At the end of Nashville's last season, news broke that T Bone Burnett, world class record producer and husband to show creator Callie Khouri, would not be continuing as the music supervisor. I wrote in this space about how that could be a good thing. Though T Bone populated the show with some incredible songs to come out of characters like Scarlett and Gunnar, Juliette Barnes, and Avery Barkley, the Queen of Country Music character played by the incredible Connie Britton left a little to be desired. Okay, she left a lot to be desired.
Nobody can argue with Britton's acting chops. But as a singer, she was just not believable as the Queen of Country Music. Not for many music fans, I imagine, and certainly not for anyone who's ever set foot in the Ryman. I was hoping Buddy Miller and Frankie Pine would deliver more and better, and they have. Of course, most of it still hasn't come from Rayna James - she's been busy starting a label and bucking the status quo. The jury remains out on whether they're better able to choose great songs that a non-singer can nail. (Plenty of those do exist.)
But everyone around her is delivering songs I actually sort of want to own, if I can get around the buying-a-song-from-a-TV-show stigma. For starters, there's this gem, written by Cary Barlowe and based-in-real-Nashville duo Striking Matches (Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis).
The three-part harmony is what kills it, and the show did an exquisite job of picking tunes that these characters could have actually, believably written based on their storylines. The fact that it's not just a great song, but is a great song in the context of the show, helps. What's interesting to me about this season's storyline is the intertwining of stories between the Giant Pop Country Divas and the struggling singer-songwriters who bus tables at the Bluebird. Less a contrivance in order to beef up the soap opera (as it started to feel like last season), the stories are even more believable in the context of the actual music industry, where struggling singer-songwriters take gigs backing bigger-name artists, in order to pay their rent. At the heart, everyone's in it for the great music, so friendships form, unlikely collaborations rise up, executives either embrace them or clamp down on them, depending on how it feeds their star's image, and so on.
The sexy producer comes on to the earnest young songwriter who's far more honest than anyone else who comes into his studio, only to break it all off when he realizes it's gone too far. The closeted cowboy lets his sexual orientation eat him up on the inside, while his genuine feelings of concern for his fake girlfriend masquerade as the care of a lover. He's not ready to be the first gay heartthrob in country music, so he plays along. The sober-now guitar player gave up his singer-songwriter dream to back the woman he loved, whose career was taking off. Now he's got to sling it in dive bars with the kids from East Nashville singing harmonies behind him, finding his joy in the process. And so on.
It would seem the only salacious contrivances on the show are happening in the lives of the people outside of the music industry - Rayna's sister's bad behavior; Deacon's girlfriend and the mayor; and so on. The music, more than ever, has become the central force of sanity on the show. The further one gets from it, the more apt they are to wrestle with corruption.
Though the story has become more dominant than the music (it is, after all, network television, not off- off-Broadway, for better or worse), the songs that music supervisors Buddy Miller and Frankie Pine have chosen this season have been remarkably better. Gone are the weird and dark melodies put in the mouths of Rayna and Deacon, particularly, last season. Deacon's cannon of newly-penned originals come across as the career rekindlers that they're supposed to be, landing squarely somewhere halfway between the Truckers and Brad Paisley.
Where last season's attempt at art imitating life focused on a Civil Wars-like duo between Scarlett and Gunnar, this season is steering more toward a Dixie Chicks-style rebellion. Apolitical, granted, but Juliette Barnes finds herself courted by a Rick Rubinesque producer in LA, before ultimately deciding she wants to stay in country music. Her hubristic impulse that she can take mainstream country where she wants it to go (namely, more Americana, with her boyfriend's raw roots-centric mix of her next hit single) is, to my mind, one of the most interesting social commentaries on the show. Meanwhile in the real Nashville, up-and-comers like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark are doing their damnedest to swing Nashville's rhinestone compulsion back toward a little more honest grit. That this move could be successfully swung by a megastar feels a bit like fantasy, but it's the perfect storyline to explore on a TV show that actual music industry people watch as a guilty pleasure. No doubt someone in there knows their audience is as much Americana as it is AAA radio listeners.
Indeed, Juliette's version of "Not Ready to Make Nice" is a tune called "Don't Put Dirt on My Grave Just Yet," by Trent Dabbs and Caitlyn Smith. Dabbs has been discussed on this site as part of Sugar + the Hi-Lows, though his solo work deserves attention as well. Though Smith has helped supply other songs for the Barnes character to perform on the show, her solo work is pretty much the opposite of anything Juliette Barnes would ever play - stripped down and banjo driven, she's more listening room than arena tour.
Certainly, there's room for cynicism about Americana artists and up-and-coming writers feeding the machine of a major network television show. But if it serves as a sounding board, furthering the careers for some people who write great songs in real life, we can all have Buddy Miller to thank.