First Published August 2013
‘NASHVILLE’ NEON SHINES BRIGHTEST ON PANETTIERE
I admit it. My very first thought upon hearing that a drama series based around the lives of fictional country stars in ‘Music City’ was planned was a very simple but definite one: oh no! My biggest fear, as someone who is a country fan from the proverbial dirt on my boots to the slight traces of red occasionally glimpsed on my neck, was how wrong they might get it. Whatever the intention to begin with, would it turn out to be a tears-in-your-beer, twang heavy, pick-up drivin’, rhinestone covered, yee-hawin’ cliche riddled type affair? And while I’m at this whole confessin’ business, I’ll admit to something else too. My fears over what was to come were in no way allayed by the revelation that Hayden Panettiere was signed up to be one of the show’s stars. Most famous for her role as the all-American, pretty and petite cheerleader Claire Bennett in ‘Heroes’, the New Yorker didn’t exactly somersault to mind as the perfect choice to best portray someone from a world a polar opposite to her Big Apple birthplace.
But you know what? I’m going to ‘cowboy up’ here and say this straight up and straight out: I was wrong. Very wrong. And on both counts! The late and legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard once quipped that country music is three chords and the truth. And ‘Nashville’, right from the get-go, has proven to be a huge hit for ABC. Every storyline so far has been infused with the kind of truths that not only country fans or industry insiders can relate to, but the kind of truths that are universal to a life in the world of music, almost regardless of the specific genre. And the music of the show not only serves to record (pun intended!) the highs and lows of the characters loves and heartaches, but for viewers on both sides of the Atlantic those songs are the ‘three chords’ that have helped to so quickly endear those characters to our hearts. All of which makes the announcement on May 10th last that ABC has renewed the show for a second season somewhat of a relief!
Created by Academy Award winner Callie Khouri (‘Best Screenplay Written Directly For The Screen’, for ‘Thelma & Louise’ in 1992), ‘Nashville’ premiered on ABC on October 10th 2012, gluing 8.93 million viewers to their seats and screens. The show has so far centred around two main themes; the rivalry between the mature, sophisticated and established queen of the rodeo Rayna James (played superbly by Connie Britton), and the young pretender to her crown, the wild and arrogant, though talented, damaged and vulnerable Juliette Barnes (a role Panettiere has excelled in bringing to life). The character of Rayna James is also a central figure in the show’s second main theme, that of her whatever-exactly-happened-between-those-two-anyway? relationship with ace session picker and ‘axe’ man ( that’s music for guitarist, mortals), Deacon Claybourne (again, perfectly cast in the form of Charles Esten). Fans of the show will know that part of that mystery was revealed towards the end of season one, climaxing in the dramatic final moments of the last episode. Combine the many talents of those already mentioned with Eric Close who plays Rayna’s husband and Mayor of Nashville Teddy Conrad, Sam Palladio who plays struggling songwriter Gunnar, and Claire Bowen who plays the innocent yet tough Scarlett, and it’s hardly a surprise that the show has been greeted with the critical acclaim it’s received.
At the 70th Golden Globe Awards, Britton was nominated for Best Actress while Panettiere was similarly honoured in the Best Supporting Actress category. At the 39th Peoples’ Choice Awards, ‘Nashville’ was nominated for Favourite New TV Drama, and at the 65th Writers’ Guild of America Awards it was nominated for Best New Series. Top all that off with a nomination for Most Exciting New Series at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards and the scale of the show’s impact starts to become apparent.
Of course a show based in Nashville and centred around the lives of country stars wouldn’t succeed with just good acting alone. Luckily then for creator Callie Khouri, she just so happened to have walked hand-in-hand down the aisle with no less a man than producer extraordinaire, T-Bone Burnett (producer to Roy Orbison, John Mellancamp and k.d.lang, Grammy winner for the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ soundtrack and for ‘Raising Sand’ with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and Academy Award winner for Best Original Song for ‘The Weary Kind’, from ‘Crazy Heart’). His sure hand and influence in the studio has resulted in two best selling albums from the show after just one season, ‘The Music of Nashville, Original Soundtrack’ volumes one and two. Previous commitments, however, such as the small matter of being the man at the desk for Elton John’s new album, mean that Burnett will not be the show’s musical director for season two. His successor, Buddy Miller (a gifted singer, songwriter and producer, who has toured with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, he produced the late Solomon Burke’s country album, also titled ‘Nashville’, and Patty Griffin’s 2010 album ‘Downtown Church’, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel album in 2011), however, is a perfect choice to maintain the quality and integrity of the songs showcased and expertly entwined into the lives of Rayna, Juliette and company. Speaking about this changing of the guard, Khouri remarked, “We’re going to do Nashville’s second season with Buddy and some of the other producers that we worked with. T-Bone set the gold standard for the show. His commitment to the quality of the music, the sound of the characters and all of that was something that we were lucky to get him for.”
The show also made a positive impact on the city of Nashville itself, bringing a reported 40 million dollar’s worth of revenue into the local economy. Season one was filmed on location in the city by the Cumberland River and this looks set to continue for season two and beyond. ‘Nashville’ executive producer and Grand Ole Opry Group President Steve Buchanan thinks this is the only way to go.”It makes sense for the show to be shot here, just in terms of what we do from a locations perspective, in trying to really portray the personality of the city and to give this show what no other show can easily have. But it is a very important economic decision. It will always be important for the city and the state to help support the show’s presence here.”
