Garrett Hedlund set foot on the Opry’s famous circle– the six-foot piece of floor cut from the stage of the Ryman auditorium, and felt the vibes.
It was standing in that spot, as so many others have done, that Hedlund described as “chilling,” considering the greats that had stood there before.
For an actor trying to sink into the role of a young singer-songwriter from Nashville, tapping into the vibes and soul of the city and the people who call it home was a major step in finding that identity.
In his new movie Country Strong, Hedlund stars alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw and Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester. The story follows washed up, booze-addled country singer Kelly Canter (Paltrow) as she gets out of rehab and launches a three-city tour to get her career back on track. Hedlund’s character, Beau Hutton, meets Canter while working at her rehab facility and subsequently finds himself on the road opening for her and wading through a handful of romantic entanglements.
In preparation for the role, Hedlund, who had no prior musical experience, underwent six months of guitar lessons and spent a month and a half in Nashville absorbing the music-rich culture while immersing himself in the lore of country music greats like the Highway Men.
He looked with special regard to “[Kris Kristofferson] and just the soul of what Waylon and Merle and what all these guys brought,” Hedlund said. He tried to take cues from “the great old men, the great storytellers, lovers, drinkers, and musicians.”
It was in going to shows and getting to know “the locals” that Hedlund started putting together a picture of the singer-songwriter.
“Singer-songwriters are sometimes a little more soulful, sad and mumbly, rather than really expressing their words clear for everyone to hear,” he said. “I think the most important thing though, is singer-songwriters have a wonderful sad story to tell. It’s kind of like, ‘Alright, what’s your story? And see if you can make us cry.’”
Much in the way songs and stories attach themselves to each other, “Chances Are,” a song Hedlund’s character sings in Country Strong, found its way into the last moments Hedlund had with his grandfather over the phone.
“My grandpa was in the hospital and said he wasn’t going to make it through this one, so I’d called him up and I’d played him “Amanda” by Waylon Jennings because it’s my sister’s name and she meant the world to him,” Hedlund said. He had left his capo at a friend’s so the next day when he talked to his grandfather again, he sang “Chances Are.”
“I played him “Chances Are” and after I’d sang ‘I’m not the worse love this making, I’m better at the breaking, a guy like me knows how to disappear,’ he passed away at that very moment, which was quite ironic. So, he got to come along to Nashville too,” Hedlund said.
Aside from learning music for the movie, Hedlund played and recorded other songs like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” He said it was a matter of living with the song. “You’d come in and put the song down and you take that home, live with it, sing it over and over, polish it a little bit, and you’d come back in and now you’re putting down a better take,” Hedlund said. “It took time.”
“I always just felt I was the underdog because we knew Gwyneth could sing and Leighton could sing, and Tim didn’t have to sing. I think I was just working hard not to embarrass the director for believing in me,” he said.
At certain point Hedlund found himself more comfortable performing.
“You’ve got that one blast of something in sequence to grab the audience’s attention or feelings and swim around in that pond for a while. I had a blast doing it, and it’s fun to get up at places now,” he said.
“Seeing what Nashville was and what it was about, and the potential, and all the incredible talented and gifted musicians out here,” Hedlund said, “They set the stakes so high.”