Back in May, we were excited to hear that the ABC country-music drama Nashville got picked up for a second season. Now we’re two episodes into Season 2, and everyone is asking: how does the show stack up to its impressive launch last year? Which songs are they pulling out, and which characters get to sing them? And, of course: are Rayna and Deacon ever going to solve their problems?
(Warning: spoilers for the first episode of Season 2 below.)
I have to admit I was a little fuzzy on how Season 1 ended, but ABC quickly reminded us that the last shot of the season was of a car crash, spurred by a drunken argument in which Deacon tells Rayna that he knows he’s Maddie’s father. Rayna’s in a coma, meaning that for once Juliette Barnes is the only country-music superstar in the stadium.
However, as fast as the series inserts developments, it sets them aside: Deacon goes to jail, but he gets released as soon as it’s clear he wasn’t the one driving the car; Rayna pulls through her coma in a single episode without any lingering physical or mental effects; Teddy’s mistress Peggy is pregnant, but immediately miscarries.
So let’s talk about the songs. Last season, only a handful of Nashville’s songs are written specifically for the show; the others were deep cuts from the hundreds of country music artists you’ve probably never heard of, purchased by ABC and re-recorded by Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Claire Bowen, and the other Nashville stars. (Yes, everyone on the show does their own singing.)
This is a plus for both the music publishers and the artists who suddenly find their material featured on a mainstream network show; the only real hit Nashville borrowed last year was the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” preferring instead to highlight tracks from relative unknowns, such as turning Carly Pierce’s “Boys and Buses” into Juliette Barnes’ pop country anthem.
Even better: indie music publishers who release their songs on TuneCore and other services, such as country band The Civil Wars, find their music suddenly picked up by the biggest country show on television. (They’re the group who wrote “If I Didn’t Know Better,” the track that ABC bought to use as Scarlett and Gunner’s first open mic song at the Bluebird.)
However, T Bone Burnett, married to Nashville showrunner Callie Khouri and the previous genius behind Nashville’s songs, unexpectedly left the show in June, leaving collaborator Buddy Miller the role of Executive Music Producer.
Miller took Nashville off to a middling start, providing us with high-quality vocals and instrumentals but not giving us any new instantly-memorable songs to compete with last year’s “Boys and Buses,” “Wrong Song,” or “Undermine.” The big number in Episode 1 is Juliette covering the Rayna James song “This Love Ain’t Big Enough For the Two of Us.” Composed for the show by Jill Andrews, Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman, this song is all flash and no substance, as Juliette struts her stuff surrounded by fog and a light show. It’s hard to imagine Rayna making this song a hit 20 years ago, not to mention why Juliette would want to resurrect it today.
One of the clear problems facing Nashville is that its success will lead to more Hollywood-created country songs, rather than the deliberate choice to revive old country tunes that might have missed their chance in the sun. The truth is that Hollywood can’t craft a country song on its own, not half as good as the ones languishing in CD secondhand bins around the city, the ones that just need a little dust and polish.
Need any more proof? “Undermine” was an authentic Trent Dabbs country song before it found success on television. Savvy searchers can still find the original version of The Civil Wars’ “If I Didn’t Know Better” on YouTube. Why did ABC buy these songs? Because they’re good.
This second season is crucial for Nashville: will it remain true to its roots as an authentic representation of country music, or will it turn into a shiny Hollywood country-themed soap opera? Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, I’m going to keep watching.