Nashies never give up.
When ABC announced it would not renew its music-centric drama Nashville, fans of the Callie-Khouri-created nighttime soap took matters into their own hands. “I knew that we weren’t done telling these stories or singing these songs,” says Charles “Chip” Esten, who plays Deacon Claybourne, longtime bandmate and brand-new husband of country superstar turned business mogul Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton). “I have been doing this a long time and understand that nothing’s a given, so I’ve tried to live every single season, every single episode and day here as fully as I can. The love that fans threw our way in that undecided period, that sure helped — you ask any one of our cast members! And then it helped to get us picked up. They were very savvy, very organized and I was so impressed that they were able to take their disappointment and turn it into action.” Action that paid off handsomely.
This month, Nashville Season 5 debuts with a “but of course!” new network home, the blazing return of Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes, and venerable new showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick — the guys who brought you thirtysomething, My So-Called Life and Once and Again. We asked the charming Esten about Nashville’s new life, Deacon’s new marriage and more.
CMT is a TV mecca for country-music faithful, which brings such potential for audience development. Encouraging?
Charles Esten: I completely agree! If you think of a network that’s about country music and television, it would be CMT. It’s called that. If you think about a television show that is about country music and television, it would be Nashville. And CMT has been kind to us from the very start. Just last season, they awarded us their International Impact Award, because they saw what we were able to see when we went over to the U.K. and Ireland, and what we see on social media — that the show has created more country music fans, not just in this country, but elsewhere. But that’s not all they did. We’ve been part of their events and they’ve made us feel part of the family here in Nashville for our whole four years here. … Along with the fact that the very nature of being on a cable channel versus being on a [broadcast] network means we’re going to get to deliver the product and deliver the show in a different way.
I’m a huge fan of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick’s storytelling sensibility. From your own perspective, what does their involvement bring to this already deeply human series?
I was a huge fan of Once and Again and I was a huge fan of thirtysomething. Make no mistake, our writers in [the ABC] years are clearly and obviously a huge part of any love that anybody has for Rayna or Deacon or any of these characters. We’re only saying that it’s interesting as an actor to go, “OK, these new showrunners are here and they’re amazing writers and they joined on because they care about these characters.” We’re also in this place where they might be allowed to try and do different things. The future’s wide open now.
Marshall wants to refocus on the role music plays in the show. Is that as much music to your ears as it is to the fans’?
It is music to my ears, because the music is the lifeblood of the show. Certainly dramatic events are exciting and thrilling, and I am certain we will have them. But there’s never been a time where I ever felt, “Well, we stayed in that song a little too long!” One of the reasons for that is not simply the high quality of the songs that are chosen for us and are written by these great songwriters and performed by these amazing musicians and my talented costars — it’s also that everybody’s done such a fine job of making the songs integral to the scenes and integral to the storyline. I’ve always seen them as continued dialogue. My character, maybe more than any other, is a guy that really doesn’t want to talk to you much about [unpleasant] things, but if you put him behind a guitar, he’ll tell you anything. I’ve always been fascinated in exploring that, because that’s a real thing here in Nashville.
Let’s talk Deacon and Rayna.
I can’t talk specific storylines, but there’s a concept in the history of television writing that you can’t bring your “will-they-won’t-theys” together because you lose some of that tension and you lose some of the power of that tension. I never really thought that was the case. I thought that when Deacon and Rayna were not together, it made it difficult. … When I found out they were getting married, and we were going to be dabbling in this “married and now what?” phase, I was as happy as the fans that care about that, too. It’s fascinating the things you have to negotiate as a married couple with children. That’s even more true now that we have writers whom I believe are actively looking forward to dealing with that.
Any new cast members you’re particularly excited about?
I have actually known Rhiannon Giddens for a couple years now from T Bone Burnett and Callie Khouri. I remember Callie talking about Rhiannon and how unbelievably talented she was. Then I heard her and I was blown away. And then I got to see her on Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, the documentary T Bone worked on about Bob Dylan’s basement tapes. Then I hear she’s going to be playing a growing role on our show [singing social worker Hallie Jordan]!
How has Nashville impacted you personally?
Music has been brought alive in my life again — and I mean in a real way. For the last four years, I’ve not only been writing with all these great songwriters in Nashville, but I’ve been able to record some of this music, too, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do with it. In July, I promised to release a brand-new single every Friday — it’s called #EverySingleFriday. This fan base has been so kind and they’re already used to seeing me once a week, so I thought maybe they wouldn’t mind hearing something new once a week, too.
Might there be an actual CD, too?
[I have] a CD compilation. This one’s called #Every Single Friday: The 1st Nine. On the back it’s the nine singles, almost in a Brady Bunch grid. It’s a story of a guy named Deacon who was living with three very lovely girls …
Nashville Season 5 premieres Thursday Jan. 5 at 9/8CT on CMT