First Published September 2020
A LIFE OF MUSIC & INFINITE BLESSINGS
The hit U.S. tv show NASHVILLE ran for six hugely successful seasons, winning fans all around the world in the time between when its first episode aired on the ABC network on October 10th, 2012, and the grand finale which came our way via CMT on July 26th, 2018. Based around the lives of several country music stars and stars-in-the-making, Nashville quickly became more than just a tv show. With all of those cast in leading roles blessed with musical as well as acting ability, Nashville took on a life of its own away from the tv screen, with each season also bringing to life several albums of original music from the show.
It was almost inevitable that this music would eventually take to the road, and indeed it did, beginning with tours in America in 2014 and 2015, before eventually finding its way to these shores in 2016, 2017, and again in 2018. If what happened on our tv screens made stars of the cast (even bigger stars in the case of Hayden Panettiere, ‘Juliette Barnes’), the magic that was made in the recording studio (overseen firstly by T-Bone Burnett and then by Buddy Miller) and then recreated on-stage, made them superstars. And none more so than the man who walked in the boots of ‘Deacon Claybourne’, CHARLES ESTEN. A singer/songwriter in real-life too, Charles quickly became one of the show’s most beloved figures, thanks to the intrigue, romance, and ultimately no small measure of sadness involved in his relationship with ”Rayna Jaymes (played by Connie Britton), and as the uncle of ‘Scarlett O’ Connor (played magnificently by Clare Bowen, whom we’ve been lucky enough to interview twice for OTRT). Nashville may have come to an end, but for Charles Esten, the music plays on. And how thankful we all are for that. In fact, Charles has just recently released his new single, SWEET SUMMER SATURDAY NIGHT, and I had a chance to sit down with the man himself to have a chat about it all the other week.
Amazingly, the day of our chat was also his birthday. So I began by first asking Charles why on Earth he was spending part of his birthday talking with some random Irish guy?!
“[Laughs] That’s my present! That’s what I asked for! I said, I would like to speak to a random Irishman on my birthday, and here we are [laughs]. I’m very grateful that you knew that [laughs]. And I’m happy to talk to you, don’t worry about it.”
On then to that new single, Sweet Summer Saturday Night. There’s a lovely kind of bittersweet, end of summer but all is well kind of vibe about the song. I asked Charles what he wanted to give to his fans with this one…
“Well, I think, if we’re gonna be honest, we haven’t had that many sweet summer Saturday nights this summer. So before this all happened, I cast my mind back to what that meant to me. And for me, when I was younger, and when I was growing up in high school and getting together with my friends and going out to find where the girls were! And getting to sort of hang out with them. This tries to evoke that as much as possible. And like all songs of that nature, it tries to do it in a bit of a watercolour way, with some particular details here and there, and some other ones that maybe you share. So it might not be exactly my sweet summer Saturday night that you’re remembering, but you’re hopefully drawn back to one in your memory as well. It’s an odd time to be releasing music, because you’re either gonna be dealing with the complexities and difficulties of all this, or I think you want that other kind of song, the escapist song, that takes you somewhere else. And this is the latter, for sure. Music’s been able to do that for me during all this, so I’m hopeful that maybe I can help someone else do that as well. Take a little trip back in time!”
Because it is such an odd time to be releasing music, I wondered if Charles faced any kind of dilemma over what type of song to put out there?
“Well that’s it. I knew I was either going to do something that gets right – in as much as I can – to the heart of this, it’s such a hard thing to decipher. Initially when all this started happening, all the lockdowns, it takes a second to even process how you’re feeling about something. Sometimes the writing comes before the processing, and is part of the processing. But in other times, there was just something about this [‘Sweet Summer Saturday Night’] that I thought really was a breath of some fresh air in the midst of all this. It was an outdoor song, it’s by the water, it’s being with friends, she’s sippin’ on a beer…it was just all of these things, so I thought let’s get out of the house! Let’s go somewhere special, and just be with some old friends. It was either or, and that’s where I landed, for sure.”
Staying with birthdays, and going back to an earlier part of Charles’s career, the amazing Buddy Holly, had he lived to be with us still, would have been eighty-four the Monday before we spoke. Charles, more than many, having been Buddy for a couple of years in his own life, knows the significance of Buddy Holly’s legacy on modern music. I asked him when he first became aware of the man from Lubbock, Texas?
