Over the past four weeks, primetime viewers have watched a tangled, soapy web of "love, power, money, family and music" unfold on ABC's country music drama Nashville. With every episode, those viewers have essentially had an album of new, original music revealed to them one, two, three tracks at a time. Though the show's ratings have been uneven, the songs are making quite a commercial mark. At press time, six Nashville tracks grace the iTunes country songs chart.
Behind the scenes, the soundtrack of a fictional Music City is curated and overseen by the show's executive music producer and co-composer, Oscar winner T Bone Burnett, whose TV and film credits include O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Hunger Games and Crazy Heart, and who's married to the show's writer and creative executive producer, Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise).
"Callie has an incredible ear," executive producer Steve Buchanan says. "Working to find songs that really fit for that script, that moment, and in giving those songs an emotional edge that matches what's going on with the character."
Inspired by the popularity of music on both reality and scripted television, it was Buchanan (who is also president of the Grand Ole Opry Group) who came up with the idea for Nashville with the intention of using it as a vehicle to sell new music. ABC later cut a deal with Big Machine Records (home to Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift) to release the show's songs.
"With both scripted and non-scripted shows over the last several years, television has become an incredible platform to expose people to [music]," he says. "And I think that one of the great things about the digital platform is the ability to instantaneously purchase something that you just heard that you loved."
For that to work, the show's emotional and musical hooks must tango in tandem. "My sense about our show is that it's not something that we've ever seen before on TV," star Connie Britton told Rolling Stone last month. "Every song you see is something that you're hearing performed live, or you're watching a character write the song or hearing it on the radio."
Each song acts as its own character on the show, playing supporting roles to stars Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Charles Esten, Jonathan Jackson, Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen, who portray musicians and actually sing the tunes in the studio. "Basically we're being five or six different artists' bands, and casting it that way," Buddy Miller, co-producer of the show's music, tells Rolling Stone.
"All of the songs in this show are really good," Miller says. "I think that's one thing that's really important – it was important to [T Bone] . . . You just don't want to do a crap song," he says in defense of "Telescope," a rip-roarin' pop-country sugarbomb sung by Panettiere's troubled teen-pop starlet, Juliette Barnes. The show recently released the song as a single to country radio.
The sounds of Nashville do represent the sonic zeitgeist of the city – and not just what's happening on Music Row. Resident Nashville rock star and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach produced a version of Lucinda Williams' unreleased "Bitter Memory" for Britton's character Rayna Jaymes, a middle-aged country queen in the vein of Faith Hill or Shania Twain.
Although Miller, Burnett and Khouri have reached out to other friends in high places, such as Gillian Welch, Nashville duo the Civil Wars and Elvis Costello, for contributions, they're also taking an old-school A&R approach and scouting the city for pavement-pounding, working-class songwriters for material – songwriters not unlike the show's Gunnar Scott and Avery Barkley.
"Having [a song] in the show, it's just been incredible," says Trent Dabbs, who co-wrote "Undermine" with Kacey Musgraves. The song, a steamy duet sung by Panettiere and Charles Esten, debuted at Number Seven on the iTunes country chart, selling 22,000 copies in its first week. Dabbs has landed mailbox-money song placements before, but he says Nashville is giving him the visibility that downloads and streams – which don't tend to include liner notes – never have. "That's what I feel like is making the show so special," he says. "Because it highlights the authenticity of the song and even gives the writer that much credit."
The show is reaching out to artists on edges of the industry, where the Americana movement is booming. "I think a lot of the writers, if they're not working in that kind of Americana/Bluebird (Café) circle – they write in that little area for themselves," says Miller, who has penned cuts for Brooks and Dunn and the Dixie Chicks, of Music City's songwriting community. He calls it a creative braintrust worthy of Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building. "Nashville is a really cool place," he says. "It's one of the last hold-outs – music Meccas."
"Nothing's been hard about this project, actually, which scares me," Miller says. "It's been a great creative outlet." That's due in large part to ABC giving him and Burnett total autonomy over creative musical decisions, something Burnett's clout and Midas touch make possible.
"I think that's where it comes in really handy to be T Bone Burnett," says Miller. "If it were me, there'd probably be pages of notes, because who am I? T Bone has great taste and T Bone has an incredible track record, and he knows what's gonna work, and they trust him."