'Nashville''s Clare Bowen on Solo Career, the Opry and Elvis Costello

Actress who plays Scarlett drops hints about show's second season

Claire Bowen as Scarlett O'Connor on 'Nashville.'
ABC/Chris Hollo
Claire Bowen as Scarlett O'Connor on 'Nashville.'
By |

Tonight, season two of the sudsy country-music drama Nashville premieres on ABC. Co-star Clare Bowen, who plays the platinum-blonde, wide-eyed Scarlett tells Rolling Stone that fans will find no shortage of new songs, new characters and new conflicts to sink their teeth into.

13 TV Shows to Watch This Fall

Par for the course, though, Bowen only winks and nudges at some of the drama that'll unfold in the front 13. At press time, the show is seven episodes into shooting. Are Scarlett and Gunnar still engaged? "You've gotta watch the show, dude," she says.

'Teasing tidbits without getting too specific, Bowen (who hails from a land Down Under) says viewers will get a greater glimpse into Scarlett's heretofore-mysterious small-town Mississippi past, and she gives the skinny that her character might soon snap if the rest of pseudo Music City keeps treating her like a doormat. She also talks about her own budding songwriting and recording career as result of Nashville's success, how she has a tireless champion in the show's former executive music producer, T Bone Burnett, what it's like to share the stage with Elvis Costello and humblebrags about getting props from Loretta Lynn in the green room of the Grand Ole Opry.

So what can you tell me about what's happened so far in season two?
It's pretty cool. You've got new people, it's all drama, and the best thing about it is we've got wonderful new songs. There's some really amazing stuff coming out. I'm really excited for [the season premiere] – everyone gets to see it.

At this point in shooting, are Scarlett and Gunnar still engaged?
I can't tell you. You've gotta watch the show, dude.

Well, can you tell me if Avery is still in the mix with Scarlett and Gunnar? Or is he, uh, pursuing other endeavors?
I think he's kind of gonna be doing more [with] his career, but he's developing as a person and . . .  you're just gonna have to tune in.

In terms of last season, are you like the rest of us in wondering what the hell Scarlett ever saw in Avery in the first place?
[Pause] No. And I've heard a lot of people say that they really like Avery. He just was hurting, and he did some really stupid stuff. But if anything happens between them, I imagine it'd have to take a lot for any sort of comeback. But it's like the rest of Callie Khouri's writing – anything can happen, so you never know.

How often do fans of the show ask if you and Sam Palladio are an item in real life?
Not really very much. They mostly get on Twitter and [say] they want us to get married.

From the beginning, Scarlett's been at times a kind of comically aw-shucksy character. Is she less of deer in the headlights this season?
It's funny. She is a deer in the headlights. All of last season, [critics] gave her a hard time about that, and I think it's funny, because not a lot of people are brave enough to go, "OK, all right, I'll follow this person [Avery], and I'll dive into a world that I really don't know very much about. And she's a very shy person. Nobody really knows anything about Scarlett's past, and you find out a little bit about that this season. But there is a reason for everything that she does and the way she is. I think at the end of last season you were really seeing her get a lot stronger, so I don't know about the aw-shucks thing. I think she's very shy.

But did you see the humor – intentional or unintentional – in the way the character was written?
Of course. She's a total goofball. She's, like, the most awkward creature on the planet. It's so much fun to play someone like that.

What's been the most ridiculous aspect of taking on that character?
[Just that] she seems so unobtrusive, and people think she'll get walked on all the time. If you do that to a person enough, they'll snap – that's absolutely the most fun part.

Are you suggesting that Scarlett might snap this season?
She miiiight.

You come from a small town in Australia. When you arrived in Nashville to be a part of the show, did you relate to Scarlett in that sense?
Yeah. There was a lot of stuff that we were experiencing at the same time. I think one of the biggest things is wanting to make everybody proud [and] not wanting to let anybody down. So she tries to hide in the background, doesn't make too much noise, doesn't make a mess, doesn't mess up [so] she doesn't embarrass anybody . . . But yeah, discovering Nashville is something that we've done [together] at the same time.

