The Bluebird Cafe has a new location. It's on a rather isolated hilltop overlooking Trinity Hills Park, 11 miles north of the Green Hills strip mall that houses the original — a hallowed hole in the wall that's the Nashville singer-songwriter's answer to The Cavern Club.
This new Bluebird is built on a soundstage deep inside a warehouse previously home to the Baker Curb Racing team. Aside from the slight change in scenery, it's a carbon copy of the original — all the way down to the airbrushed, overexposed headshots and framed gold records lining the walls (each placed in the exact same order). It even has the bluebirds embedded in the bar's wood top, as well as the paper disclaimers that say, "No recording, copyrighted material," and thank patrons for their support.
Don't expect to see house luminaries like Don Schlitz or Pam Tillis performing at this satellite club, though — unless they're appearing as extras in Nashville, the highly anticipated prime-time drama about "love, power, money, family and music" that premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, on ABC. Last month Entertainment Weekly crowned the show its pick for Biggest New Drama in its fall TV predictions.
"If this series isn't a hit, the industry should schedule a weekend retreat to re-examine what they think they know about TV," EW wrote. "[I]t's perfect for ABC's female-skewing audience, and programs that tout country music often draw huge numbers."
In a town that's spent half a century grappling with its image, such a statement might cue an eye roll. But the people behind Nashville's scenes want to get them right, and they plan to do so by filming the show here — at locations such as Lower Broadway, the Shelby Street Bridge and the Pinnacle building.
Toward that end, the cast and crew — whose pedigree includes Oscar, Grammy and Emmy wins and nominations — have been immersing themselves in the city's cultural trenches. But whether the world they create truly reflects the one Nashvillians know matters less than how the show's big budget and camera-wielding cavalry might ultimately change it.
Compared to the truck-stop-diner-bright Hollywood version in Peter Bogdanovich's Nashville-set 1993 dramedy The Thing Called Love, Nashville's faux Bluebird is a testament to the show's dedication to sweating the details. During shooting of the show's pilot last spring, ABC took a look at some dailies of The Bluebird and sent producers notes that the club was too dark for prime-time television.
Ask Nashville's writer and creative executive producer Callie Khouri, however, and she'll tell you that beyond the local landmarks and familiar places, what she'd really like to capture with absolute authenticity is Music City's modern identity — the one that includes the history of the Opry, the Ryman and, obviously, The Bluebird; the one that boasts Belle Meade mansions and high-powered, politically charged downtown real estate deals; and the one with a hipster-bohemia oasis The New York Times champions for its artisan cuisine and taco trucks.
"I want people in Nashville to feel like they're seeing their town," she tells the Scene. "I want them to feel like, 'Yup! They got it.' "
But Nashvillians are notoriously hard to please with depictions of the city — a case in point being the late Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville. Though critics and movie buffs revere the film — the Library of Congress even preserved it in the United States National Film Registry — Nashvillians at the time took its assemblage of retirees, country-bumpkin politicians and neurotic musicians as a stinging slap in the face.
"At the time it came out, people in the city found it insulting and inaccurate," AV Club film and television critic (and former Nashvillian) Noel Murray tells the Scene. "What's funny to me is that when I look back at it now, it does seem more like what I remember. To me, the Nashville of the '70s does seem like Robert Altman's Nashville."
Khouri, herself a former Nashvillian, does not want to insult the city, just keep the show real.
"It's important to me that people know that we are certainly there with deep respect and love for the city," she says. "We need to make a dramatic show, so there will be dark sides and light sides, [but] none of us are there with any intention besides totally honoring it."
Like Altman, ABC shot portions of its Nashville on location at the Grand Ole Opry House. In a scene in the pilot episode, set backstage at the Opry, lead character Rayna Jaymes — a Faith Hillian country singer (played by Connie Britton) whose superstar is fading — first meets her nemesis Juliette Barnes, a nubile pop-country cocktail of one part Taylor Swift and a fifth of Mindy McCready. She's played by Hayden Panettiere (Heroes). Tensions rise when the suits pressure labelmates Rayna and Juliette to take on a co-headlining tour together.
The Faith Hill comparisons to Rayna Jaymes aren't unfounded. "In the hair and makeup trailer, we definitely looked at a lot of pictures of [her]," Britton tells the Scene. Panettiere, on the other hand, contends that critics are way off the mark with their Swift comparisons, something that's clear after a single episode. (That's how long it takes Juliette to bed Rayna's producer and come on to her guitarist.)
