You don’t have to be a fan of country music to like “Nashville.” Then again, you don’t have to be a fan of country music to like country music these days, either.
ABC’s gripping, soapy new musical drama is one of the best new shows of the season. It pits an old-school purist against the kind of overproduced crossover act responsible for watering down the genre while taking it mainstream. The battle for the heart of the city will be waged in dressing rooms, bedrooms, recording studios, voting booths and the parking lot of the famous Bluebird Cafe.
After only one episode, “Nashville” will prove irresistible — and so will guessing which real-life entertainers line up with the show’s fictional stars.
Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton of “Friday Night Lights”) is an industry legend, but she’s being put out to pasture because she insists on singing traditional country fare that doesn’t translate to ticket sales. Shades of Reba McEntire? Trisha Yearwood? Faith Hill?
Trying to shove Rayna off stage for good is Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere of “Heroes”), who uses backstabbing and bed-hopping to fuel her rise on the pop charts. Is she Carrie Underwood? Kellie Pickler? Taylor Swift?
Actually, Panettiere has insisted that snippy, sexually manipulative teen-queen Juliette is not based on Swift, but someone should have notified the show’s stylists, who dress Panettiere in short, glittery tube dresses and curl her blond hair into Swift’s signature spirals.
But beyond looks, Juliette has none of Swift’s supposed innocence: She abuses her assistant over things like her signature fragrance’s new bottle. But part of her nature is explained when she finally breaks down and accepts a phone call from her mom.
For Rayna, Juliette’s success is a bitter pill to swallow, and the younger singer rubs it in, gushing, “My mama was one of your biggest fans!” before poaching Rayna’s bandleader by first stroking his ego and then moving on to his other parts.
Nastiness between the singers first bubbles up at a tribute to beloved pioneer Watty White, portrayed in a clever bit of casting by JD Souther, the real life country-rock songwriter. White acts as mentor to Rayna, so he’s with her backstage after the show when the record label suits arrive with bad news.
Their plan to make Rayna the opening act for Juliette on tour doesn’t go over well. To make matters worse, Rayna’s own daughters sing along with Juliette’s single in the backseat until she angrily turns off the radio, snapping, “Mama has a headache.” When she finds out her producer is working with Juliette now too, she knows she needs a plan.
In a city where good songs get snatched up and recorded fast, the battle for the next chart topper might come down to who’s smart enough to notice the potential in that new waitress at the Bluebird Café, the one with a notebook of poems about a boyfriend who makes her sad.
Show creator and writer Callie Khouri once waited tables in Nashville herself before she won an Oscar for writing “Thelma Louise.” She brings along husband T Bone Burnett as executive musical producer, and the results in the pilot had me checking iTunes to see if anything from the show was available yet.
“Nashville” is much more than a catfight set to good music, though. Rayna’s past hounds her at every turn, and none of her relationships is simple. As her power-broker father, Powers Boothe brings his usual Old West-style malevolence to his attempts to bring his famous daughter back into the fold. Rayna’s struggle to stay independent is undercut by her husband, Teddy (Eric Close), who thinks it’s insane to let a trust fund go to waste.
Rayna will need her friends, but she’s not waiting for anyone to tell her what to do after years spent clawing her way to the top — before all it took was cleavage and Auto-Tune. At 40, Rayna looks just fine in her Wranglers, and it’s criminal that any industry, even one obsessed with looks, would dismiss her as over-the-hill. To prove everyone wrong, she’ll have to take on her father, her husband, her record label and the tart everyone thinks is sweet.
“I’m not ready to hang up my rhinestones just yet,” Rayna declares in a moment of defiance. If the series keeps the steamy scripts coming, there’s no reason she should have to.