In the premiere, we introduce viewers to all of the main characters of this musical drama, and the landscape on which it unfolds: Nashville. If you’re going to brand the name of your city on your show, you’re setting the bar of authenticity pretty high—for people who have never been here and for residents who have certain expectations about the details, from the tone of a recording session to the size of the sound board in the Bluebird Café.
To achieve that, 100% of Nashville’s first episode was shot on the location of that particular scene. The Bluebird segment really is the iconic songwriter listening room in a shopping center less than five miles from Music Row; the Capitol building really is the 153-year-old Greek Revival limestone structure on the highest point of downtown, and the Capitol Grill in the historic Hermitage Hotel just one block away has been the site of Nashville’s most powerful political power lunches for over a century.
The opening sweep of the show is a panorama of some of the city’s most recognized landmarks----the Opryland Hotel, Printer’s Alley, the Ryman Auditorium, Lower Broadway, the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, LP Field and of course, our beloved Batman Building. (It’s hard to miss those bat ears.) Nashville’s newest residential and entertainment hotspot--—The Gulch—is also spotlighted.
The Grand Ole Opry plays a starring role in Nashville’s debut. It’s ironic that the acrimonious conflict between the two leading ladies—idolized superstar Rayna James and shooting star ‘ingénue’ (as Rayna dismissively describes her) Juliette Barnes---is set in motion at one of the most convivial places in live entertainment.
The Opry is the longest-continuously broadcast radio show in America---we celebrate our 87th birthday this month. Since 1974, it has been staged at the Opry House, about 15 miles from its previous home at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The live Saturday night shows take place in the Opry House before an audience of more than 4000. Every show is a mix of veteran Opry members like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ricky Skaggs, Martina McBride and Vince Gill; new members like Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton and Keith Urban; guest appearances by non-members like Miranda Lambert and The Civil Wars; bluegrass, gospel, traditional country, new country, folk, comedy and square dancing. That’s a lot of action for a two-hour show.
The real action though takes place in the wings—particularly stage right where entertainers come on and off stage--and in the halls backstage lined with lockers, dressing rooms, memorabilia and framed photos of members and famous guests.
Among the casualties of Nashville’s devastating May 2010 flood was the Opry House, which was under four feet of water from the Cumberland River. When we reopened five months later it was with a new stage—save for the historic six foot circle of wood cut from the Ryman in the center—and 18 renovated dressing rooms, each with a different theme and décor. Every Opry show, performers are assigned a room, though in truth most of the 200 or so people backstage on any given show spend much of their night visiting in the wings, halls or central Green Room.
When Rayna—who is a member of the Opry---comes off stage after performing one of her big hits, her bandleader/guitarist Deacon Claybourne introduces her to his young and worshipful niece Scarlett O’Connor and her beau/aspiring alt-country musician Avery Barkley. As they chat, to their left is the oldest member of the Opry, Little Jimmy Dickens, talking with Opry General Manager Pete Fisher and yours truly. It’s a place we’ve all three stood thousands of nights.
Meanwhile, that night’s guest artist Juliette is sulking in her ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ dressing room, irritated at her manager who insists she meet Rayna and ‘kiss the ring’ of country royalty, which is not exactly how she sees her elder. On her way there, she navigates through the main hall crowded with people, among them Deacon, who is hanging out with bluegrass master Del McCoury and his band. In the foyer is Jeannie Seely and at the other end of the hall is country newcomer Eric Paslay (who wrote “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” featured in the intro to this episode) and long-time Opry member Jimmy C. Newman.
Callie Khouri, series creator and writer, and RJ Cutler, director, both worked tirelessly to get it right at the Opry and everywhere else we shot with the ultimate goal of making a compelling television drama rooted in authenticity.
Inside Rayna’s ‘Women of Country” dressing room, the initial meeting between these two women does not go well, sparks fly and the stage is set for upcoming professional and personal fireworks. It’s not unusual for long-term relationships to begin backstage at the Opry, but this one promises to be quite a bit more volatile than most.
While all is good-natured camaraderie onstage, what goes on behind closed doors is another matter altogether.
[A second-generation member of the Opry makes an appearance in a later scene at the Bluebird. Can you spot her?]