"Should we Rayna-and-Deacon it up?" Connie Britton asked her Nashville co-star Charles Esten on stage last night at Music City's jam-packed 3rd & Lindsley club, before the duo debuted "At the End of the Day." The song, a slow-burning relationship requiem yet to air on the ABC country music drama, was one of many moments that made a two-plus-hour concert celebrating the series' music feel like a scene ripped from its scripts.
Part of the Nashville Songwriters Association International's annual Tin Pan South festival, the showcase featured surprise performances from Hayden Panettiere, Charles Esten, Jonathan Jackson, Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen, marking the first time the series' stars have performed live for an audience that wasn't comprised of extras. A five-piece band led by Colin Linden and Buddy Miller, co-producers behind the show's music, backed the actor-singers.
Onstage after singing his character's signature sad-bastard ballad, "Sideshow," Esten likened working with Linden, Miller and the show's executive music producer, T Bone Burnett, to riding in a beautiful car in a Main Street parade.
Unplanned, the Connie Britton appearance came as a total surprise, even to Miller and Linden, who scrambled to fill space while Esten – who'd just ostensibly closed out the show with his rollicking take on Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Match Box Blues" – ran back to the green room for a quick, last-minute rehearsal with his co-star after getting a whisper in his ear.
The pair took the stage hand in hand, with Britton garnering a godlike reception from the crowd and harnessing every ounce of Rayna Jaymes' star power. Facing each other, seated on barstools, Britton and Esten locked eyes and, as suggested, Rayna and Deacon-ed it up for the dark, rustic "At the End of the Day," which centered around a fitting "I wish I could quit you" lyrical theme.
Panettiere's appearance came as an even bigger surprise. Decked out in denim, the actress sauntered into the club straight from the set, where she'd spent the night filming an emotional scene. "I was bawlin' all night long," she told the crowd, asking them to excuse her mascara smears. For the show's second and final unplanned encore, Panettiere and songwriter Kate York performed the Juliette Barnes pop-country juggernaut, "Telescope." The star was all smiles during her performance, comically making light of her awkward stage moves and doing "we're not worthy" bows at the band during "Telescope's" instrumental sections.
Last night was the first time Britton or Panettiere had performed live since Nashville's debut. "I'm trying really hard not to be scared," Britton confessed.
Perhaps the night's centerpiece performance came courtesy of steamy Nashville duet all-stars Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen. "Gunnar knows her very well right now, verrrry well," Palladio joked when introducing Bowen. With his crushed velvet blazer and bow tie and his coiffure slathered in pomade, he treated the crowd to an original, the very Mumfords-y "Wake Me Up in Nashville." The Australian actress appeared beside herself with glee as she busted into her character Scarlett's exaggerated Mississippi accent and belted out the bouncy, banjo-driven "Looking for a Place to Shine."
The pair brought the room to a pin-drop silence with a dramatic "If I Didn't Know Better," Nashville's first bona fide winner. As Bowen emoted and Palladio pierced the stratosphere on the high harmonies, it was clear the couple's musical chemistry is no put-on.
Fresh-faced Canadian sister-act Lennon and Maisy Stella (who play the Conrad kids on Nashville) showcased their own natural chemistry, opening the show with an undeniably adorable cover of the Lumineers' "Ho Hey."
And Jonathan Jackson, who plays Nashville's tortured-artist antagonist, Avery Barkley, debuted his piano-and-floor-tom heavy, Fray-like torch ballad "The Morning After the Rain," which he promised would appear in a future Nashville episode. Jackson then strapped on a six-string and pumped up the volume on the swampy Elvis Costello rocker "Twist of Barbwire," which climaxed in a scorching guitar duel between Linden and Miller.
The gig also showcased many of the songwriters behind Nashville's tunes, including real-life Nashville characters like York, Erin McCarley (who also plays Adria on the show), Tyler James, Sarah Buxton and Gary Nicholson, who played OST favorites like "I Will Fall" and "Stronger Than Me." York and Buxton previewed "Nothin' in this World," a melancholy, Roy Orbison-influenced sonic melodrama complete with descending guitar lines and heartbroken harmonies perfectly pitched to accompany an ending credits sequence.
Actor Chris Carmack, a new cast member, who makes his debut as Will (Gunnar and Scarlett's hunky new neighbor) on tonight's episode, also performed. "Watch Nashville tomorrow night and then you'll know who I am," he told the crowd.