One of the locations which Buchanan no doubt had in mind is surely the iconic Bluebird Cafe, a near temple like venue for songwriters and song lovers, such is the reverence in which it is held. It defines ‘small and intimate’, but if you’re trying to pitch your songs to the stars then the Bluebird is the place to do it. On any given night you could find yourself shoulder to shoulder with a multi-million album seller on one side of you and the writer of countless number 1’s on the other. In fact, the Bluebird is such an intrinsic element of Nashville the city and ‘Nashville’ the show, that its whole exterior and interior has been replicated on a sound-stage for filming purposes. The Bluebird’s Chief Operating Officer Erika Wollam Nichols reported how, after the very first episode Of ‘Nashville’ featured an open-mic night at the cafe, attendances for actual real life shows there ballooned in size to three times the norm. Not only that, but so great was the interest sparked in the Bluebird by the show that fans began showing up all day long, even when the cafe was closed, just to peer in those famous windows!
Now every show, regardless of how stellar a cast is in place, tends to have one standout star, someone on whom the spotlight just naturally falls. For ‘Nashville’ that someone, perhaps surprisingly to many, is Hayden Panettiere. As I mentioned earlier, I would have counted myself amongst that group at first. But the truth is that Panettiere simply oozes class and charisma in the way she has brought the character of Juliette Barnes to life. So credit where it’s due, folks, and due it certainly is. Young, rich, beautiful, arrogant and selfish. Juliette Barnes is all of this and more! And as such, her character would be so, so easy to hate. And worse, the risk of her bringing absolutely nothing of value to the show could have been sky high. But that’s why the ‘and more’ part is so important.
Most famous for her role as Claire Bennett in ‘Heroes’, and after that probably for the character of Kirby Reid In ‘Scream 4’, Panettiere is much more than just a pretty face. Her talent as an actress is huge and deserves more recognition than comes her way. Having already displayed the courage to take on a role as deeply complex as that of Amanda Knox in ‘Amanda Knox-Murder On Trial In Italy’,
Panettiere again rises to the challenge before her as she shapes Barnes into a woman of so many real layers that empathy and affection for her, even at her most spoilt, is hard not to feel. That Panettiere has such depth, and indeed contradictions, to her own character in real life has undoubtedly proved useful in creating Juliette Barnes.
One of the clearest demonstrations of her strength of conviction happened before the eyes of the world back in 2007. 22,000 dolphins are slaughtered by Japanese fishermen every year. In the town of Taiji, Wakayama alone, 2,000 of these beautiful, gentle creatures are brutally put to death every season. In 2007, Panettiere was one of a group of six American and Australian surfers who joined with the Whaleman Foundation in an attempt to disrupt this annual dolphin hunt. The confrontation that followed can be witnessed on ‘The Cove’, the Sundance Film Festival award winning documentary. If you’ve never seen it, find it. It’s something that will stay with you. In an effort to put herself between the dolphin pod and the Japanese fishermen, Panettiere paddled out towards the pod on her surfboard but the fishermen actually used their boat propellers to block her way. At one point, they even lashed out dangerously with a boat hook. Some claimed Panettiere was just looking for attention and doing it as a publicity stunt. But the truth is those fishermen could not have cared less who she was. And if attention was all she craved, well there were a hell of a lot easier ways to get some!
Like it or not, she was there because she cared. And that’s something that I, for one, most definitely like and admire. For her activism in Taiji, Panettiere was awarded a ‘Compassion In Action’ award from PETA. One of the apparent contradictions in her own character, however, appeared in September of 2008 when she designed and launched her own range of calfskin leather bags for Dooney & Burke. This incident, combined with her short lived stint as a vegetarian, led to a lot of abuse being directed her way. And while the bag designing was a peculiar move, and certainly could be highlighted as being more than somewhat hypocritical, it shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the integrity of her stance in Taiji and the bravery of her action in that blood-red cove.
Many stars of stage, screen and indeed from elsewhere in public life too, are more than happy to accept their fame as its own reward. But Panettiere clearly sees her public profile as a means to bigger ends. Speaking about her role in ‘Heroes’ in a 2008 interview with ‘Teen Vogue’, she confided that, “The show put me in a place to speak for things that I’m passionate about.” In October of that same year she publicly backed Barack Obama in his presidential campaign and urged young people to engage with the political system by using their voice, in the shape of their vote, to create change. As a teen ambassador for the Candie’s Foundation (whose mission is to prevent teen pregnancies), Panettiere has also taken part in town hall style meetings in New York with Bristol Palin (daughter of former republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin) and Major League Baseball pitcher, Matt Garza.
So, what it comes down to is this: the 5ft 2in actress who wears the engagement ring of the 6ft 6in Ukrainian heavyweight boxer Wladimir Klitschko, is far from just a pretty face who can learn her lines. At only 23 years old she’s already displayed a steely determination that adds some serious backbone to some serious talent. The years to come, hopefully, will be filled with more of the same. Oh, and yes! She can sing too! And country music suits her vocal style perfectly, as evidenced by her performances on ‘The Music of Nashville’ volumes 1 and 2, from series 1. Back in 2008 she released a pop single, ‘Wake Up Call’, but her time as Juliette Barnes has definitely faced her down a different musical path if recent comments in an interview with Chic magazine are any signpost of what her future might hold. “I’d love to do more country”, she confessed, adding, “My only fear is that people won’t be able to differentiate between Hayden and Juliette – and sometimes it takes time for that image of Juliette to escape from their minds.” Oh that it does, oh that it does. But you do the singin’, Juliette…er, I mean Hayden, and we’ll be here to do the listenin’!