You'd think the sparkly, strapless minidress now on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum came from the closet of Taylor Swift; it's proving to be a magnet for tween girls. They press in to see it up close — as close as the glass partition will allow — with a level of excitement that indicates it's been worn by somebody they're really into. And it has. During an episode of ABC's Nashville, Juliette Barnes (played by actress Hayden Panettiere) strutted across the Ryman stage in that hot little number. The thing is, she's a compelling and believable enough country-pop diva on the small screen to attract these tweens' off-screen fandom.
Nearby there's also a sequined cocktail dress, worn by Connie Britton in her role of veteran hit-maker Rayna Jaymes, and a framed No. 1 poster celebrating the success of the duet that Jaymes and Barnes were strong-armed into writing and performing together in another early episode. The fact that those and several other artifacts from Nashville are being featured in a spotlight exhibit (open since April 5) — which certainly didn't happen with Robert Altman's Nashville, the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Country Strong or any number of countrified reality shows — says something about the show's perceived relevance to country music.
"One of our roles as a museum is to report on what is going on in the world," writes museum director Kyle Young in an email. "The art form we are chronicling — country music — isn't static; new history is literally being made every day, and it's important that we not only examine the past, but also offer a snapshot of the present: What's currently influencing country music and vice versa? What may be part of tomorrow's history?"
When Nashville claimed its Wednesday night slot in October, TV critics compared it to Dallas, which worked only to a point. After all, people could watch Dallas without learning a damn thing about the Texas oil industry, but anybody tuning in to Nashville has been exposed to label meetings, studio sessions, tour rehearsals, No. 1 parties and industry showcases. It's a prime-time soap to be sure, with all the sexual tension and disastrous in-the-throes-of-passion decision-making that implies, plus it sometimes lays it on a bit thick where the biz is concerned — like when 5 Spot regular Avery Barkley got discovered, got a vintage Mustang from his label head and got a six-figure advance from his publisher in no time flat. Still, Barnes, Jaymes and other music-making characters are constantly shown navigating very real career quandaries.
Half a century ago, the country music industry was concerned with establishing its respectability and broad commercial appeal and, concurrently, emphasizing the upward mobility of its downhome audience. Nowadays, outsider skepticism about the genre probably tends to be at least as rockist as it is class-based; that is, those still biased toward the concept of sonically challenging, self-expressive, artist-statement albums may operate under the false assumption that contemporary country is strictly home to entertainers who are all grooming and costuming and no substance.
When it comes to analyzing the music of Nashville, there's a fairly broad consensus that most of the songs on the show are pretty far away from the arena-size singles that country radio plays. That idea has surfaced everywhere from a quote BMI's Jody Williams gave The City Paper's Abby White last year, to a Jon Caramanica piece in The New York Times.
Caramanica, who consistently covers the genre, astutely pointed out that "the real showstoppers on Nashville have been small songs, sung closely, in intimate rooms." Indeed, a lot of the songs — including those on the show's second soundtrack, due out May 7 via Big Machine — are breathless, confessional, roots-pop duets sung by pairs of characters, like Jaymes and old flame/guitarist Deacon Claybourne and co-writing, moony-eyed lovers Scarlett O'Connor and Gunnar Scott. Those songs help the plot along, but they're also in step with the private-moment-made-public duet performance style popularized by The Civil Wars.
The Scene asked Caramanica, via email, what sort of connection he sees between this privileging of smallness and the popular narrative that blames country's Garthian early-'90s boom for altering the scale by which success is measured in the genre. "Bigness is ostensibly the enemy on Nashville," Caramanica replied. "Institutions — from big record labels to the government — aren't to be trusted. This feels like a reply to country's mega-pop ambitions of the last couple of decades, from Garth through Taylor. But rather than inveighing ceaselessly against the tide, the show deploys a special trick: humanizing its king-size characters as much as its indie strivers. On Nashville, even the biggest stars wish that, deep down, they could be small again — and with that, all their pop sins are forgiven."
Considering how reductive and artificial a tidily polarized pop vs. authenticity take on music can be, the humanizing aspect of the show is significant. Thanks to ABC's commitment to spotlighting the real-life songwriters behind Nashville's T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack — a couple generations of introspectively inclined Music Row tunesmiths and Americana fixtures — it's no mystery who wrote the songs. But on the show, everybody is capable of sitting down to work out verses, choruses and bridges that articulate what they're feeling.
Besides confirming that given the proper exposure, songs built to a humbler scale can easily break through on the iTunes charts, Nashville actually portrays its country stars having brains and complex desires of their own. From Jaymes' not-especially-high-energy concert scenes, you get the sense that she might be more at ease in the Bluebird than super-sized venues. Barnes, though, doesn't seem to be pining for the small old days; she wants it both ways. And it became a lot harder to dismiss her as a pre-packaged pop tart once she started pursuing self-determined artistry without hanging up her commercial ambitions. Or her minidresses, for that matter.