Despite positive advance reviews and strong names attached to it, the premiere of the ABC series "Nashville" last week was greeted with a fair amount of trepidation by many in the city's music community.
After all, the show has enormous potential to be dreadful: it's a nighttime soap opera on a major network revolving around the city's music business, with romance, intrigue, politics, backstabbing and, of course, a lot of music in the mix.
However, it's got a strong team, and -- in the first episode, anyway -- they've delivered a show that achieves the delicate balance of being both titillating enough to work as a network drama, but loaded with enough music-biz savvy, details and anecdotes (presumably) pulled from real life. Written by "Thelma and Louise" screenwriter Callie Khouri and with music overseen by her husband, star producer T Bone Burnett (Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack), the show centers on veteran country singer Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), whose career is faltering and who is faced with tough decisions in order to maintain the life and lifestyle she's grown accustomed to.
Not least among those is being coerced by her label to tour as the opening act (aka "co-headliner") for rapidly rising young star Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), who seems willing to tread on (or sleep with) anyone who gets in her way (or any man who can advance her already skyrocketing career). Powers Boothe is Lamar Wyatt, Rayna's estranged father and a political power broker, who persuades son-in-law and Rayna's husband, Teddy Conrad (Eric Close) to run for mayor of Nashville -- a move that locks both him and Rayna in her father's grasp.
Other characters introduced in the first episode include the musical director of Rayna's band and old flame, songwriter/guitarist Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), whom Juliet is trying to steal away; waitress/hopeful songwriter Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen), boyfriend Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) and co-writer Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson), who perform the Civil Wars' "If I Didn't Know Better"; and mayoral candidate Coleman Carlisle (Robert Wisdom).
Sounds pretty good, right? That's the opinion of more than a dozen people from the city's music community that Billboard.biz spoke with, nearly all of whom had seemingly genuine high praise for it.
"I feel this is the best depiction of the music business of Nashville, as I know it to be, that I have seen," said Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys, who's seen a thing or two: Broadly speaking, he's been both a Juliette (a member of the new group in town) and a Rayna (veteran performer).
"I know what it means to be a part of the first major tour -- with Dottie West and Kenny Rogers -- to sell out every major venue in the United States, and I know how important it is for a record label to showcase new talent with more established talent," he said. He also said he sees Rayna's label chief as protecting his investments rather than being cut-throat or cold.
He recalled laughing when he heard the show's contrasting descriptions of Rayna and Juliette's music. "When we were just breaking in, I heard that we were too slick, modern or rock, and as we grow older, I hear that our music no longer 'fits the format or programming.' So I related to the storyline. I also appreciated that there was a genuine attempt to honor the 'mother church' of country music, the Grand Ole Opry."
That latter sentiment was echoed by Jason Aldean, who said he caught a sneak preview of the show prior to its debut last week, and set his DVR to record it because he was out of town. He said he's hopeful about the series, although he is reserving judgment until he has seen the entire episode.
"Typically when they make movies or a show about country music or Nashville, the singers are so far from what it actually is in reality, it drives me crazy," he said. "The way they try to talk with a southern accent and how they dress and how Los Angeles and New York think country music is, is laughable to me.
"Honestly, I hope it's a show that will represent Nashville as it should be. We're not all a bunch of idiots here; we don't sit around on hay bales. That whole stereotype wears me out. I've seen Hayden at quite a few award shows and hanging around, so hopefully by doing that they will get an idea of what country music is really like."
Major Bob/Rio Bravo Music Publisher and longtime Garth Brooks manager Bob Doyle said he thought the show gave viewers a reasonably realistic look at the music business, as well as a great overview of the city.
"I had to laugh, [because] there is more drama going on in this town than they'll ever be able to tell," he said. "I thought they did a good job, considering the number of characters they had to introduce. I think what they've done is taken an industry, like oil in 'Dallas' and advertising in 'Mad Men,' and built stories around it."
Doyle, who will have a new song from his publishing company, "Telescope," featured in this week's episode of the show, also praised the multi-dimensionality of the characters. "There are a variety of ways that people interact with the Nashville community, including charitable giving and business relationships, and that's one of the things people outside of the town don't see."
