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ABC's new country music drama Nashville takes Music City to prime time. Will Nashville recognize itself?

Nashville Confidential

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The Bluebird Cafe has a new location. It's on a rather isolated hilltop overlooking Trinity Hills Park, 11 miles north of the Green Hills strip mall that houses the original — a hallowed hole in the wall that's the Nashville singer-songwriter's answer to The Cavern Club.

This new Bluebird is built on a soundstage deep inside a warehouse previously home to the Baker Curb Racing team. Aside from the slight change in scenery, it's a carbon copy of the original — all the way down to the airbrushed, overexposed headshots and framed gold records lining the walls (each placed in the exact same order). It even has the bluebirds embedded in the bar's wood top, as well as the paper disclaimers that say, "No recording, copyrighted material," and thank patrons for their support.

Don't expect to see house luminaries like Don Schlitz or Pam Tillis performing at this satellite club, though — unless they're appearing as extras in Nashville, the highly anticipated prime-time drama about "love, power, money, family and music" that premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, on ABC. Last month Entertainment Weekly crowned the show its pick for Biggest New Drama in its fall TV predictions.

"If this series isn't a hit, the industry should schedule a weekend retreat to re-examine what they think they know about TV," EW wrote. "[I]t's perfect for ABC's female-skewing audience, and programs that tout country music often draw huge numbers."

In a town that's spent half a century grappling with its image, such a statement might cue an eye roll. But the people behind Nashville's scenes want to get them right, and they plan to do so by filming the show here — at locations such as Lower Broadway, the Shelby Street Bridge and the Pinnacle building.

Toward that end, the cast and crew — whose pedigree includes Oscar, Grammy and Emmy wins and nominations — have been immersing themselves in the city's cultural trenches. But whether the world they create truly reflects the one Nashvillians know matters less than how the show's big budget and camera-wielding cavalry might ultimately change it.

Compared to the truck-stop-diner-bright Hollywood version in Peter Bogdanovich's Nashville-set 1993 dramedy The Thing Called Love, Nashville's faux Bluebird is a testament to the show's dedication to sweating the details. During shooting of the show's pilot last spring, ABC took a look at some dailies of The Bluebird and sent producers notes that the club was too dark for prime-time television.

Ask Nashville's writer and creative executive producer Callie Khouri, however, and she'll tell you that beyond the local landmarks and familiar places, what she'd really like to capture with absolute authenticity is Music City's modern identity — the one that includes the history of the Opry, the Ryman and, obviously, The Bluebird; the one that boasts Belle Meade mansions and high-powered, politically charged downtown real estate deals; and the one with a hipster-bohemia oasis The New York Times champions for its artisan cuisine and taco trucks.

"I want people in Nashville to feel like they're seeing their town," she tells the Scene. "I want them to feel like, 'Yup! They got it.' "

But Nashvillians are notoriously hard to please with depictions of the city — a case in point being the late Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville. Though critics and movie buffs revere the film — the Library of Congress even preserved it in the United States National Film Registry — Nashvillians at the time took its assemblage of retirees, country-bumpkin politicians and neurotic musicians as a stinging slap in the face.

"At the time it came out, people in the city found it insulting and inaccurate," AV Club film and television critic (and former Nashvillian) Noel Murray tells the Scene. "What's funny to me is that when I look back at it now, it does seem more like what I remember. To me, the Nashville of the '70s does seem like Robert Altman's Nashville."

Khouri, herself a former Nashvillian, does not want to insult the city, just keep the show real.

"It's important to me that people know that we are certainly there with deep respect and love for the city," she says. "We need to make a dramatic show, so there will be dark sides and light sides, [but] none of us are there with any intention besides totally honoring it."

Like Altman, ABC shot portions of its Nashville on location at the Grand Ole Opry House. In a scene in the pilot episode, set backstage at the Opry, lead character Rayna Jaymes — a Faith Hillian country singer (played by Connie Britton) whose superstar is fading — first meets her nemesis Juliette Barnes, a nubile pop-country cocktail of one part Taylor Swift and a fifth of Mindy McCready. She's played by Hayden Panettiere (Heroes). Tensions rise when the suits pressure labelmates Rayna and Juliette to take on a co-headlining tour together.

The Faith Hill comparisons to Rayna Jaymes aren't unfounded. "In the hair and makeup trailer, we definitely looked at a lot of pictures of [her]," Britton tells the Scene. Panettiere, on the other hand, contends that critics are way off the mark with their Swift comparisons, something that's clear after a single episode. (That's how long it takes Juliette to bed Rayna's producer and come on to her guitarist.)

"Taylor is known to be a very nice girl; she's known to be very lovely to meet and be around," Panettiere says of Swift, whom she's befriended since moving to town. "I laughed with her about the constant comments that the character is loosely based on her."

Not all the show's characters are so glamorous. Like Altman's Nashville, ABC's version also focuses on locations and characters in the city's funkier, more bohemian pockets. Where Altman took film fans to the Exit/In, ABC visits East Nashville's The 5 Spot, where in episode 2 pretty-boy indie-rocker Avery Barkley, played by General Hospital's Jonathan Jackson, serenades a room abuzz with scenesters.

As far as punching bags go, Avery is probably gonna take a lot of hits from local cynics. A character bio on ABC's official Nashville site describes him as ... easy, stomach ... "a dead sexy East Nashville hipster with tons of talent — and the swagger to match." His influences are Old 97's, Ryan Adams and Elliott Smith — and like them, the site snarks, he writes alt-country songs the critics will love "if they ever get a chance to hear them."

