Big Hair, Boots, and Business: Bidding Happy Trails to Nashville

It’s no big secret that I’m Nursing Clio’s resident country music fan, as evidenced by my previous post on women in modern country music as well as my penchant for cowboy boots. Like many fans, this summer I’m mourning the conclusion of country music soap opera delight, Nashville, in late July. For six seasons, Nashville has treated us to romance, drama, and wailing steel guitar, all of it bedazzled with sequins, Stetsons, and Connie Britton’s devastatingly perfect hair.

I turned to Nashville initially as a comfort watch to help get me through a stressful semester balancing multiple jobs, and I quickly became obsessed. I binged the first few seasons with alarming speed, bringing my husband, who is less cowboy boots and more boat shoes, along for the ride. I’m a sucker for a great romance, and the central on-again, off-again relationship between Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) and Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) was perfection: just enough furtive glances, unrequited longing, and heart-bursting reunions to keep you coming back for more.

But I was drawn in by more than that. In Nashville, women drive the plot, and the issues facing women in and out of show business are heavily featured. The juxtaposition between reigning queen of country Rayna and young, genre-bending bad girl Juliette Barnes showed the many ways that women seek to acquire, retain, and wield power in male-dominated fields.

The show grappled with mental illness and generational trauma in character Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) and domestic violence with Sadie Stone (Laura Benanti). In Juliette’s character alone, the show dealt with addiction, disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, postpartum depression, spirituality, the struggles of working mothers, the way society treats ambitious women … I could go on for a while.

Master Sgt. Harry Kibbe is joined by TV’s Nashville cast members, from left, Charles “Chip” Esten, Clare Bowen, Aubrey Peeples and Jonathan Jackson for the 2014 “Red, White and Air Force Blue Christmas” radio special. (© Air Education and Training Command

This should give you some indication that the drama on the show was bonkers. Think Grey’s Anatomy-season-finale-levels of bonkers every other episode. Take, for instance, when one character’s romantic partner faked a pregnancy, and then faked a miscarriage, and then was randomly murdered. Or when Juliette’s plane crashed and she was paralyzed, but then miraculously recovered through some sort of physical therapy wizardry. Or when a character, in an attempt to save Juliette from drunkenly committing suicide by throwing herself off a roof, lost his balance and fell to his death. That wasn’t even a season finale or sweeps week. Just par for the course.

The drama was wacky, but underneath it all, showrunner Callie Khouri used the show to make larger statements about the country music industry. Perhaps the biggest and most pointed was in the form of character Will Lexington, who epitomized a particularly classic, hyper-masculine country look and sound reminiscent of Toby Keith. Although his label worked to package and sell him in that mold, Will was secretly gay — a major problem for country music fans, who are largely conservative Christians.

Will was barraged with homophobic verbal and physical abuse, and the show forced characters to grapple with the tension between their personal relationships with Will and their desire to placate audiences. This depiction also forced the show’s fans to confront their own beliefs. Moreover, Nashville didn’t back away from fleshing out Will’s character. The showrunners could have easily used Will as a foil for the moral and emotional transformation of the other characters and then quietly ushered him stage left. Instead, they leaned in, making Will a major character with his own romantic dramas and sexual exploits.

The show was also forceful in its critiques of the industry when it comes to female artists. As I’ve written before, country music has a real problem with the representation of women. Among the ranks of country music’s biggest acts, women artists hold a diminished place on the charts and get a fraction of airtime on tightly controlled country radio stations. From the beginning, the show pointed the finger squarely at music labels for their complicity in this gender gap. Shrewd, money-hungry executives played up stereotypes about catty women to sell tickets to joint tours featuring sometime-rivals Rayna and Juliette, and controlled women’s appearance to maximize sex appeal.

Perhaps the show’s most powerful moments were in its unflinching portrayal of sexual harassment. Country music has its own #MeToo problem. In recent months, more than one artist has stepped forward to say that they were abused or harassed by executives, radio station personalities, or producers — including Taylor Swift, who sued country DJ David Mueller for groping her during a photo op.

Like the women who brought down Harvey Weinstein, women testified that sexual abuse was framed as just part of how one made a career as a woman in country music. Nashville used its platform to highlight the problem numerous times. In season 2, a handsy country radio personality gets testy when Juliette, confident in her career, refused to let him feel her up; rejected, the man moved on to a younger woman desperate to get her career started.

In another episode, aired a year before the #MeToo movement started, Rayna and Deacon’s teenage daughter Maddie tried to launch her own music career with legendary producer Vince Pierce. Little did Maddie know that Pierce abused Rayna when she was a young performer. Rayna tried to intervene, but when she warned other industry insiders, they told her that’s “just the way it is.” Rayna refused to be silent anymore and penned an open letter to her daughter, published in the Huffington Post, about sexual abuse in the country music industry. Not only did she save Maddie from Pierce, but Rayna revealed her experience to the world.

The show’s commentary on sexual abuse became even more pointed in the final season, when up-and-coming artist Alannah Curtis (Rainee Blake) was offered an opportunity to advance her music career by legendary producer Brad Maitland (Jeffrey Nordling), although it was made clear that it would only happen if she acquiesced to her producer’s thinly veiled come-ons.

This plot line was clearly informed by the #MeToo movement, highlighting how difficult it is for women to prove abuse took place when interactions look innocent to observers, and how abuse is often justified as just part of how show business works. In the end, Alannah records Maitland telling her that he will ruin her career if she doesn’t have sex with him, then joins with his other victims to corner him into stepping down from his label. Over and over, Nashville forced fans and insiders alike to face the abuse endemic in the country music industry, but Alannah’s triumphant ending hasn’t been replicated in real life quite yet.

Despite these timely political themes, sometimes Nashville’s attempts to dig into pressing social issues came off as cheap. One example (of several) comes from season five. After her plane crashed, Juliette was saved by a mysterious Black woman named Hallie, played by Carolina Chocolate Drops musician Rhiannon Giddens. In real life, Giddens is what my dad would have called a “phenom” — a woman who has returned Americana music to its Black roots and powerfully connects her music to longer legacies of enslavement, Jim Crow, and modern racism.

But rather than using Giddens in a similar way within the show, Hallie’s character came perilously close to the magical negro trope — a Black woman who showed up, guided by God, to save (physically and spiritually) a lost white woman from the smoking wreckage. Later, when Juliette tried to use Hallie’s Black church choir to help her make a gospel album, the choir called her out for her transparent appropriation — but ultimately agreed. Disappointingly, the vanishingly few Black characters in the show were used as plot devices, tools to aid in the development of white characters.

Lacing together all these plane crashes and murders and federal prosecutions and cults and accidental roof deaths and miscarriages (both real and faked) and a boatload of sex was country music. From big chart-toppers in the bro-country vein to thoughtful acoustic ballads sung at open mic nights, music was the backbone of the show. The country music on the show was authentic and diverse, including everything from the rock-inspired to mainstream country to bluesy roots music. In reality, none of these subgenres sits very comfortably with the other, but when it comes to the music in Nashville, everybody gets along. In a way, the show was a love song to the big, complicated, messy genre. Actually, that’s a pretty fitting way to describe the show itself. From beginning to end, Nashville was a booted, bejeweled, big-haired mess, but damn, was it a fun mess.

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