but it’s just kind of showing them how to do it, how to play the particular songs they’re playing.”
Linden has done quite a bit of work on film soundtracks, including O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Hunger Games, work that he says came through Burnett. This is the first time Linden’s done music for television, and he partly credits it to the specific sound that Burnett and Khouri are creating.
“The music on the show,” he says, “it’s mainstream music in a lot of ways, it’s very accessible music and people are responding to it so well.”
“You know, sort of a really high quality of songwriting or a really high quality of playing,” he later continues. “There’s just all kinds of interesting music that the show reaches that is maybe a little bit more left of centre, or a little bit further afield than what’s going on in country radio.”
Lindi Ortega, the Toronto-raised and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter, is on the same page as Linden — and not because he produced her latest album, Cigarettes & Truckstops.
“There’s two different ideas of what country music is these days,” says Ortega. “And it’s an interesting show in that it’s exploring the whole world of the commercial country starlet, I guess if you will. But it really does showcase a lot of that indie talent and stuff that isn’t straight-up new country but maybe would be considered an homage to old-timey country or old-school country or alternative country … and I love that a show like this is allowing a platform for both kinds of country music to exist.”
Ortega played herself in episode six of Nashville, as the musician who beat out Avery Barkley’s band (played by General Hospital’s Jonathan Jackson) to be the opener for the Lumineers (who did not make an appearance, for the record). She and her band performed Ortega’s single “The Day You Die,” and the show has also used two other of her tracks.
Despite the obvious Colin Linden connection, Ortega forged her own path onto Nashville. Before moving to the city, the Ontario native performed a house session in L.A. for music supervisor Frankie Pine of Whirly Girl Music, who also works on the ABC show. After running into Pine at a house party months later, Ortega got the Nashville call.
“It’s nice for shows like this to sort of trail blaze a way for artists like me to get a platform or a footing in this business and, you know, show that we’ve got something to offer too, and we can also operate on that level as well,” Ortega says.
Lennon and Maisy Stella, 13 and eight years old, respectively, got a taste of that Nashville trailblazing, as the show gave the two Oshawa-Whitby-raised girls their prime-time debut. The sisters play the daughters of the show's leading lady, Rayna James (Connie Britton), but are the real-life daughters of Canadian husband-wife duo Marylynne and Brad Stella, a.k.a. the Stellas. The family moved south to Nashville in 2009, and Lennon and Maisy have both been singing, as Lennon puts it, “since birth.”
The younger Maisy auditioned for the part of Daphne James, and when it was discovered that she sang, as did her older sister, the girls’ YouTube channel proved a useful talent showcase.
Both Maisy and Lennon got the Nashville parts, and while the girls were trying to get the required press for their working visas in the States, they posted their now viral video, a harmonizing cover of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” complete with percussion on empty butter containers. The video has reached more than 11 million hits so far.
Talking to the girls over speakerphone from their home in Nashville, it’s clear they’re ecstatic at getting to both act and sing on the show. Their recording of the song “Telescope,” played at a talent show in the Nashville universe, is included on the show’s upcoming soundtrack.
Asked if anybody in Nashville knows where Ontario’s Oshawa-Whitby area is, though, Lennon’s to the point.
“No,” she responds. Then she laughs.
“That’s why we say ‘Just outside of Toronto,’” adds Maisy.
“There’s, like, one in 40 that knows where that is,” quips Lennon. Given a little time, Nashville, the TV show, should help with that.
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