The Music Of Nashville (Season 1, Volume 2)
(Big Machine Records)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Being a fan of ABC’s country music drama Nashville requires the ability to put up with a lot of silliness to get to the good stuff. From a strictly narrative standpoint, there are many frustrating elements (Gunnar and Scarlett’s on-again, off-again, who-gives-a-crap affair, Gunnar’s deadbeat brother, Gunnar’s vigilante attempts to avenge his deadbeat brother, the Nashville mayoral campaign, Rayna’s sad-sack ex-husband and his tryst with Mrs. Brad Paisley, Avery’s overall jerky attitude, Avery’s cougar manager, Scarlett’s availability to constantly secure music contracts despite showing up at every audition like a train wreck, pretty much anything to do with Scarlett) and some things that really work (Deacon, Deacon’s boy dog named Sue, Juliette’s catty comments to Rayna, any time Powers Boothe glowers at someone with a glass of liquor in his hand.)
The show’s salvation has always been the musical performances, whether they take the form of concert snippets or soundtracks for end-of-show montages. Yet a funny thing happens to that music when it’s taken all at one sitting, as in the newest collection of show tunes The Music Of Nashville (Season 1, Volume 2.) Removed from their context, those songs cohere to become a tasteful, well-written collection of roots music that could actually use some of that narrative craziness to spice things up.
Regular watchers of the show know that many of the characters on the show regularly battle with whether to make their music more commercial or to stick to their ideals and integrity and let the audience find them. Most of them choose integrity, which means that a lot of these songs have the feel of interesting album cuts. The only song on Volume 2 that sounds like a surefire hit is the one that already is: The cover of the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” by Lennon and Maisy Stella, who play the daughters of Connie Britton’s Rayna.
Opening track “Fade Into You,” a moody duet by Claire Bowen (Scarlett) and Sam Palladio (Gunnar), is emblematic of what Volume 2 delivers. The two characters can be infuriating (and it should be noted that the writers bear the blame for that and not the actors), but their voices blend well and they do a fine job on this track of portraying lovers who would each willingly subordinate their individual personalities for the other. Yet the show wants us to believe that Bowen’s character is a songwriter of unlimited commercial potential. This track seems much more like confessional indie rock than country-radio gold.
In another example of disconnect between the show’s intent and musical reality, Rayna Jaymes is supposed to be the reigning diva of country music, but it’s hard to imagine that based on Britton’s performances. She hits all the notes just fine, but her voice lacks color. When she sings the gritty rocker “Bitter Memory,” it’s not a good sign that the mind wanders to what the song’s writer, Lucinda Williams, could have done with the source material.
Britton only seems to come to life in song when she plays off Charles Esten’s Deacon; their heartbreaking duet “No One Will Ever Love You” was the highlight of Volume 1 and the show to date. Alas, Esten is nowhere to be found on this disc, leaving Hayden Panettiere to carry the load as the vocal MVP.
Panettiere’s performance as Juliette Barnes has been fun to watch even when the rest of the show loses its way, and her versatility as a singer has been revelatory. On this disc, she proves adept at putting across both Patty Griffin’s metaphor-heavy “We Are Water” and the defiant ballad “Nothing In This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again.” On the latter song, she lets enough doubt and hurt show in her voice to make that title statement really mean something.
If there is a surprise on Volume 2, it’s that the standout performance comes from Jonathan Jackson, whose character Avery was originally meant to be a rockabilly bad boy, a role Jackson was ill-equipped to play or sing. After Avery traded in his old band and girlfriend in favor of a record deal that he eventually bungled, he returned to Nashville humbled and performed the ballad “Let There Be Lonely” on the piano at an open-mike night.
The song, written by the The Secret Sisters’ Laura and Lydia Rogers and hit songwriter Gordie Sampson, is a gem of exquisite anguish, and Jackson knocks it out of the park. “Let There Be Lonely” is one example of The Music Of Nashville (Season 1, Volume 2) soaring without any narrative context required. It’s also proof that genuine emotion trumps artistic integrity every time.