Nashville TV Show Premiere Review: Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere Make Country Music Mainstream

Country music is so uniquely American that I honestly don't know if it can cross international lines; heck, sometimes I don't even know if it can really cross the Mason Dixon line. Brad Paisley puts it best in his song “This is Country Music” when he sings “it ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks/ little towns and mama/ yea that might be true/ but this is country music and we do.” These reasons that might make country music square are the very same reasons that I love it, and the very same reasons why I’m blocking off an hour every Wednesday evening to devote to the new ABC series Nashville. It’s about time this often-snubbed genre gets the mainstream credit and recognition it deserves.

There should be t-shirts out there that say, “I like every type of music … except country.” This phrase seems to be a chorus heard across the country; case and point New York City – yes a Yankee city but still, the biggest city in the nation – doesn’t have a country music radio station. A small point, but one that speaks to the genre’s seat very clearly at the loser’s table. Modern cross-over artists like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood certainly can be credited with making country music a little more-user friendly – a little less down-home honky tonk, tractor pulling and mason jars of moonshine – but Swift's latest single certainly makes it sound like country’s darling is trading her boot-scoots in for some dubstep. Nashville is coming in at just the right moment.

The series promises a backstage look at this southern city, the epicenter of country music. The show is anchored in a storyline about fictional country music legend Rayna James (Connie Britton) and the hot young thing, today’s big country-pop sensation Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). There is a girl-war waging between the two icons, as James is asked by her label to co-headline (and later open) for the successful and comparitively mainstream Barnes. There have been suggestions that the Barnes character is based on real-life Taylor Swift, but stardom and blond hair are all these two seem to have in common. Britton though, does a fair bit to channel the 1990’s generation of country-music mega stars like Faith Hill. 

Britton’s turn on Nashville is anticipated to be as successful as all her television roles seem to be. On Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story Britton racked up Emmy nominations and served as both the rock and the heart of the program. In Nashville Britton provides that same rock solid presence, only now with a little more make up and a little more twang.

There are the hints that Nashville will teeter off the brink and fall right into the dreaded pool of soap opera status. Already in the premiere there are convoluted love stories, a poisonous family situation, and a teary-eyed phone call. These might be warning signs, but they are also signs of some of the key ingredients of successful country music: melodrama and backstory.

The melodrama, in the pilot at least, is nicely balanced with the music, and there’s hope that the show’s songs will further a little country music excitement of their own; future episodes will feature music by Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello.

What remains to be seen is if Nashville stays true to its country roots and gives us a show about music, about “tractors, trucks, little towns, and mama.” Or, if the show goes the all too familiar cross-over root and leaves its cowboy boots and dirt road anthems, for dubstep and big city dreams.

Nashville premieres on ABC on October 10 at 10 p.m.