The big event in Nashville this week was the 49th annual CMA Awards, of course, but the next night the five leading men of ABC’s Nashville — Chris Carmack, Will Chase, Charles Esten, Jonathan Jackson and Sam Palladio — again walked the red carpet.
The occasion was Thursday’s return of the CMA Songwriters Series to Music City at the Country Music Hall of Fame. In its 11th season, the series highlights the backbone of country music: those who craft the melodies, harmonies and lyrics. The small-screen quintet brought songwriters on stage to join them for an in-the-round session that was at various times sweet, silly and sorrowful. (Chase, who plays megastar “Luke Wheeler” on the primetime drama, called the last category “sad bastard” songs).
The actors, four of whom also write their own music, played both original tunes and those that have appeared on the show (and in some cases, the two were one and the same). Chase is the one actor and singer who doesn’t write, and told reporters on the red carpet earlier in the evening that he prefers performing and doesn’t harbor secret songwriter fantasies. In addition to singing, Chase functioned as the evening’s emcee, and was later dubbed “banter guy” as he kept the sold-out audience entertained while Esten (who plays “Deacon Claybourne”) tuned his guitar. Highlights included Chase’s rendition of “If I Drink This Beer,” a song Luke sang on the show, and “He Ain’t Me,” a cheeky Esten original.
Joining the Nashville guys were hit songwriters Chris Gelbuda, Trent Dabbs, Travis Meadows and Jonathan Singleton. Gelbuda told Rolling Stone that he saw some of elements of his own life played out in the characters on the show, particularly “Avery Barkley” (played by Jackson). He took those emotions into account while penning the wistful “History of My Heart” — which he performed with Jackson Thursday night.
“I’m very grateful to the show. I think a lot of the general population doesn’t understand what it means to be a writer, and I think the show has helped that,” Gelbuda said.
The audience swooned over the actor-singers’ easy camaraderie, their stories, their music and their missteps. When Carmack, who plays “Will Lexington,” momentarily forgot the lyrics to a song, he confessed, “I do this once a day.” He played several songs from his own EP to be released next month, including the title track “Pieces of You.”
Palladio said the process of playing “Gunnar Scott” and getting to know other tunesmiths in the city has improved his own songwriting. “Five years ago my writing was more cerebral,” he told Rolling Stone Country. “Now there’s more simplicity to it. I appreciate the simplicity of a well-written song melody.”
Palladio revealed that he and Carmack get together on Wednesday nights to watch the show, drink a little whiskey and write — an event they call “tweets and beats.” The two performed several songs that came out of those collaborations at the CMA Songwriters event.
“Before, I used to write songs by myself in a dark room on a couch, brooding,” said Carmack. “Now, it’s pop a beer and say, ‘What do you want to write about?'”