Letter from L.A.: What I learned about Nashville, from 'Nashville'

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 10:05pm
By Dan Loney, City Paper correspondent

Editor’s note: It occurred to us that most of what we know about L.A. is from watching television. Now that an eponymous show is being filmed here in Nashville, we asked an L.A. writer what he could learn about our city from TV.

 

As everyone in my generation knows, in the 1970s downtown Nashville consisted of a few hay bales occupied by Roy Clark, Buck Owens, Minnie Pearl and the Tennessee equivalent of Hell’s Angels.

But in the 1970s, Pittsburgh was a polluted wasteland with a great baseball team. Has Nashville changed, too?

As far as we know, it hasn’t. I associate Nashville with welcoming American Idol refugees while snubbing Johnny Cash. The reputation of country music through my lifetime consists of a series of winces and groans — cowboy hats and sequined rhinestones combined to place Nashville somewhere on the map between Lubbock and Branson. Are there ranches in or around Nashville? Do they actually grow corn in Tennessee — for something besides moonshine? What is the basis of the economy, anyway? And does it have anything to do with what country music sells the rest of the country? There’s probably a world of difference between Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville — but from Los Angeles, well, Elvis went to UT games across from the Grand Old Opry. And that’s NOT how you spell “opera.”

In the real world, however, country music is alive, and rock is dead. Nashville has an NFL team, Los Angeles has, well, Lane Kiffin. There’s only one way to learn the real story of how Nashville lives and breathes — through a prime-time drama on ABC.

Because this is mainstream television, the show has taken some steps to help out viewers like me. Primarily — I can’t tell a good country music song from a bad one. So when you hear precious minutes of screen time devoted to songs’ quality and authenticity? That’s my fault. The show has to tell me what’s good and what’s bad, because it’s just a wall of pedal-steel guitar to me. I think the show is trying to say the more pedal-steel guitar, the more authentic it is, and thus better. But that just further raises the question of how one can tell good pedal-steel guitar from bad.

“Well, if you think pedal-steel guitar is a cross between bagpipes and a kazoo, why are you watching?” Kind of a good point, but you can watch Glee and hate show tunes. Theoretically.

So Connie Britton is Rayna James, Wynonna Judd or Loretta Lynn or something — she’s older and less popular now, and apparently this is the first time this has ever happened to any singer ever. There’s a bit in Episode 2 where Britton’s character has to talk to party guests, and it’s portrayed as such a huge chore. “Is your album available at Starbucks?” is a very legitimate question, since (a) there are plenty of famous artists with records sold there, (b) since your album is tanking, you really ought to know why your record is or isn’t at a popular outlet, and (c) it’s the Internet era, why are you making “albums” anymore?

So Hayden Panettiere is Juliette Barnes, who is … wait, who is she? I’m thinking LeAnn Rimes? Does Rimes have no talent?

And are talent-free babes demeaning the music that big a problem in country? Pop music, sure — always has been, always will be. Maybe Loretta Lynn used to seethe about that slut Dolly Parton, who knows. But if you’re going to go to the trouble of manufacturing an Auto-Tune sensation, why limit your market to country radio?

Panettiere’s character really likes country music, though — specifically that of Rayna’s songwriting partner and guitarist, whose name I think is Deacon. Which makes the central conflict a little weird — why did Juliette go out of her way to alienate Rayna? Pure spite? That seems to be where they’re going with the character, I suppose. But it’s coming across like Selena Gomez growing up having a wild, jealous attraction towards one of the Heartbreakers, and hating Tom Petty for it.

Leaving aside whether Juliette’s free and enlightened attitude towards sex is something the show is using to paint her as evil — I do hope the poor dear is using protection — almost everything else about her is meant to be detested by the audience. When a stagehand in a video shoot bemoans the quality of Ms. Barnes’ latest single, Juliette immediately demands he be fired.

We don’t see said technician leaving in tears, which may be a nod to reality. I would have enjoyed a reaction along the lines of “Screw you, I’m union,” or “You’re firing me from a one-day shoot? I still get paid for the day, right?” If Nashville is anything like Los Angeles, I imagine that performers are worth far less than a dime a dozen, but thou shalt not mess with the crew.

By the way, everyone is so good-looking! Here I thought years and decades of touring and drugs and alcohol would take a toll, but nope! Guys look hot, women look wonderful! It’s always sunny in Nashville.

And I’m glad to see everyone in Tennessee quit smoking recently. I’m proud of you guys. Such a nasty, disgusting habit. See how much better your voices sound? See how much cleaner your bars are? Isn’t it more fun to go out now? Excellent move, Nashville.

Now, if only you could apply the same can-do spirit to your relationships. If there’s one thing that absolutely pervades country music to the point of self-parody and beyond, it’s your inability to manage a proper adult relationship. Is “We Talked Things Out and Now We’re Fine” really that terrible an idea for a song?

And as soon as Juliette Barnes came sniffing around, Rayna realized she and Deke really do share a special bond, at least to the point of being horribly jealous that a single man would date a single woman. It’s as if country singers sabotage themselves simply to have something to sing about.

I cheated to look this part up — and I used Wikipedia, which is even worse — but the African-American population of Nashville is apparently a tad south of 30 percent. So apparently Robert Wisdom’s character is a pretty amazing politician, if he’s a front-runner for mayor in a mostly white Southern city. But my real question is … what do African-Americans in Nashville listen to? The only two black country singers I can come up with are Charley Pride and Hootie. The extras in the music club scenes look like they were cast from a Romney family reunion. Do African-Americans in Nashville just wait for Beyoncé or George Clinton to come to town? That’s so sad. (In fairness, popular music in general has been stratified along racial lines since disco died, and the idea of a black country-and-western fan isn’t really any tougher to believe than a black R.E.M. fan, I suppose.)

In any case, I hope this show is helping our two peoples to learn more about each other. If you would like to learn more about Southern California, I highly recommend the documentaries Barton Fink or Escape from L.A.

2 Comments on this post:

By: JohnGalt on 11/8/12 at 1:29

Dear Editor: If you wanted a west coast opinion piece about Nashville, couldn't you have found someone knowlegeagle...or at least competent?

And the quote, "...Elvis went to UT games across from the Grand Old Opry. And that’s NOT how you spell “opera.” speaks for itself.

By: shankm on 11/9/12 at 2:20

shankm

Thanks: I needed a good laugh. I would suggest to the writer that if he had any interest of what Nashville was like in the 70s to see the Robert Altman movie. The man nailed us!