“Well I had a father that was a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll, that was when he had grown up. He was rather proud that he was right in the sweet-spot of early rock. I think he was probably fifteen years old in 1956. And he would tell me, even long before I got that role, that you can’t even imagine the impact of lowering the needle onto the record that played the introduction to That’ll Be The Day. Nor could you imagine the impact when everybody heard about the tragic plane crash that took Buddy, and the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. I had known a fair amount about Buddy, more perhaps than some of my friends of a similar age, but it wasn’t until I got to start researching to play the man that I really got to do a deep-dig on his career, and on the things that made him spectacularly meaningful to rock ‘n’ roll, so crucial, so pivotal, so foundational. If you think about it, one way to explain how young he was when he did all this, is by…what age did you say he would have been, eighty-four? Many people would guess that he would have been much older because you tend to forget how young he was at the time. He wasn’t much older than my father at the time. He was a very young man doing all these hits, and also he did them in such a short span of time. From the time That’ll Be The Day went number one to the time of the plane crash itself, was eighteen months. That’s amazing to me. Especially when on top of that, you go ok, so what was the catalogue that basically came out in that window? And then you go, well ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Maybe Baby’, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘It’s So Easy To Fall In Love’, ‘Everyday’, ‘Rave On’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, ‘True Love Ways’…it just goes on…and on…and on! It’s like how is that even possible?! You talk about a supernova really just exploding onto the scene and just changing music. Also, the other thing that people forget, is that that time, well who was on the charts? Who was big? It was Elvis Presley, it was Chuck Berry, it was Little Richard, it was The Everley Brothers, all absolute superstars, all Mount Rushmore type rock ‘n’ roll characters. But none of them were their own band. None of them were writing all their own songs. I’m sorry, Chuck Berry, obviously was the prototype guitar player writing his own songs too, there’s not a better songwriter than Chuck Berry. But I’m talking about the prototypical garage band, where a couple of friends get together. You play drums, you play bass, I’ll play guitar, you play rhythm guitar, that thing that is essentially the blueprint for every rock band that came after it…is Buddy Holly and The Crickets! It’s kind of unbelievable when you think about it.”
One of the things that I’ve always loved about Buddy Holly is the beautiful simplicity of his lyrics. And I guessed that lyrics are important to Charles too, as his website displays a wonderful selection of the words to some of his songs, something I don’t recall seeing before with any other artist. In one of his most recent quarantine live-stream videos, Charles spoke about a song of his called That Song, and how a particular part of its lyric lets you “touch the pain” in the song. So would lyrics be his favourite part of the songwriting process? Or his biggest strength as a songwriter, perhaps?
“Wooh! That’s a wonderful question. It’s sort of hard to picture them like that. It’s almost like asking a pilot, do you prefer the left wing or the right wing? [laughs]. I think you know what I mean. But, having said that, I think the fact that I love lyrics so much – and I don’t want this to be misconstrued – is why I like country music so much. Country music, the lyric, the story, obviously always has been a part of it. And early rock ‘n’ roll, for sure. But later rock can be more bleak, more symbolic, less literal. I love something about the literal. Even if it’s representational. ‘That’s when I saw her walking on the water / Sippin’ on a Michelob Lite/ And she looked right at me/ Ooh she knew she had me/ Sweet summer Saturday night…’, that’s literal. I mean, it’s symbolic of other nights and other things, but I do like something about that. And a well-turned phrase, man, you’re right! There’s just nothing like it! But, the only thing I can say is a well-turned phrase with the right tune behind it…! Let’s go back to Chuck Berry real quickly. There’s so many of them, like ‘a coffee-coloured Cadillac.’ Man, I could almost write a little book! I would love that. You just turn the page and here’s another phrase, whether it’s from a Springsteen song or something like that, there’s so many. Here’s one, ‘Screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves’, that’s the beginning of ‘Thunder Road.’ That’s why a lot of times I do country covers of songs you don’t think of as country. You don’t necessarily think of ‘Thunder Road’ as country, but man, what’s more country than the screen door slammin’! [laughs]. I do love a great, great lyric, very much so. I have to cop to that, you’re right.”
When Charles took on his Every Single Friday project a few years back [beginning on July 15th 2016, he released a brand new original single – which he wrote or co-wrote – every Friday until July 21st 2017, totalling fifty-four songs, and earning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the achievement], did that in any way change his style of, or approach to songwriting? As each Friday rolled by were there any instances where, for example, he might normally have spent more time on a song – not rushed them, given them a few weeks or months to come fully to life – but for that project found himself finding ways to get where he needed to with a song, while still being happy with his work and not damaging the integrity of the song, a lot sooner?
