'Nashville' Season 5, Ep. 1 Recap: Three Chords, the Truth & Concept Albums

Mark Levine/CMT
Connie Britton and Deacon Claybourne in the season 5 premiere of Nashville.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times in country music’s favorite tale of one city during last night’s season 5 premiere of Nashville (sorry, Dickens). When we last saw the show’s motley crew of fictional Music City stars, they appeared to be approaching something like stasis: Maddie was back home, Gunnar and Scarlett were back together, Juliette and Avery had reconciled, and all the villains (Autumn, Layla, basically everyone else) seemed at least momentarily neutralized. Then, Juliette got on the plane and fans had to endure a six-month, potentially show-ending cliffhanger (though once we knew Hayden was coming back, it wasn’t quite as suspenseful).

Instead of returning to Juliette’s potentially fiery end, last night’s premiere kicked off with Rayna in “disguise” (aviators and a baseball cap) pulling a vintage Mustang off a dirt road to get gas at a station no less than half a century old. Why? Well, because as we find out later, Rayna -- despite her apparent wedded bliss (she and Deacon get it on no fewer than three times throughout the episode) -- is having a midlife crisis. For now, though, she’s struck by a blind man with a mandolin singing “Wayfaring Stranger” next to the gas station (very subtle song selection). The blind man thinks she’s too young to know the song but she does, because Rayna is Real Country, in case you hadn’t heard.

Then, we go back in time: three weeks earlier. It’s Juliette, stuck in the wreckage of the plane crash -- but there’s someone else there! An anonymous woman in a strangely prudish white dress finds her, and starts singing a hymn (yes, humble folks singin’ is a theme in this episode). Juliette, maybe about to die, is struck by how beautifully the woman is singing -- which makes sense, because it’s Rhiannon Giddens. After she’s rescued by Rhiannon, we flash forward to Juliette in the hospital. She’s broken her leg and smashed a couple vertebrae, and for now can’t walk or feel her leg. But, she can feel a toe! As the nurse says, it’s a start; expect the miraculous recovery sometime around sweeps. Juliette is skeptical, and the nurse tells her to “think good thoughts, it helps.” This is basically like asking Juliette to climb Everest in her wheelchair.

Rayna’s getting ready to go visit Juliette -- which, we learn, she’s been doing almost daily, much to Juliette's chagrin -- and fly to Silicon Valley to play for a billionaire named Zach Wells, who started an app called Boogaroo. (The app name is in line with the Nashville take on technology which, as we learn in this episode, skews Luddite.) There’s little indication of what the app does, but the kids apparently love it and Google bought it -- Maddie says something about it being used to track friends, which is a big ol’ foreshadowing alert. “What the hell do tech guys know about country music?” Rayna asks Deacon.

She goes to see Juliette, who is having a crisis of faith (understandably) post-crash, and explains to Rayna that was saved by an angel -- folks, this is CMT. Then, she gets an update from everyone’s favorite character: Bucky, who explains that between The Exes getting kicked off Autumn’s tour, buying Maddie’s contract back, and Rayna’s limited catalog sales, Highway 65 is in trouble. That transitions beautifully into Rayna looking beleaguered as she watches submissions that are too rock, too boring, and too twee -- extremely relatable for anyone in the music industry.

The billionaire has sent his plane, so Rayna’s flying private to that exotic locale known as Silicon Valley -- just like Juliette was (cue gasps). Rayna has a panic attack, and not even Deacon’s reassurances can soothe her. Something’s afoot, a trend that continues when she goes to the billionaire’s gala. He’s just so charming, and he got her a mountain of caviar for her green room, and... yeah, he’s pretty enthusiastic. When Rayna expresses doubt that anyone in the room will like her music, he responds, “You’re here for me"; often what someone says when they’re not creepy at all.

She plays her set, no one cares, and so the billionaire tech country fan gets to swoop in and offer to “buy her a drink” (he’s a billionaire and his charity event doesn’t even have an open bar?). They talk, and he goes in for the kill: “Why aren’t you recording anymore?” Rayna, flustered, mumbles something about demographics and streaming -- “Rayna hates Spotify” is one of the primary takeaways from this episode. “I don’t have anything to say,” she concludes, but Mr. Wells gets her talking about how much she loves Bill Monroe and his version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” and oh wow, it’s his favorite country song too. “Maybe you need to find a way to start shivering again,” he says, still not in the slightest bit lecherous.

Back at the hotel, she’s still all shook up, which makes sense since she spent the evening humoring a creep. She calls Deacon in the middle of watching YouTube videos of Bill Monroe and tells him she can’t get on the plane to go back to Nashville, that she needs to drive back. He shows up at her hotel, they bang (“You messed my hair all up,” declares a giggling Rayna -- a blatant lie, as only a Category 5 hurricane could mess Connie Britton’s hair up and Deacon can’t possibly be that good in bed), and nope, Rayna’s still not going on the plane. “I need to remember who I am,” she says, deciding to have an Eat, Pray, Love moment out on the road.

