“I know how to love you now,” Deacon said to Rayna on the Season Two finale of ABC’s musical drama, Nashville, just after the longtime object of his affection accepted a marriage proposal from another guy. And with that line, Chip Esten became not just the actor who plays tormented musician Deacon Claybourne on the show, but also a staff songwriter and screenwriter… at least for one sentence.
“I Know How to Love You Now” is the title of a song that Esten will perform live on tonight’s Season Three premiere of Nashville. He co-wrote the tune with country hitmaker Deana Carter, whom he met on an airplane.
“She knew me because her kids were big fans of Jessie [the Disney Channel show on which Esten played a father of four]; I knew her because she was Deana Carter!” the actor-musician tells Rolling Stone Country. “We kept threatening to write together and finally did. The song was not about Deacon and Rayna when we went to write it, but when we finished it, it sure was.”
Esten, along with Chris Carmack (who plays “Will Lexington”) and real-life country stars Florida Georgia Line, will all help Nashville make history on tonight’s season premiere. It will be the first time ever that a scripted, primetime TV drama has included live musical performances. All three artists will sing from the set’s impressively detailed replica of Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café, performing once for east coast viewers and again for the west coast. Rolling Stone Country was invited to watch all three acts prep for the show on Tuesday, alongside their bands of veteran Nashville musicians and the show’s musical director, Americana legend Buddy Miller.
“I wasn’t really nervous about it at all until we did this rehearsal,” Carmack told us after running through his song, “If It’s Love,” penned by singer-songwriter duo Striking Matches. “It’s not just playing with a live band, in front of an audience of millions… that’s not the scary part. It’s all this technical stuff that goes into making this happen; there are a lot of moving parts. It’s mind-boggling.”
Esten will also play guitar for Florida Georgia Line on their chart-topping hit, “Dirt.” Even just two years into their first major label record deal, performing on live television is old hat for the duo, who have taken the stage at awards show after multi-genre awards show. But FGL’s Brian Kelley says there’s a different feeling going in to tonight’s performance. “Nashville is a huge show, and it’s different than an awards show because the Bluebird stage is so much more intimate,” he tells us. “We’re just excited to be able to represent country music in this fashion; it’s a huge look for country and Florida Georgia Line.”
While the three songs will be in a live broadcast, the drama is already on tape. Tonight’s show will switch back and forth between the Bluebird Café set and pre-recorded scenes that continue the cliffhangers of last season. Esten is, of course, tight lipped over whether Rayna (played by Connie Britton) will choose his character or country superstar Luke Wheeler, played by Will Chase. Deacon and Rayna are the dramatic equivalent of Friends‘ Ross and Rachel, but it may not take the whole show ending to finally see the two in romantic harmony.
“Connie was on a show called Friday Night Lights where… just because you’re a happy couple doesn’t mean they don’t show that. So if these two characters eventually get together, I have no doubt they could keep it interesting,” Esten hints. “Plus, the fact that Deacon and Rayna have this daughter together means they’re never apart very long.”
Carmack’s character was a newlywed when the show wrapped… and newly out of the closet. Will Lexington finally admitted to wife Layla that he’s gay, while — unbeknownst to him — a hidden camera was rolling on the couple’s new reality show.
“My reaction — what you would’ve heard if you were standing in the same room — was, ‘Ohhhhh!'” Carmack yells, jaw to the floor, imitating himself reading the season finale’s script for the first time. “He came out on his own volition, but only to his wife. The rolling reality TV cameras make it another story.”
“No matter what kind of struggles they’ve gone through, they’ve gone through them together,” adds Aubrey Peeples (“Layla Grant”). “Even in their fighting, they’ve become closer. Really, they only have each other. They’re on this reality show together, they’re both struggling for their careers…. That makes anyone closer, whether they like it or not.”
Nashville‘s Season Three premiere airs tonight (September 24th) at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.