On the Scarlett Scale from one to 10, how goofy are you in comparison to her?
I fall down a lot. I'm ashamedly clumsy. But I think Scarlett is a different creature. She's a lot shyer than I've ever been.

In terms of pursuing your own music career, was that something you anticipated doing in tandem with the show? Or was it like with Scarlett, where it's a happy accident that she falls into this career as a singer-songwriter?
Well [that's] one of the craziest things. I didn't know it was part of the plan from the beginning. T Bone [Burnett] did. He rang my managers in the very beginning – he told me just recently – and they were a little taken aback, but of course ecstatic about it . . . I hadn't explored that [in the past], so when I read the script, that Scarlett had written and kept it to herself, that's kind of what I did. I had the boyfriend who was a musician and I just didn't want to get in the way – it was his thing. When I read the script I was, like, "Whoa! Get out of brain."

So T Bone Burnett is the Watty White figure in your life?
Yeah. But a very different creature, yeah. He's really cool.

Is the music that you write for yourself similar to the music Scarlett sings on the show?
I think there are elements of it that [are]. I take influence from everywhere. All of my most-cherished artists are older. So yeah, there are a couple similarities, but it's blues, it's swing, it's rock, it's a little bit of country, it's folk. It's all sorts of different stuff.

Who are some of your most-cherished artists?
Elvis Presley, Etta James, Edith Piaf, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello. T Bone [Burnett] was one of my, just, most revered people, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch . . . I got to meet Loretta Lynn the other night.

Was she aware of the show?
Yeah, she was. It was really nice. You never expect [to have] Loretta Lynn turn around and say she really likes your voice. She's so lovely. She sent me a little card after we played together on the Grand Ole Opry. I really like the family [vibe] here – it's just a big party in Nashville, everybody's friends and everybody's congratulating each other. It's really cool.

Have you written any songs that are inspired by your experiences working on the show?  That would be pretty meta.
Yeah, there are a couple them in the works. I'm still actually writing. As soon as I get off the phone with you, I'm going off to a writing appointment.

When you say a writing appointment, you mean like with a professional Nashville songwriter?
Yeah, like a session.

Interesting. That's very life-imitates-art. Are you able to say who you're writing with?
I've been writing with Shawn Kemp, and Clay Cook and Casey Black – some really wonderful people.

So you have plans to make your own record and tour, independent of the show?
I think so, yeah. The show is my biggest priority – I mean, I love writing my own music, but I'd never recorded anything of my own until [recently]. I was at the Village in L.A., and that was just amazing. I don't know if people will like it, but hearing my own stuff played back was just like, "Oh, wow!" And T Bone liked it, so I feel pretty good about that.

Do you worry, when you do put something out, that people are going to compare it to the music on the show? Or do you embrace that?
The show is what brought me here. I've met all of these wonderful people who've inspired me and made me feel confident enough to get my own music out.

There's a scene near the end of last season where Scarlett makes her debut on the Grand Ole Opry. How similar was your experience of making your real-life debut there?
It was really similar, actually. The first time I played the Opry it was actually at the Ryman [Auditorium]. The Rockettes were at the Opry House, so I played the Ryman with Vince Gill, and that was just – you wonder how you got there . . . It's kind of like Scarlett standing up there with Deacon. The reception was about the same. It was really cool.

So Deacon's the Vince Gill of Nashville, on Nashville?
Um, I don't know about that. I think he has a lot of the same humor, but I'd say he's a very well-respected person in Nashville. I wouldn't equate the two.

Earlier this year I saw you sing with Elvis Costello at charity benefit in a hotel ballroom. Was it intimidating to sing with him?
That blew my mind! I was like, "don't screw up, don't screw up, don't screw up," but Elvis is one of the most laid-back dudes that I've ever met. He's wonderful. It was a huge honor. And to sing a song that T Bone and him wrote together, that was really special.

Yeah, whose idea was it for the two of you to sing "The Scarlet Tide"?
Oh, T Bone and Elvis probably schemed that one, I would think.

x