First Glee took on pop songs. Then Smash tackled show tunes. Starting Wednesday night, country music gets the TV treatment with the premiere of Nashville. Soundtracked by a rollicking playlist courtesy of executive music producer T Bone Burnett, Nashville is poised to fit right in with its fellow frothy ABC powerhouse dramas Revenge and 666 Park Avenue. The series stars Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes, the "reigning queen of country" who is no longer immune to the fickle trends of the music business. While in New York recently, the three-time Emmy-nominated actress (Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story) spoke to us about working with Burnett, her affinity for rhinestones and what was more challenging – singing or that whole sex-with-a-ghost-in-a-rubber-suit scene in AHS.
One of the opening scenes of the pilot takes place at the Grand Ole Opry. Did you shoot it there?
We did! One of the things that's been so amazing is that Nashville has really rolled out the red carpet for us. And one of our executive producers on the show [Steve Buchanan], I don't know if he runs the Grand Ole Opry, but he's very involved with it, so we have full access to the Opry, to the Ryman [Auditorium]. It's just really dreamy.
Since the entire show is shot in Nashville, do you have any favorite music clubs there yet?
Well, the sad truth is, I don't, because we are working all the time [laughs]. I haven't had a ton of time to go hear music, but one place that's really cool and fun is the Station Inn, which is this little hole in the wall – a lot of places in Nashville are like this – where the most wonderful artists come, on any random night, and play music.
Sudsy dramas have become ABC's calling card these days, with shows like Revenge and now 666 Park Avenue and Nashville. What's your take on being a part of this very successful television trend?
It's funny, because everybody is like, "Oh, you're going to be doing a soap!" and I'm like, "I'm not doing a soap!" [Laughs]
Notice I didn't say "soap," I said "sudsy drama."
I know, and I appreciated that. That's an interesting take on it! I'm all for whatever their style of show is, but I'm always going to look for the deeper, more complex angles. So my hope is that the show does great on its own, that it has all the elements that ABC wants it to have and has something that's also different for them. That's always my goal.
Another popular television genre that Nashville falls into is that of the musical. How does it set itself apart from shows like Glee or Smash?
I have to admit I haven't seen Smash and I haven't seen very much Glee – my apologies to my beloved Ryan Murphy [creator of Glee and American Horror Story]. My sense about our show is that it's not something that we've ever seen before on TV. The music is part of these people's lives – it's not like we suddenly break into song. 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. Nashville is a town where you walk down the street and you hear music playing, so the music is really the backdrop for what's happening, and it's interwoven in a way that I think is going to be really cool for the audience.
Did you have a musical background before you started working on Nashville?
I did musical theater when I was younger, and I took singing lessons. but then I just left it behind. As I was coming up as an actor, I saw people around me who just had these incredible voices, and I was like, "OK, I'm going to leave that to them." And when [Nashville] came along, it seemed like such an exciting challenge to see if I could jump back into that. In retrospect, maybe seeing if I could develop my voice on network television might have been setting the stakes a little bit high for me [laughs], because it certainly has been, "OK! Here we go! Jump into the pool!" But a lot of the reason I did it was to have the opportunity to work with T Bone Burnett on the music, and specifically on creating a character. I don't think I would've done it if it was just about being a singer. I think that because I was playing this character for whom we were going to create a very specific voice, it's really been a wonderful challenge and joy to do that.
Tell me about working with T Bone Burnett.
It really is everything it's cracked up to be. Before I worked with him, I was thinking to myself, "What is it with this guy? What is it that he does, exactly?" I knew he was an incredible music producer, but I didn't know what that entailed. So when I started setting up sessions to work with him, and I would go to his studio, initially I was like, "What's going to happen?" And when we started, we spent a lot of time – I mean, hours – listening to music. And he would pull up all kinds of different artists, really old singers and obscure stuff that I'd never heard of before, and then we would just talk about it and talk about the character.
Who did he play for you?
The more obscure stuff was [artists like] Memphis Minnie, but then we'd listen to Hank Williams or Emmylou Harris. There's a huge list of stuff, and then he literally put together a disk drive full of thousands of songs for me, all of which is "Rayna" music. Songs she would've listened to, songs that might have inspired her, songs that might have impacted the way her voice sounds. And then he would pull out his guitar and we would sing duets together. We would sing Hank Williams songs or Johnny Cash songs, and he'd sing harmonies. It's truly been an immersion.
So what's been more of a challenge – singing or simulating sex with a teenage ghost in a rubber suit?
Everything I did after Friday Night Lights had to have something very specific that I felt was challenging me as an actor. So first I went for sex with the rubber man, and that really scared the shit out of me when I had to do it [laughs], but when I first started singing on this show, I would've given up my microphone for that rubber dude. Because the singing was so terrifying. [That scene from American Horror Story] seemed like a piece of cake compared to singing, let's put it that way.
On Nashville, Rayna is dealing with low album and ticket sales, prompting her handlers to suggest she open for a younger country-pop crossover act (played by Hayden Panettiere). Do you think this is a commentary on what has befallen so many talented and successful recording artists today?
I do, and that's one of the things that I thought that was interesting about the idea of the show, which is trying to shed some light on that for a mainstream audience. It's happening to artists of every type and every age. [The show] is about what our values are, as part of the culture and as artists, and what we need to do to get music out there, because people aren't buying music the way they used to. We all get music now in very different ways. The artists are suffering for it, and therefore have to compensate for it. And it creates a tricky situation.
Rayna initially comes off as a pretty decent person, but she's got plenty of skeletons in her closet. So many of the characters on these "sudsy dramas" are so multilayered – not necessarily good, not necessarily bad. Do you think she has enough redeeming qualities in order to not classify her as one of the more shady characters on the show?
Oh, yeah. There are plenty of villains on our show, and I don't think Rayna is one of them. But she's not perfect, and I love playing characters that are flawed. But she also has a strong sense of who she is, and a strength about that, and in the midst of that she's flawed. I think most people are trying to be good people, and everybody's dealing with their own demons. And that's true for villains, too.
How are you liking Rayna's blinged-out, country-chic look?
Oh, my gosh. I have often said that the reason why I did this show was because of the rhinestones. Not only do I get to wear all this amazing bejeweled stuff, but also, because Rayna is a very successful music star – and in case you haven't been paying attention, these girls know how to dress. I'm wearing Dolce and Gabbana, I'm wearing Gucci, I'm wearing Oscar de la Renta. I'm wearing the most beautiful designer stuff. Every time I have a wardrobe fitting I'm just like, "Oh, goody goody goody!"
Do you have any fun plans to watch the premiere?
I was talking about that with Callie Khouri, our show's creator [and T Bone Burnett's wife], the other day. We were thinking about maybe screening it at the Ryman, but then she's like, "But we'll probably just be shooting." [Laughs] In my head, we're going to be watching it at the Ryman and having an amazing experience, but I may just be at work.
Nashville airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.