“Coming to Nashville was like coming home to a place I’d never been before,” said Charles “Chip” Esten at his set at the Chevrolet Riverfront stage on Friday afternoon at CMA Fest. Or was it Deacon who said that? Esten, one of the stars of ABC’s Nashville, drew a horde of screaming fans to his performance, but who were they yearning for, and who was he performing as, was murky.
Nashville has been a huge success, both as a television show and for the city it takes its name and setting from. It’s inspired people to move there, it’s depicted beautifully soapy dramatic moments, but the music—the music is what Glee seemed like it might be and never was. It’s what really holds the show together, and has changed the city and the trajectory of the lives of many cast members who have moved there and say they don’t plan to leave. Despite T. Bone Burnett (Nashville creator Callie Khouri’s husband) departing as music producer after the first season, the quality of the sound of the show has remained intact under Buddy Miller. The albums of songs sung by the actors as their characters are released by Big Machine Records, the label responsible for huge names like Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw. This is a show with legitimate musical credibility, and with the exception of lead actress Connie Britton, whose vocals have been generously called weak, many of its stars have banked on that to further musical explorations of their own.
The songs on Nashville aren’t just covers; they’re often original works written for the show or picked up by it. And the quality of those songs has meant that Charles/Chip/Deacon in particular, Rayna’s on-again/off-again romantic lead, has become a bona fide heartthrob performer of his own—because he wanted to be, it seems. Not all the stars of Nashville perform music regularly on their own time, or put out their own records. But many of them do, and the ones who don’t are starting to be the exception, not the rule.
Hayden Panettiere’s absence from the country music scene is the oddest; she expressed clear interest when the show premiered in 2012 in recording her own album after a brief dalliance with pop music when she was younger. Perhaps her personal life has gotten in the way; it’s difficult to star in a television show, birth a very large baby and put out albums at the same time.
But Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio, who play Scarlett O’Connor and Gunnar Scott, respectively, are both reportedly working on solo albums of their own material. As Rolling Stone noted in November:
Bowen and Palladio are in good musical company on the set of Nashville. Almost all of the lead actors are musicians outside the show, as well. Jonathan Jackson (“Avery Barkley”) fronts a rock band called Jonathan Jackson + Enation, which released its fourth album last month. Charles Esten (“Deacon Claybourne”) has been dipping his toes in the Nashville songwriting world, crafting tunes with such hitmakers as Jeffrey Steele and Deana Carter—with whom he wrote “I Know How to Love You Now,” a song he performed on the show’s Season Three premiere. Esten, Jackson, Bowen, Palladio and several of their castmates have also performed at the Grand Ole Opry and other local music venues, immersing themselves in both the musical and philanthropic worlds of Nashville.
Charles/Chip/Deacon has certainly been doing more than dipping his toes—he was a bona fied star at CMA Fest, performing at the Riverfront and also drawing substantial crowds at smaller performances and autograph signings (the fact that the Country Music Association and ABC are bedfellows helps the love he and his fellow castmembers receive at CMA Fest). Esten seemed to revel in it, displaying an almost schoolboy enthusiasm for performing front and center that his character on the show, original content with just being in Rayna’s band, had to warm up to.
Esten seemed wholly aware of the success the show has brought him, and why people were there to see him: because he’s Deacon. A few women in the audience wore “Deacon Nashville” t-shirts, and during one of his songs, Esten plucked a hand-lettered sign from a fan in the crowd that read “#HEY #HEY #HEY It’s Freakin’ Deacon” and held it up on stage. His guitar strap read “Deacon,” and he gave a shout-out to Colin Lindon, a fellow guitarist on stage who he noted voices his guitar playing on the show (when Esten did play, it was serviceable but clearly not the virtuoso status his character is supposed to possess).
“We all—especially you ladies—have gotten to know and love this guy who’s coming up next,” was how Esten was introduced. This was confirmed by two of the girls in front of me, who breathlessly explained to their friend who didn’t know who Esten was, “He’s on Nashville!” (When said friend looked Esten up, his photo prompted her to say, “He is cuteeeee”), and by the packed crowd waiting for him. Esten himself made numerous mentions of Deacon and Nashville the show. “I’m gonna take it back to the beginning of Season 3, when Rayna was with a different guy,” he said before launching into a aforementioned song he co-wrote with Deana Carter for the show, “I Know How To Love You Now.” (The crowd appropriately booed at the mention of Rayna’s other boyfriend, Luke Wheeler.)
The vibe was decidedly different at Chris Carmack’s Saturday performance at the Belk Stage, a smaller venue. No mention was made of Nashville, or of Carmack’s character Will Lexington, a once-closeted man who struggles with whether to reveal that he is gay or ruin his career. Carmack did mention his EP, coming out soon, a few times, and played the B.B. King song “Sweet Little Angel,” describing King as “one of my musical heroes.” But besides opening his set with one of his character’s Nashville jams, Carmack was just Carmack. Will might have gotten him the slot at the festival (though Carmack’s certainly embraced one part of Will by supporting the gay community, playing a concert devoted to the cause during CMA Fest), but Chris was there as himself.
For all that they’re actors on the same show, Esten and Carmack occupy different spaces. Esten is older, with arguably a more high-profile part on Nashville. Carmack has less of a defined role, and is more likely to be accepted wholly as himself in the music scene, producing slightly less twangy country music than his character does. From his brief performance on Saturday, that’s what it seems like he wants. But Esten has apparently embraced the fact that he is Deacon, and folded himself into that persona. Who can blame him? When he jumped down from the stage, sweating and running past the crowd, high-fiving them with a huge grin, no one could deny that it seemed like a great gig.
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Images via John Russell and Chris Garrett/CMA