"Taylor is known to be a very nice girl; she's known to be very lovely to meet and be around," Panettiere says of Swift, whom she's befriended since moving to town. "I laughed with her about the constant comments that the character is loosely based on her."
Not all the show's characters are so glamorous. Like Altman's Nashville, ABC's version also focuses on locations and characters in the city's funkier, more bohemian pockets. Where Altman took film fans to the Exit/In, ABC visits East Nashville's The 5 Spot, where in episode 2 pretty-boy indie-rocker Avery Barkley, played by General Hospital's Jonathan Jackson, serenades a room abuzz with scenesters.
As far as punching bags go, Avery is probably gonna take a lot of hits from local cynics. A character bio on ABC's official Nashville site describes him as ... easy, stomach ... "a dead sexy East Nashville hipster with tons of talent — and the swagger to match." His influences are Old 97's, Ryan Adams and Elliott Smith — and like them, the site snarks, he writes alt-country songs the critics will love "if they ever get a chance to hear them."
"East Nashville's gonna shit their pants, I just can't wait," says Richard Lloyd, an author and associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. "I figured they might as well just go ahead and drive the last nail in the East Nashville hipster coffin by putting an East Nashville hipster character on the show. ... As far as The Nashville zeitgeist goes, the last frontier has been crossed for the East Nashville scene."
And there's the rub. If Nashville hits a home run, it means the city's public image falls into the hands of the show's producers, ABC, Lionsgate Entertainment and the Gaylord Entertainment Co. The rest of America then gets to see Nashville through their lens, on their terms, even if East Nashville gets airbrushed along the way.
A good sign is a creative team led by Khouri, the Academy Award-winning writer of Thelma & Louise, and her husband T Bone Burnett, the show's executive music producer and co-composer, a figure with sky-high cred in both rock and country circles. What's more, the cast features Britton, a critics' favorite due for a breakout after her acclaimed roles on Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story, along with legendary character actor Powers Boothe as Britton's father, Lamar Wyatt, an iron-fisted J.R. Ewing-esque power player who strong-arms his son-in-law into a mayoral race.
Murray says most of his fellow critics who have screened the show's pilot are "generally pretty high on it," anticipating it as one of the fall's best new shows. That, he says, in addition to well-drawn, relatable characters, is more important for the show's success than accurately depicting Music City.
"It's very important for them to capture a version of Nashville that is true to the show that they're trying to make," Murray explains. "It's very important for people from Nashville not to get hung up on [nitpicky continuity flaws], or even necessarily if the show gets things wrong about the way the industry works."
In other words, the show being good and the show being "real" are not the same thing — Nashville is not to Nashville what The Wire was to Baltimore. That much is clear near the end of the first episode, when a music-biz bigshot ostentatiously whips out his cellphone during a Bluebird performance, with nary a peep (or shush).
"It's not a documentary," Khouri stresses. "We're taking whatever creative license we absolutely have to take."
In the pilot episode, as with most series introductions, that license consists mostly of exposition overload. What skeletons are in Rayna's husband Teddy's closet? Why does Rayna hate her father? Juliette's damage is that her mother is a meth head, right? These are the kinds of questions local viewers will be left with Wednesday night, not ones about how touring decisions are made on Music Row or what the chances are of Nashville getting a riverfront baseball park.
To the show's credit, however, those issues are in the episode as well. Reality television was always part of the show's DNA, according to Steve Buchanan, Gaylord senior vice president of media and entertainment and a Nashville executive producer. The popularity and inherent drama of prime-time singing competitions like American Idol and music-laden dramas like Glee inspired Buchanan, currently president of the CMA board of directors, to pursue a network series with a country music backdrop.
"In looking at the ability for musical performance to succeed in prime-time television, and looking at who was winning those shows, who was engaging the audience — many of them ultimately have become tied to Nashville and to country music," Buchanan tells the Scene. "Additionally, you have scripted television shows that are doing well with performance in them, Glee and Smash. To me, what was missing, truly missing, is the popular music of America today, which is country music."
Perhaps, but Nashville-set attempts to fuse film and TV drama with country music have not fared well. A 2007 Fox reality series, also called Nashville, received abysmal ratings — the lowest of the network's 2006-2007 season — and was canceled after two episodes. The 2010 film Country Strong, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow as a past-prime country singer not unlike Rayna Jaymes, received middling-to-poor reviews and little box-office. The Washington Post went as far as to describe it as a "disjointed drama ... so Lifetime movie-esque that it careens into unintentional comedy."
Buchanan, Khouri, producer-director R.J. Cutler — a veteran documentarian whose credits extend from the reality-TV series American High to the popular docs The September Issue and The War Room — and the show's cast are confident that Nashville will succeed where its predecessors have failed. They hope to avoid country caricatures in favor of realistic, compelling, contemporary characterizations of Music City.
Khouri knows Nashville well. She moved here after college and lived here until 1982, roughly a decade before Thelma & Louise. She had her first wedding at Christ Church Cathedral and held the reception at the Belle Meade Plantation.
"It seems like Nashville has been its own worst enemy in terms of the kind of things it's willing to portray about itself," Khouri says. "Going back as far as the beginning of the Grand Ole Opry, there were artists who took great exception to the hillbilly costumes. There were some people engaged in what was basically a form of minstrel show about country people, or hillbillies and stuff like that. And I think Nashville knows that it's not that; it's easier to make fun of us, but then that image gets exported and that's how people will think of it."
Richard Lloyd thinks maybe they protest too much.
"I think the whole fear of depicting country music as Hee Haw that everybody carries around — I think we're past that now," Lloyd observes. "I think the new zeitgeist is that we've gotten over the Hee Haw thing."
"People don't understand Nashville," says Nashville producer Loucas George, whose credits include The O.C., Ed and Early Edition. Until recently, the native New Yorker counted himself among them.
"I imagined Nashville as being a smaller town, and I thought the Opry was probably, like, an old movie theater," George says. "When I went to The Bluebird and I saw it was in a strip mall, and what it looked like, I went, 'Ugh, somebody wrote about this because it's special to them but we're gonna have to change this. And once I got in and sat down to watch the first show, I realized, 'No, that's like trying to change Mount Rushmore.' "
On the sweltering August day the Scene visited the Nashville set, the site was alt-rocker Ben Folds' Music Row studio. It was formerly the historic RCA Studio A, where Elvis Presley, Jimmy Dean and others once cut a record or two. It gives off a sense of real-world solidity and purpose, an authenticity that would be hard for an art director to reproduce.
For Nashville, it's been transformed into the studio of a legendary Music Row hitmaker named Watty White. He's played by singer-songwriter J.D. Souther (who's penned hits for The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt), a man who doesn't exactly have to fake his way around a fader. In the episode shooting today, drama's playing out on all sides of the board.
The storyline: White has latched onto a song he thinks has demo potential. Trouble is, the girl singer is Scarlett, a budding singer-songwriter and Bluebird waitress played by Clare Bowen, who happens to be hipster heartthrob Avery's girlfriend. Worse, her duet partner is Gunnar, a sweet-talking Lothario who happens to be Avery's archrival. (In real life, the song was contributed by Nashville breakout duo The Civil Wars, whose demo days are behind them.)
In between takes, session musicians cast as extras faintly noodle on their instruments. Sam Palladio, the British actor who plays Gunnar, picks up a guitar and starts strumming for Souther as the pair shoots the breeze. An aspiring musician who spent years grinding it out in the London club scene, Palladio says he's been "that musician in the bar playing to three or four people, and then playing to a hundred people, and then playing to, you know, nobody ... for no money."
"We were talking about a song we're gonna work on," Souther says. "I'm sure he hopes, and I hope it's something that works out that his character can sing. He's a real good singer."
When the cameras start rolling, things don't go as swimmingly for Scarlett. Frustrated by Avery's jealousy, she chokes in the studio and Watty aborts the session. Dejected and embarrassed, the angelic songstress storms out of the studio with Gunnar on her tail, quick to console her as she packs her guitar case into a beat-up old Volvo.
Bowen and Palladio repeat the scene outside several times, with crews repositioning to shoot it from every angle. Heat rises in waves from the studio's back-alley parking lot, which is barely shaded by a small fleet of trucks and trailers carrying sound and lighting gear, craft food services, and fully functioning lavatories. An errand boy has to wipe the condensation off director Michael Engler's monitor, which he does with an expression of life-or-death intensity.
Inside the studio, another crew is packing up the set from the previous scene. Boom mics, backdrops and camera dollies litter the space alongside guitars and other instruments. Perched on a stool, looking right at home, Souther notes the similarities of his co-workers in the music and film worlds.
"They are just people with the same fascinating aspects and the same foibles as everybody else," he explains. "If Ben's studio was rented out to a strictly musical group today, you'd meet the same kind of characters."
Personality isn't the only thing these actors have in common, Souther says. "All the actors are good," he elaborates. "They can all sing, which is unheard of, and some sing extraordinarily well."
If that song Souther and Palladio wrote makes it onto the show, the pair will probably cut it with T Bone Burnett at the famed Berry Hill studio House of Blues. Burnett — whose sprawling scrolls of credits include Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack — serves as the show's executive music producer, working alongside his wife. "She's got pretty good taste, but she's got a very good ear as well," Burnett says of Khouri.
"One of the main reasons I wanted to do the show was because there's so much more music here than just country, and people don't know," she responds. "We're getting an opportunity to put some of that out."
"Nashville is the Alamo," Burnett adds. "[It's] the last stand of what was once an extraordinarily thriving community in the United States. For a century we've had this extraordinary music community spread across the country. Now it's localized in Nashville. The idea of the show is that these people are creating this music, so we want all of the songs to be original songs that haven't been released before."
Essentially, the songs themselves — which the actors perform — become characters in the show. Viewers see and hear them as they are written, recorded and road-tested.
"The sound for each character grows out of that character," Burnett says. Other song placements are needle-dropped into the show by Lionsgate's Russell Ziecker.
"I would say most of these characters are characters from the edges, and they're making really fresh, interesting music," Burnett says. "And we've got fresh, interesting writers writing for them. ... There are so many great songwriters congregated here. And there's such a bottleneck in, just, country radio that there's a wealth of songs to draw from."
Though Burnett says he's called on "old friends" like Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello and Gillian Welch to contribute songs to the show, he's especially excited to have lesser-known names like Sarah Buxton, Natalie Hemby, Trent Dabbs, Hillary Lindsey, Kacey Musgraves, and the band Striking Matches from Nashville's stable of songwriters.
"People I'd never heard of," Burnett says, "and I'm supposed to be an observer of all of this. ... I'm seriously blown away by Nashville in general. I've been here for a long time, and it's different now — it's a boomtown, I guess. ... This [show] gives the people that are advancing things a platform." Considering that the biggest grudge the country-music industry had against Robert Altman was that he didn't mine local talent for songs, that's a diplomatic move in itself.
"[T Bone's] helped me to really, specifically shape Rayna's voice," says Britton, who says she ponders what Rayna would wear to the studio when dressing for the sessions. This is her first time singing since her drama-school days.
"That's been probably the most profound experience of the whole thing for me," she says. "That was part of the reason I choose to do the part, was because I was excited about the challenge of singing."
The actors aren't the only ones playing dual roles in screen and sound. First-call local session musicians such as Sam Bush, Colin Linden, Dennis Crouch and Dave Roe appear not only on the recordings but as extras in recording studio and performance scenes.
As one would imagine, an industry veteran like Burnett is a good barometer for keeping the show's made-up Music Row scenarios on point. "He's my fact-checker," Khouri says. But he's not the only one.
"I think where we have to probably take the greatest care is in how we deal with music-industry-related issues," Steve Buchanan says. "I'm reading through the scripts, I'll share scripts with other people in the industry."
Locals who get caught up in debating Nashville's authenticity are missing the story that might actually impact their lives. Not to bury the lede, but Nashville's budget hovers in the neighborhood of $4 million per episode. Add up the 22 episodes in a full season, and that's an $88 million money faucet that ABC, Lionsgate and Gaylord are disgorging into the local economy.
That not only trumps the valuable networking, publishing and performing boon the show could prove for the local music industry, it's one with a demonstrable economic multiplier effect. As transplanted cast and crew rack up bills for flights, hotels, catering, you name it, they pump direct injections of cash into the veins of local businesses. Not to mention that the show is an hourlong prime-time television commercial for the city, running in one of the week's most visible time slots. Loucas George even keeps business cards for local food trucks in his wallet, calling on them when craft services can't make late-night shoots.
It gets better. Even if ABC decides not to renew Nashville for a second season, the show's massive production will likely leave a transformative footprint that will yield the city years of economic benefits, in the form of a fully stocked, ready-to-work local TV and film production infrastructure.
Nashville has never hosted a production of this scale. If the show weren't shot here or on a Los Angeles soundstage, it probably would've been filmed in Louisiana, North Carolina or Georgia, like most other Southern-set films and series. Not only do those states offer major tax incentives, the work they generate gives them an infrastructure Nashville doesn't have. Or rather, it didn't.
"You go to Atlanta, or Toronto, or New Orleans — each of those towns might be two or three crews deep," Loucas George explains. Among those workers, in Georgia or Louisiana, were often Tennessee crew people who'd relocated because they were desperate for work.
Obviously, tax incentives weren't the major lure, though Khouri says that "Nashville really bent over backwards to give us the tax credits and make it possible for us to do it here." Producer George says the difference came from how easily the state and city made it for the production to set up shop.
"Location wise," George adds, "if I'm gonna get a permit to shoot some place where I'd have to go through a lot of hoops in L.A. or something, I don't have to do that here. I get so much cooperation; I can turn things around pretty quick. ... The city and the state have been incredibly accommodating. We've been welcomed with open arms."
George says the incentives the state did offer — which are ultimately supposed to make shooting in Nashville as cheap if not cheaper than shooting in Los Angeles — offset the cost of outfitting a soundstage north of town. That was crucial, George says, as Nashville didn't already have a facility the size they needed. Nor does Nashville have massive prop houses. That forced George to turn to furniture stores and other retailers.
"The vendors here will have to get used to us," he says. It can add up in cost, not to mention that he can't routinely count on retailers to stockpile items in the large quantities he might instantly need.
"We're slowly vetting the florists," George says. "[It's] like, you go to a florist and say, 'I have a wedding — in three days.' " The show uses a local lumberyard and employs carpenters to build the windows and doors for sets because they haven't the time for the weeks-long waits most retail providers require.
When George needed to build a roof on the studio, he went to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce for assistance. As a result, the job went to a local company, Collier Roofing, instead of an out-of-town competitor offering a lower bid.
Of the 150 to 200 crew people Nashville puts to work on any given day of shooting, only 25 to 30 are from out of town. The rest are locals, many of whom trained on smaller-budget shows, films and music videos. Accordingly, George and his crew have spent the season training them. Demand is so strong that students from Franklin's Columbia State Community College film-tech program went straight from class into crew positions. One of them, Josh Trevino, who signed on as a second-unit grip, had been in the program only five weeks.
"After my first day on set, I knew this was the career I was meant to do," Trevino told instructors.
"We've basically hired anyone who was available here in town," George says. "The grind gets to people, and the speed [it takes] to shoot a show, eight days, it's a learning curve. ... There's certain people who are really good; they would stand up against anybody. But there's a lot of other people who it's sort of a new thing for them."
At the same time, one of the hidden incentives a location has to offer is the chance for a good time. Clare Bowen, a native Australian, is one of the show's dozen-or-so stars who moved to town to soak up the scene. Not only does her character Scarlett patronize The 5 Spot to watch her hipster boyfriend Avery melt hearts, Bowen herself hits up the club's Keep on Movin' dance parties to cut a rug.
"The 5 Spot's rockin' on a Monday night," Bowen says. On other nights she raves it up at Robert's Western World. "I've just never been anywhere like this," she says. "I just don't think you could fake it on a soundstage in L.A." Bowen's co-stars are also taking advantage of what the city has to offer.
"I had the best meal of my life, ever, in my whole life, at The Catbird Seat," Connie Britton says. "That was pretty surprising and amazing. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I recently discovered Mas Tacos, which I also think is unbelievable."
"This is a world that I'm just getting to know really well," says Hayden Panettiere, who namedrops Sambuca ("It was killer!"), The Bluebird and Virago as favorite local spots.
"I feel like I can leave my house without worry of anybody, you know, following me with a camera," she says. "People are just so lovely here. ... People let you merge here!"
And while they make themselves at home, George says that by the end of the season, the vendors will be in place and the crew fully trained — to work on Nashville or any other major production with sights set on Music City. George says some of his non-local crew, carpenters, etc., have even expressed designs on staying in Nashville whether the show gets renewed for a second season or not.
Certainly George — who says he's having fantasies of galvanizing a Star Trek-like international audience of fans geeking out on country music history and Nashville culture — hopes Nashville does get renewed.
"I'd love to go seven seasons," he says, "I mean, Lost has done that, and they were on an island."
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