Like late blues legend Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil some 284 miles south of Music City in Clarksdale, Miss., the characters in Nashville -- the ABC soap, not the municipality -- have reached a crossroads.
From the show’s opening moments, when bare-faced teen hitmaker Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) is seen and heard in the recording studio working out the kinks to a gritty duet with Deacon Claybourne (Charles Estin), while fading queen Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), clad in sparkle-heavy make-up and a sexy red dress, struts to her own tune for a slap-happy television commercial, sometimes it can be hard for country stars to look themselves in the mirror.
Rayna, whose label iced her for refusing to open for Juliette, is reduced to rewriting one of her songs for an ad -- which is to say, for a paycheck. As for the credibility-starved Juliette? Rebounding from a botched post-shoplifting PR campaign, she grinds the band down seeking a magic she may not posses, as her manager rues the time spent building her up.
Back at home, Juliette faces a crisis all too common for many musicians: addiction. Not her own (though kleptomania may point to deeper psychological issues), but her mother’s. She enlists the help of Deacon, himself in recovery, but the guitarist-singer-songwriter (and therapist to all the women in his life, it seems), is still battling his own demons -- the ones urging him to sell out by agreeing to a lyric change for Rayna’s TV ad.
Secondary character Teddy (Eric Close), running for mayor with Rayna’s father Lamar (Powers Booth) playing puppeteer, buckles under the weight of skeletons and the ghosts of a business deal gone bad. Further obfuscating issues of morality and truth: socialite mistress Pegi (Kimberly Williams Paisley).
Meanwhile, young guns Avery (Jonathan Jackson), Gunnar (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett (Clare Bowen) are getting more and more entangled in their own web of ambition and envy. Given the opportunity to play their songs for Lady Antebellum producer Paul Worley (a real person, but played by someone else), they seem to blow their “shot” by letting their longing looks get in the way of professionalism.
Truth be told, for a complete newcomer to get an audience with Lady A’s A&R would require some serious connections, which the wide-eyed Scarlett does has in her uncle Deacon. But would making googly eyes at each other really take the songwriting team out of contention?
The managers stand by, callously doing what’s good for business. Who’d mess with all this drama? Or want to?
If today’s stars stay between the lines better than Nashville’s, it may be because they’re driven more by money, fame and business than musical passion or desire to speak their truth or someone else’s. As for the TV version, it’s where simple decisions go sideways from vanity, greed and desperation -- sexual or fiscal. What can you live with? Or without?
Country’s numbers today -- Taylor Swift moved 1.5 million albums in two weeks, making it the second biggest seller of 2012 behind Adele; Jason Aldean sold out three baseball stadiums (in Boston!) in minutes -- mean that having your affairs in order is as much of more important than hitting the notes. Because if business unravels, too much is at stake.
To that end, attempt at authenticity is still tantamount where Nashville is concerned, and on Wednesday’s episode, Grammy-winning mandolinist Sam Bush and longtime Dolly Parton sideman/Grascal fiddler Jimmy Mattingly were seen swapping instruments in Deacon’s Bluebird Café band. You have to know Nashville -- the city and the scene -- to notice, but leave it to creator Callie Khouri and Co. to lob one in for the hardcore musos.