"East Nashville's gonna shit their pants, I just can't wait," says Richard Lloyd, an author and associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. "I figured they might as well just go ahead and drive the last nail in the East Nashville hipster coffin by putting an East Nashville hipster character on the show. ... As far as The Nashville zeitgeist goes, the last frontier has been crossed for the East Nashville scene."


And there's the rub. If Nashville hits a home run, it means the city's public image falls into the hands of the show's producers, ABC, Lionsgate Entertainment and the Gaylord Entertainment Co. The rest of America then gets to see Nashville through their lens, on their terms, even if East Nashville gets airbrushed along the way.

A good sign is a creative team led by Khouri, the Academy Award-winning writer of Thelma & Louise, and her husband T Bone Burnett, the show's executive music producer and co-composer, a figure with sky-high cred in both rock and country circles. What's more, the cast features Britton, a critics' favorite due for a breakout after her acclaimed roles on Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story, along with legendary character actor Powers Boothe as Britton's father, Lamar Wyatt, an iron-fisted J.R. Ewing-esque power player who strong-arms his son-in-law into a mayoral race.

Murray says most of his fellow critics who have screened the show's pilot are "generally pretty high on it," anticipating it as one of the fall's best new shows. That, he says, in addition to well-drawn, relatable characters, is more important for the show's success than accurately depicting Music City.

"It's very important for them to capture a version of Nashville that is true to the show that they're trying to make," Murray explains. "It's very important for people from Nashville not to get hung up on [nitpicky continuity flaws], or even necessarily if the show gets things wrong about the way the industry works."

In other words, the show being good and the show being "real" are not the same thing — Nashville is not to Nashville what The Wire was to Baltimore. That much is clear near the end of the first episode, when a music-biz bigshot ostentatiously whips out his cellphone during a Bluebird performance, with nary a peep (or shush).

"It's not a documentary," Khouri stresses. "We're taking whatever creative license we absolutely have to take."

In the pilot episode, as with most series introductions, that license consists mostly of exposition overload. What skeletons are in Rayna's husband Teddy's closet? Why does Rayna hate her father? Juliette's damage is that her mother is a meth head, right? These are the kinds of questions local viewers will be left with Wednesday night, not ones about how touring decisions are made on Music Row or what the chances are of Nashville getting a riverfront baseball park.

To the show's credit, however, those issues are in the episode as well. Reality television was always part of the show's DNA, according to Steve Buchanan, Gaylord senior vice president of media and entertainment and a Nashville executive producer. The popularity and inherent drama of prime-time singing competitions like American Idol and music-laden dramas like Glee inspired Buchanan, currently president of the CMA board of directors, to pursue a network series with a country music backdrop.

"In looking at the ability for musical performance to succeed in prime-time television, and looking at who was winning those shows, who was engaging the audience — many of them ultimately have become tied to Nashville and to country music," Buchanan tells the Scene. "Additionally, you have scripted television shows that are doing well with performance in them, Glee and Smash. To me, what was missing, truly missing, is the popular music of America today, which is country music."

Perhaps, but Nashville-set attempts to fuse film and TV drama with country music have not fared well. A 2007 Fox reality series, also called Nashville, received abysmal ratings — the lowest of the network's 2006-2007 season — and was canceled after two episodes. The 2010 film Country Strong, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow as a past-prime country singer not unlike Rayna Jaymes, received middling-to-poor reviews and little box-office. The Washington Post went as far as to describe it as a "disjointed drama ... so Lifetime movie-esque that it careens into unintentional comedy."

Buchanan, Khouri, producer-director R.J. Cutler — a veteran documentarian whose credits extend from the reality-TV series American High to the popular docs The September Issue and The War Room — and the show's cast are confident that Nashville will succeed where its predecessors have failed. They hope to avoid country caricatures in favor of realistic, compelling, contemporary characterizations of Music City.

Khouri knows Nashville well. She moved here after college and lived here until 1982, roughly a decade before Thelma & Louise.  She had her first wedding at Christ Church Cathedral and held the reception at the Belle Meade Plantation.

"It seems like Nashville has been its own worst enemy in terms of the kind of things it's willing to portray about itself," Khouri says. "Going back as far as the beginning of the Grand Ole Opry, there were artists who took great exception to the hillbilly costumes. There were some people engaged in what was basically a form of minstrel show about country people, or hillbillies and stuff like that. And I think Nashville knows that it's not that; it's easier to make fun of us, but then that image gets exported and that's how people will think of it."

Richard Lloyd thinks maybe they protest too much.

"I think the whole fear of depicting country music as Hee Haw that everybody carries around — I think we're past that now," Lloyd observes. "I think the new zeitgeist is that we've gotten over the Hee Haw thing."

"People don't understand Nashville," says Nashville producer Loucas George, whose credits include The O.C., Ed and Early Edition. Until recently, the native New Yorker counted himself among them.

"I imagined Nashville as being a smaller town, and I thought the Opry was probably, like, an old movie theater," George says. "When I went to The Bluebird and I saw it was in a strip mall, and what it looked like, I went, 'Ugh, somebody wrote about this because it's special to them but we're gonna have to change this. And once I got in and sat down to watch the first show, I realized, 'No, that's like trying to change Mount Rushmore.' "

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