“I would say only in a broad sense, never in a specific sense. I never said, ‘Oh I need a song by tomorrow. Finish this thing, even if it’s not ready or done.’ Never said that. But what it did do, is there’s something about deadlines that inspires creativity for me. I can have a thing called paralysis of analysis, where you’re just overthinking. You don’t have to turn it in, so you wait. There’s something about saying it has to be done by, or it’s gotta be done soon at least, that, to me at least, it sort of unclogs the pipes. I found that writing begets writing. For years, I had all the time in the world to write a song, because I wasn’t in Nashville, I was just an actor in L.A. and if I had an idea for a song I’d start to write it. I didn’t need to finish it that day. That’s generally not the Nashville way. Generally, you go do a co-write down on Music Row, you’re there four hours, five hours, maybe six. But you walk out with something that definitely resembles a song. Maybe it’s not finished, but it’s well on its way. I’ve always like that. You can always keep going back to fix ’em. And I do have songs like that, that I’ve written, literally over the course of years. It’s sort of like the way compression works with power. Compressed energy. Whether it’s a steam engine, or any kind of turbine, that when you compress that energy you end up getting more motive force out of it. And it pushes the song forward. Pushes you to get to that place that you might not have gone otherwise. It really was tremendously inspirational to the creative process to just go out there and say I’m going to do this. If you think about it, I never said to anybody I’m gonna write fifty-four songs and produce them. What I said was I’m gonna keep releasing them for as long as I can, and for as long as it makes sense. I might have stopped at twenty, and I would have been fine with that. But it just opened up the floodgates. What it really did to me, is I always felt like I was starting late in Nashville. I didn’t even come here to play Deacon until I was forty-six. So I always felt like, aaw man, what if I’d come earlier? So that was my ten-thousand-hours. I just wanted to immerse myself in it. I never like to feel like I’ve left anything on the table. If it was gonna turn out that Nashville didn’t get all those seasons and I had to go back to L.A. and get another job, I wanted to look back and say I did all that I could, which is one of the Nashville songs, that exact line. I want to look back and say I did all that I could, is in the song A Life That’s Good. And I sort of live my life by that. So I can look back now and say that musically, and during that period of time, I definitely did all that I could.”
Speaking of Nashville and ‘Deacon‘, I told Charles that I’d been very lucky in that I’d had the pleasure of chatting to his friend and colleague on the show, Clare Bowen – who is, as Charles will know well, one of the loveliest people there is – on two occasions. When last we spoke, in talking about Nashville, Clare said she was happy for her character ‘Scarlett’ and how her time on the show came to an end, because ‘Scarlett‘ probably has the happiest possible ending to her Nashville story. How did Charles feel about walking away from his character of ‘Deacon’ when that moment finally arrived?
“I have to say that, number one, I agree with you, Clare is just lovely and wonderful and an ethereal spirit. I enjoyed all of our scenes together. The ‘Deacon’/’Scarlett’ connection was one of my favourite things on Nashville. The arc that ‘Deacon’ had, the road that he walked…there were three things that we knew about ‘Deacon.’ He desperately loved ‘Rayna’, and he desperately loved music. It was just part of who he was. And he was an addict in recovery, an alcoholic. There was a lot of damage underneath all that we knew about early on. So it was really special to me that, even in the final seasons after we lost ‘Rayna’, where it’s a little bit like, ‘Well now what? What happens?’ And that question is, she meant so much to him, I just wanted to explore the nature of the fact she was so strong and such an important part of his life, that maybe she might have made him a strong enough man to even go on without her. That’s the kind of love that you want to aspire to. Not a love that makes you cripplingly reliant on somebody, but that makes you so that you can even go on without them. So we explored that the final couple of seasons. And the, the final piece of the puzzle that I’m so glad they touched on, was well what are the original wounds? What are the original wounds that led to that darkness? And for ‘Deacon’ it was his relationship with his father. So to bring that in, right down the stretch, and to sort of bring that to as healthy and as processed a close as possible on the final moment of the final episode, to me there’s a real perfection about it that lets me walk away and feel good about where ‘Deacon’ started, and where he ended up. In some weird way, those characters in my mind are out there in the world living their post-Nashville lives. Not literally, I’m not a crazy person [laughs]. I’m saying to think of that now, ‘Deacon’ had somewhere to go that was much more healthy. Maybe, even a lot less interesting to watch! That’s how you want to end a show. We saw the interesting parts [laughs], that’s what I would think! [laughs].”
