In the midst of fall’s usual frenzy of self-promotion, ABC’s “Nashville” is the one show justifiably generating great buzz.
In the opening scene of the soapy drama premiering Wednesday, Oct. 10, Rayna James (Connie Britton), hair in pin curls, playfully chases her daughters at home. In the next scene, she’s a country star performing at the Grand Ole Opry.
The “Friday Night Lights” and “American Horror Story” actress really is singing, and quite well, as is co-star Hayden Panettiere (“Heroes”), playing the nasty ingenue, Juliette Barnes.
Granting Zap2it their only individual print interview after a press conference, the two actresses sit in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton and reflect on singing and why they wanted this show.
In the pilot, Rayna is finishing her set, and Juliette is going on, which sums up their careers at the moment. Though Rayna is more talented, Juliette’s star is on the rise. Juliette will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and she wants precisely what Rayna has.
“You have to respect her to a certain degree,” Panettiere says, “even though she is a little b*** at some times. She is running from a very dark past.”
Juliette’s mother is an addict who constantly begs for money.
“It’s important as part of her, as she can be rough round the edges,” Panettiere says.
Expect comparisons to “All About Eve” in that there’s an older woman and a younger woman, both after the same career, both wanting to be queen. Of course, there is only room for one at the top.
Rayna’s at a crossroads; the record company boss demotes her to opening for Juliette on tour, and she declines. After 20 years as a star, she’s not done singing.
“I had sung before, but years ago,” Britton says. “Saying I sang semiprofessionally would be overstating it. As an actor, if I am ever going to be able to stretch those muscles — to work with T-Bone Burnett in music and creating a character — this is as good as it gets.”
Burnett, the show’s executive music producer, has won 12 Grammys for performing, writing and producing.
“T-Bone scares me,” Britton says. “As an artist, it is a great thing to take risks, but you chose to do it in front of 15 million people, and I run into the bathroom to vomit. As an artist, when you challenge yourself, you take risks, it is so rewarding. I feel like I hit a high C.”
In most shows, music is ambient; in “Nashville,” it’s central. In a wonderful scene backstage at the Opry, Juliette is introduced to Rayna.
“I know you,” Rayna says to Juliette. “You were burning up out there, girl.”
“I know you,” Juliette retorts. “My momma was one of your biggest fans. She said she’d listen to you when I was still in her belly.”
And the fight is on! But Juliette won’t leave it at barbs about age. She can’t. It’s not enough to go after Rayna’s perch; Juliette wants the men around Rayna. And Juliette practically purrs at men, who are rendered incapable of resisting her.
In the pilot, the cast performs at the Opry, not on a set.
“My first day of shooting was at the Opry,” Britton says. “I was so excited to be in this — the chance at the Opry!”
Clearly at home on that stage, Rayna is a woman with a past she prefers hidden and a rocky future.
Her dad, powerful, duplicitous businessman Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe, “24”), is setting up Rayna’s husband, Teddy Conrad (Eric Close, “Without a Trace”), to run for mayor so Dad can control Nashville through his son-in-law.
Rayna had a romance with her guitarist, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten, “Enlightened”), and he may well be the father of one of her daughters.
The rich characters are thanks to writer Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”). Even characters introduced in the pilot, such as a cafe waitress, are layered and talented.
“When I lived in Nashville, one of the things that used to really blow me away about the place was you would be in a restaurant, and somebody would take the plates from your table one night, and then the next day or the next night, you would go into a club, and they would just break your heart,” Khouri says at a press conference. “They would be so good, you couldn’t believe that that’s what they were doing. You couldn’t believe that they weren’t the biggest artist in the world, you know? There’s just so much talent in that town. And so we carefully looked for the people that we felt were representative of what you were likely to find there.”
“Nashville” creator R.J. Cutler says, “I wanted to find a way to do a contemporary response to [director Robert] Altman’s ‘Nashville.’ It was compelling to do a narrative where the city is a main character. I knew I wanted a company town. I wanted to make it music. Then I met Callie.”
And it all fell into place.