At a recent event at Cheekwood, Mayor Karl Dean remarked that he was watching the fictional mayoral race on Nashville with amusement. In addition to providing a truly meta moment that could happen only in Nashville, it showed that our mayor was doing the very same thing as executives on Music Row, songwriters at the Bluebird, and the majority of television viewers in the 615: They were keeping an eye on the way that Nashville portrayed Nashville.
It’s safe to say that when Nashville premiered on Oct. 10 on ABC, a collective exhale could be heard across the city. We had our reasons to be apprehensive — we’ve been embarrassed before, with the short-lived “reality” show of the same name in 2007, and through 2010’s hyperbole-ridden feature film Country Strong.
But from the moment that the opening strains of “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” — penned by Eric Paslay and hometown hero Will Hoge — accompanied a panoramic view of our beautiful city, we were reassured that producer Callie Khouri would do us proud. And, in addition to shining a giant spotlight on the familiar landmarks like Opryland or the Bluebird Cafe, the show also features area businesses that are lesser known to those outside of the city limits, like The 5 Spot in East Nashville.
After a strong premiere with 8.9 million viewers, ratings for Nashville dropped each week, according to Metacritic.com. Despite the fact that it was the best-reviewed new series, the show trailed all network competitors in its timeslot, but ABC still picked it up for a full season in November. The dwindling interest has some critics wondering if the concept — country music — is too narrow for a dedicated widespread audience.
Nevertheless, Oscar winner Khouri and company should be commended for providing a fairly accurate snapshot of the current country music industry. Grand Ole Opry Group president Steve Buchanan serves as an executive producer for the show, providing extra insurance that an authentic version of Nashville is broadcast across the airwaves.
Buchanan also authors the “Music City Blog” at the show’s official site, where he provides more information about locations seen on the show, from the Ryman Auditorium to the $19.5 million house that serves as the home for Rayna James, Connie Britton’s character. The blog also provides historical information on the resuscitation of lower Broadway or Studio A on Music Row, fleshing out what viewers see on the show.
Jody Williams, vice president of writer/publisher relations for BMI, says that he has also been consulted to lend his opinion on what happens behind closed doors on the Row. “I have been called upon — as probably other people in the music industry have — and asked, ‘This is the way we’re going to portray this, do you have any comments or suggestions?’ And I’ve passed those along to my friend Steve Buchanan when he’s asked.”
Williams says that he thinks the show is providing a realistic portrayal of the inner workings of Music Row — with extra drama and sparkle, of course, because this is television. “I think, obviously, the producers of the show want it as accurate as it can be, a portrayal of the way the music industry works in Nashville,” he says. “The TV show Nashville is not a documentary, or a docudrama, it’s a major network television drama, and so the liberties that are taken to move a story along and make it exciting and fun to watch, they certainly take those, but the backdrop is a fairly accurate description of how the music industry works.”
Earlier this fall, Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), expressed his high hopes for the impact that the show would have on tourism and the perception of the city to the national media. “It’s going to translate into tourism dollars,” Spyridon said with confidence. “I have never been more certain about a positive impact. We’ll see people come to Nashville because of the show.”
Deana Ivey, senior vice president of marketing at the CVB, says that Spyridon’s predictions were on par, but that it is too soon to see a direct result in tourism dollars. “I think it’s too early to say if it’s had a direct impact yet as far as actual business, but it has definitely had an impact as far as the PR for the city,” Ivey explains.
One thing that has created an immediate impact is the music from the show. Big Machine Records released the Nashville soundtrack Dec. 11, featuring covers and original songs from the series. It was debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Soundtracks chart and No. 14 on the overall 200 chart. Turn on country radio, and you’ll hear Hayden Panettiere’s (who plays rising star Juliette Barnes) song “Telescope.”
Nashville has also given viewers a glimpse at the men and women behind the curtain: the songwriters who craft the songs, often shielded from the spotlight by the singers who perform them. “ABC has done a great job of highlighting the songwriters on their website, so any new song that’s on the show, you can go to the website, and there’s an interview with the songwriters,” Williams says. “ABC has really put their best foot forward to publicize the fact that these songs came from people who are trying to make a living being songwriters here in Nashville.”
Williams notes that music discovery in general has shifted, and that Nashville provides viewers an opportunity to hear music they may not otherwise be exposed to. “People don’t discover new music on radio like they used to,” Williams says. “So, it’s other avenues, like a hit TV show, where you can expose new music that’s a little hipper and a little cooler than what radio normally plays.”
Williams is also impressed with the quality of the songs featured on the show. “The songs are interesting, the songs are smart; they’re not just reflecting what country radio plays,” he says. “They’re using music that’s really interesting and really forward-thinking. It’s now becoming part of country radio, we now have songs on the radio that are coming from the show that are smartly written and reflect really well on the breadth of our songwriting community.”
While the songs appear on television and radio, the CVB attempts to capitalize on every opportunity to inform viewers about what they’re seeing on TV. “On our Twitter, during the show, our social media manager will tweet about where they are, and on Facebook too,” Ivey explains. “It’s just another way to get our visitors who are following us excited, so they know when they come to town to go see Bluebird Café or Cheekwood or whatever’s on the show at the time.”
Ivey notes that the traffic on the CVB website is up 29 percent compared to this time last year. “The increase in the number of visitors to our site and the duration they’re staying on the site, we’re attributing a lot of that to the show,” she says.
While the show is absolutely a contributing factor, it’s unlikely that it’s the only one. The past year has brought Nashville substantial national press in publications such as GQ, Lucky Magazine, The New York Times and almost every major food magazine. Country music is an essential part of popular competition-based shows like American Idol, The X Factor and The Voice, and the Grammy nomination broadcast from Bridgestone Arena in early December brought bragging rights and some of the biggest stars of every music genre to our city.
Nashville returns on Jan. 9. But will the rest of the world still be watching?