Going back to birthdays again, and a very special young lady in Charles’s life has a very special birthday coming up in October. And his daughter, Addie, who will be celebrating her 21st, is a huge part of the reason that Charles has been performing his Quarantine ‘Live’ Streams over the last few weeks and months. I asked Charles to tell me about his very important work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society…
“Thank you for giving me that opportunity. You’re correct, my daughter Addie is nearly twenty-one years old, and that is as great a blessing as I can imagine. I just got off the phone with her, she called me to wish me a happy birthday on Face-Time. When she was two-and-a-half years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia. And when I was a kid, I remember seeing those newspaper stories about how that was a death sentence, pretty much. By the time Addie was diagnosed, they were able to tell us that there was an 85% survival rate. Now to a parent, that 15% on the other side of that is massive. But, she went through two years of chemotherapy and went into remission rather quickly. Because of all the discoveries made between our youths, she was able to survive. So now she’s happy, she’s healthy, she’s cancer-free, she’s in college, she’s a division-one soccer player. And we are just so grateful to have her healed and in our lives. The blessing of that is just infinite. The least we can do is to turn our attention towards helping further fundraising for further discoveries to help others who are going to find themselves having to face the road of blood-cancer. That’s what L.L.S does. The Light The Night campaign is massive and a great part of that. That’s why we’ve been using these quarantine ‘live’ streams to still try and raise a little bit of money. Just because this massive Covid crisis is around, it doesn’t mean that blood-cancer goes away. So many charities are having difficult times because so many fundraisers are ‘live’ events, that’s how you make your money. So we’re doin’ what we can. And we’re so grateful for people to give and help us out on that, and I’m so grateful to you for asking about it.”
While Addie will be giving the Esten household plenty to celebrate in October, Charles’s daughter Taylor was giving the family loads to cheer about right now as she made a name for herself in the Music City Mayhem event, obviously having picked up a trick or two from her dad along the way! But as a dad, how did it feel for Charles to be seeing Taylor step into the limelight like she’d been doing?
“It’s just thrilling for me. I have to admit, being an artist, whether it’s an actor or a singer/songwriter, there was never anything that I was afraid of doing. I was rather invulnerable, sort of leathered up, you can’t hurt me [laughs]. But when it’s your child, that’s when you’re vulnerable! I just want all the best things for her, and I want her to be able to do her music at the highest level that she wants. What I’m so proud of is to see her life as an independent artist. Her songwriting is just fantastic. The group of people she’s surrounded with, to create her videos, to create her ‘live’ performances, or as it is now, her virtually ‘live’ performances, or the music she’s making right now, it sort of blows my mind. I’m so proud of her. It’s leaps and bounds beyond where I would have been, or even could have been, at that stage. For those who don’t know, her name is Taylor Noelle, and her latest song is ‘West End’, which obviously could have a London reference but it’s actually about Nashville’s west end. But man oh man, it’s my favourite of all her songs! And it’s sure something to see people enjoy it. She spent a little time in London as well, and loved it very, very much. She actually got to do a small performance there, and I know she would love to get back.”
I’ve only been to Nashville once myself (waaaaaaaay too long ago now), but on that occasion I was lucky enough to visit the Grand Ole Opry, and luckier still to be invited backstage. I know how excited and awestruck I was that night, and yet, Charles has performed upon that famous stage over one-hundred times. I asked him what it feels like to sing on such hallowed ground, and does that experience change the more often it happens?
“It’s hard to describe it. It’s hard to overstate it, for sure. The same father that raised me up on early rock ‘n’ roll, raised me up on early country music also. By the time I went there, none of it was lost on me. I understood the centrality, not just of the Grand Ole Opry, but of that circle on the Grand Ole Opry stage, that all the greats have stood in and performed their classics. I knew why I was there, and why I got to sing there was because I was playing this guy, ‘Deacon Claybourne.’ The only way I was able to do that at all was by the people that are surrounding you there, the musicians. They’re just as top-notch talented as it gets. And they’re all so kind. And the artists who I was surrounded by, whether it was Little Jimmy Dickens, who at that point was ninety-three years old, or Jeanie Seely, one of the great female singers as well. Vince Gill was around. And these people made me feel welcome. And without feeling welcome, I don’t think I could have even stood in that circle. My knees were already knockin’ [laughs], my mouth was already a little dry [laughs]. It was because that kind of support was there, that I was able to do that. And there’s still always a frisson, an energy, an electricity, especially now that it’s been so long since I’ve been on that stage, I just miss it so dearly. I remember suddenly I went, ok, this is still wildly exciting, but now I can finally sort of BE HERE, and enjoy it and do it! For a time, it felt like sky-diving and it was over before you knew it [laughs]. That’s one of the hard things about very exciting moments, whether it’s being on the Royal Albert Hall stage or doing improv on TV, there’s so much of it where you want to calm your nerves, but you also want to BE THERE. It’s a combination of things. That’s why so many artists or people drink, or try different ways to calm themselves down! But I was always like, well, why would I want to do that? I’m in this business TO FEEL these moments. The trick is feeling them in the right measure, without letting them overwhelm you. Or, without controlling them so much that you weren’t really there, and didn’t really wholly enjoy it. So there’s a real sweet-spot now when I’m on that Opry stage, where I still feel it, but now I can enjoy that feeling!”
~ SWEET SUMMER SATURDAY NIGHT, the brand new single from CHARLES ESTEN, is available now on all platforms.