In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs we’ve discovered via TV shows.
Nashville started out as one of the most promising pilots of the fall 2012 TV season. It was billed as a women-led drama about the country music industry, focusing on established star Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) fighting off young upstart Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). But the show took many wild turns (paternity mysteries, under-the-table political dealings, drug addiction) even before the first season was over; now in its third season, Nashville can be so soapy it would make the cast of Dynasty do a collective eyeroll. Which is not to say that it’s not entertaining, even now when our hero Deacon is as sick as Greta Garbo in Camille, and dastardly Jeff Fordham still looks like he’s about to tie Layla to a railroad track, despite his attempts to redeem himself. But Nashville’s main draw, which no other show has, is its music.
Legendary musician and producer T Bone Burnett (and husband of Nashville creator Callie Khouri) was the show’s first “executive music producer,” which led to an amazing first-run selection of songs. Burnett dropped out in season two to work on other projects, but by that point, Nashville’s songwriting community, as well as the entire country industry, knew that getting a song on the show was immediate and valuable exposure (which could also possibly wind up on iTunes the next day). The show has since released several albums, some by season, some broken down by individual performer. I find Claire Bowen’s ethereal vocals a bit floaty, although she sounds more grounded when she’s effectively paired with her on-again, off-again on-screen paramour Sam Palladio. Jonathan Jackson, who writes some of his own songs, offers the world the emo country star it didn’t know it needed. The characters of Rayna Jaymes, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) et al. crank out catchy country hits that sound more radio-friendly than most tracks you’d hear on stations like US 99.5.
But it’s Hayden Panettiere who has been the show’s revelation from the beginning. Her Juliette Barnes started out as country music’s answer to Katy Perry, singing about “Boys And Buses” and loudly proclaiming “I’m A Girl” (like this was news). As Juliette tapped more into her feelings about her trailer-park upbringing and hanging out with actual songwriters like Deacon and Avery, she started crafting songs (fictionally, I realize) that showed that she had more to offer than pop-tart talents. Her Deacon duet “Undermine,” the first song to highlight this, kicked off a line of amazing Panettiere performances. One of my favorites on the second album from season one—“We Are Water”—barely appeared on the show, as Juliette just tossed off a few lines while songwriting in her living room.
But if I have to point to Panettiere’s peak so far (and I’m sure there will be more, although her real-life pregnancy has led to her diminished presence on the show this season), it would have to be her season-one ender, “Nothing In This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again.”
By the end of season one, Nashville had gone full-on soap, so the finale had just about everything you could throw into the mix: a marriage proposal, a cliffhanger car crash, a long-sober character falling off the wagon. Juliette spends the episode attending her junkie mother’s funeral, after she has sacrificed herself in a murder-suicide to save her daughter’s career, somehow. To deal with her grief, Juliette turns to Avery to help her write a song to perform at a place where, despite her arena status, she’s never played: the low-key but legendary Nashville venue The Bluebird. I don’t know exactly what about the song makes it country—it even has a string section—but Panettiere completely sells it as the distraught and abandoned young Juliette prays for a strength she does not have, but fervently hopes to find. I’m not saying Nashville offers musical revelations like this one every single week, but there are enough of them to make this show immensely more valuable than its careening storylines would indicate.