* * *I mentioned to Adam that I'd love for us to talk some about Nashville, which I started watching with low expectations, but have been pleasantly surprised by. Callie Khouri and Co. have done the rare turn of paying rapt attention to the craft of songwriting, and it has become the beating, bleeding heart of this program. This show could have been awful — instead, it feels to me like a good idea turned great.
The reason "Smash" worked, when it worked, was that its' original material was written the way a musical would be — music and lyrics written by one duo across the board, with the exception of the Ryan Tedder debacle (which the show acknowledged as such). When the show was in Marilyn mode, it was sublime, because the musical-in-the-musical felt real. The route this show has taken to finding original music has been much more intricate, and one could argue that it had to be, to get it right.
Consider the background, scored by an incomparable team-up of T Bone Burnett and Keefus Green. They trade off the credit episode-by-episode, but I'd hazard a guess that they're working together and satisfying some kind of union standard by only crediting one or the other, as they've worked closely in the past. If not, they're doing a great job of seamlessly laying down the bed of this show with a purely Nashville-oriented sound. Electric guitars swoop and swell in that way that these guys and their contemporaries have been perfecting for the last twenty years, and the twang never veers into Dukes-Of-Hazzard territory, keeping the show from ever going maudlin.
As great of a score as that is, this show would still be nowhere if it didn't have exceptional songwriting power to back it up. With all due respect to Callie Khouri, the mayoral election plot is an annoying distraction from the songwriters' melodramas (does anybody care at all who wins, at all?), which lose all of their steam if they suck at their jobs. To that end, the three music supervisors on this show seem to be tirelessly mining original material to keep things fresh and authentic, rather than relying on a staff to write new songs every week, which we have seen diminishing returns from before. I've watched all of the background featurettes on these songs, and it's pretty remarkable. They're not writing songs for the show — the show is writing episodes around the songs.
It's the polar opposite of Studio 60: when the songs come around on this show, you understand what all the backstage bluster is about, and the drama feels earnest and earned. They've cast the writers' material well, too — witness the contentious Avery Barkley's only solo outing on this show, "Twist of Barbwire," written by Elvis Costello, king of vitriol and country connoisseur of the highest order. Teaming the Civil Wars’ John Paul White with two different songwriters for the Gunnar-Scarlett duet “If I Didn't Know Better” and the Deacon-Rayna faux-oldie “No One Will Ever Love You” adds a creative symmetry that I think is intended, as we watch Scarlett's unassuming rise to stardom in contrast to Juliette's entitlement-cursed stance atop the heap. “I Will Fall” was written by Tyler James and Kate York, whose partnership and friendship with Buddy MIller rings as a real-life analog to Gunner and Scarlett's relationship with Watty White.
I'm not sure it gets better than it got last night, though, when despite the entire episode building contrivance on contrivance to have the two main songstresses, Connie Britton's Rayna and Hayden Panettiere's Juliet, share a duet on a world stage, we got a huge payoff in “You've Got the Wrong Song.” Penned by Sonya Isaacs, Jimmy Yeary and Marv Green, whose combined catalogues yield every combination of two of them writing successfully together but never all three in one room, it's a smart pop-country song in the “tellin'-off-your-no-good-cheatin'-man” milieux that manages to bring genuine novelty to the table. Organic pre-choruses that nourish the hook and a sweet-but-sarcastic bridge had me repeating the last three minutes of last night's episode a lot on Hulu this morning, and made me wonder: how many other people are actually watching this excellent, excellent song-fest?