Veteran manager Jim Halsey -- who has worked with Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, the Oak Ridge Boys and many more -- said he loved the premiere. "I thought it is a slice of life that we've all lived through, and we've probably known or been involved with someone exactly like the characters and people who were in the show. I thought it was very well written and the music was fantastic. The timing of the show and pacing of the show was so good. It's a hit -- it's got to be a monster."
Jody Williams, Vice President BMI, Writer/Publisher Relations Nashville, praised the show's depiction of the city and music business.
"The show exists to be a competitive major network TV drama," he acknowledged. "In light of any liberties taken to accomplish this, it's amazing what a thoroughly entertaining job Steve Buchanan and company have done to depict the realities of our business. Nashville is plenty cool and booming already, but there's no doubt in my mind that this will have a big and positive impact on our city and its signature industry."
Veteran music publisher David Conrad was brief but to the point. "It's pretty believable and the songwriting is good," he said. "I think it's a first-rate story with the characters and the back story. Plus they made the city look great!"
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A minor critical comment came from Charlie Monk of Monk Family Music Group publishers, who said he was disappointed that there weren't more recognizable stars playing themselves in the show, a la cameos along the lines of films like "The Player" or "Get Shorty." "If I had written it, I would have incorporated some major [country] stars into the script," he said, seeming to refer to "Not necessarily singing, but interacting with Rayna or some of the other characters backstage at the Opry or meeting them coming out of a record label meeting. I think the viewers who tuned in might have been expecting to see that star power, and it would have given it sizzle."
On the other hand, Monk thought Panettiere and Boothe were excellent in the portrayal of their characters. "Powers was dynamic and Hayden was a little more upbeat than Connie, of whom I'm a huge fan. There are a lot of characters to keep up with that were introduced in this first episode."
Thom Schuyler, whose songs have been recorded by Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbit and many others, said he was most impressed with the portrayal of the music business. "I know that the writer and producer, Callie Khouri, has had an insider's view of the business for many years and I believe she made every effort to offer an honest profile," he said. "Further, the fact that she broadened the plot to include non-music-business landscapes [like politics] is both wise and insightful and allows the public to appreciate 'Music City' for what it truly is: a lovely, forward-thinking, growing and important city in our country."
Howard Bellamy of the Bellamy Brothers, who also admitted to being a big fan of Britton, praised the casting. "Connie has a way of making her character believable in almost any role she plays," he said. "I especially like the fact that they used some classic country songs like 'Rose Colored Glasses' by John Conlee and 'Stand by your Man' by Tammy Wynette. It will take a couple of episodes for me to be an accurate critic, but overall I liked it enough to want to watch it again."
Hall of Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock called the show a "first-rate soap opera," but criticized a few of the minor details. "Just as doctors will find little odds and ends in 'Grey's Anatomy' that they don't think are authentic, I think the same could be said about local music biz people and 'Nashville,'" he said. "But overall, I think the show will probably be a hit. The cast and script are solid. There's really good singing and I especially like the Civil Wars' song, 'If I Didn't Know Better.' Also I love the Nashville cinematography, and I'm thankful that they don't have us going around barefoot!"
Mary Ann McCready, president of Flood Bumstead McCready and McCarthy Inc., praised ABC and Buchanan for keeping it real. "The city looked almost as attractive as it really is, and the script and the story line were themes that have actually occurred in country music," she said.
Dennis Lord, executive vice president of SESAC, said he thought the music was good but wasn't overjoyed with the way record executives were presented. "There are a lot of good record executives out there; not everyone is a jerk," he said. "I suppose things like that do happen. There has to be a bad guy in the script and I guess maybe it's going to be the record executive. I think you have to have some of that for the show.
"It's a little too soon to say if it depicts the biz or Nashville correctly, but I did enjoy it -- maybe because it's my hometown," he continued. "I enjoyed the acting and it was great to see friends in it for a second or two."
However, the most vivid comment may have come from Aldean/Rascal Flatts manager Clarence Spalding, who said, "I thought the show was fantastic: well written, the actors were very believable and I think the show is a huge hit." However, he concluded, "I do wish the writers would give the manager in the show a set of balls."
The second episode of "Nashville" airs Wednesday, October 17 at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC.