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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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