The James/Conrad/Claybourne family subplot is that Maddie is writing a song, and Daphne wants to help. Maddie is a #coolteen who doesn’t need help from her sister -- she wants to write a chorus that’s “emotional and plaintive” (no teen has ever used the word “plaintive,” but sure). Daphne writes a chorus for the song without telling Maddie, and then plays it for Scarlett and Gunner. Naturally, it’s transcendent. Maddie walks in and is pissed, Scarlett talks her down from the sibling rivalry ledge (“Being a creative person, you feel like a failure all the time,” she says, which is quite possibly the most real thing that’s ever been said on this show), and just like that the Stella sisters are back to their natural harmonizing state.

The other subplot concerns the return of Will Lexington, apparently the last bro country singer standing in Nashville. He’s back with Kevin the songwriter, but now there are hordes of groupie bros at all Will’s shows. He can’t even go out for a birthday dinner date with Kevin without being approached by “famous menswear designer” Jacob Fine, who flirts relentlessly and then blows out Will’s birthday candle. It seems sort of rude, but evidently Fine thinks it’s seductive: “I made a wish for you,” he says, with implications clear to everyone familiar with the classic song “Dick in a Box.”

Then Jacob invites Will to his trunk show. “I don’t even know what a trunk show is!” Will says angrily, but Kevin insists that he attends, in what’s clearly some sort of ill-advised fidelity exam. When he goes to the trunk show, Will almost escapes unscathed -- but after Jacob plies him with wine and a fancy sport coat, Will is about two millimeters from kissing him. Temptation! But he resists, and buys Kevin a coat instead. Will still feels guilty, even though he didn’t do anything, everyone tells him to relax, and instead he suggests that he and Kevin move in together -- thus, the stage is set for many a groupie to come. Maybe Marissa Cooper will make a surprise return.

In the middle of all this, Juliette makes Avery drive to the scene of the crash, then winds up finding the woman who saved her singing at a church (her voice is so distinctive she could discern it across the street, apparently). It’s gospel! It’s... people who are not white! This is the new Nashville, people get ready. Rhiannon sounds great, Juliette asks Avery to find her, and when he doesn’t seem enthused about trying to track down a woman he’s never seen whose name he doesn’t know, Juliette grumbles that she’ll do it herself. But a twist! The woman doesn’t want to be found, because she is “quiet,” as her pastor tells Juliette. Still, she tells him that she needs to speak to Rhiannon (who doesn’t?) -- her name, we learn, is Hannah Lee -- and leaves her info with him. A star is born, probably.

Rayna comes back from her vision quest glowy -- “On my trip, I got a lot of clarity,” she says, which makes it seem like one of the more revelatory parts was subscribing to Goop -- with a “big idea”: she and Deacon will do a concept album about their relationship! Deacon immediately blanches at the idea, but Rayna’s too excited to notice. Bucky is similarly skeptical, telling Rayna that she should do something commercial, or at least get an iTunes exclusive! This is the music business after all. But Rayna says, in paradoxical start-up lingo, that “nobody knows what works anymore,” and so she’s going to do whatever the hell she wants.

In the middle of all this, she gets a call from the now-inescapable billionaire (whose ringback tone is “Ride of the Valkyries,” another great sign) about how he’s coming to Nashville because he wants to get into the country music business. “I would love to hack your cloud about it,” he says, because buzzwords. If you couldn’t tell, Nashville writers are very savvy and also in tune with millennial lingo. Rayna’s still skeptical, and still hates streaming: “These tech guys destroy the business and then they think they can come back in and save it!” There is a 100 percent chance Zach Wells will try to buy Highway 65.

Deacon is still trying to tell Rayna that he doesn’t want to do a “concept album” (“She should do it with McGraw or Stapleton,” he tells Scarlett, because those are two people who are equally famous). Rayna pushes him, and pushes him, and then they get to the heart of the issue: Deacon feels emasculated and he doesn’t want to do everything Rayna wants to do all the time.

Instead, he agrees to do a record with a YouTube star named Ashley Willerman that Avery is producing -- Rayna is hurt, they fight, then they make up because he writes her a very pretty song, as it always should be. She thinks he sent her flowers, because they arrive with a card that says “You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved” -- but they are from the creepy billionaire. This is Nashville, and nothing gold can stay. But the concept album is happening!

As far as Gunner and Scarlett, all seems copacetic, but then it turns out they’re having issues because they’ve dated all each other’s friends. It is season five, after all. But they work through it, and Gunner changes the lyrics of their new single “All of You” to be about her, and everything is fine (for now).

Next week: Maddie meets a new guy, Juliette finds God, the friendly billionaire is probably a straight-up stalker, and the YouTube star is intolerable (surprise). Welcome back to Nashville, everybody!