‘Nashville’ Is Finally Getting Country Music Right — But a Location Change Threatens to Kill Its Authenticity

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Late last week, as fan favorites like Community and Trophy Wife were getting the axe, a series in the midst of change was renewed for a third season. ABC’s Nashville has remained on the bubble between cancellation and renewal for much of its second season, as its melding of the country music business and network television continues to extend beyond just plotlines. The show has transcended commentary on country music to become both a microcosm and a mirror of that world. But in order to continue building its TV viewership among country listeners, the show must continue to shoot in Nashville — a choice that’s up for debate at the moment. The authenticity that makes the show succeed depends on it.

As of Friday, the fate of Nashville is secure through a 22-episode third season. This comes in spite of a nine percent decrease in viewership from Season 1 to Season 2, with weekly viewership down to about 4.5 million throughout this season, according to Nielsen. For a network whose biggest dramas — Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal — do double those numbers on an average week, Nashville is small potatoes. But it still usually tops the ratings of perennial on-the-bubble NBC drama Parenthood, whose vocal fans rival those of Community‘s, albeit less obnoxiously. (We saw who won that battle last week.) So what’s the constant fuss over Nashville‘s fate all about?

Money.

Do not underestimate how expensive it is to produce Nashville, which not only requires the expenses accompanying shows shot on location but also a hefty musical budget. The former has been subsidized by the state of Tennessee — $13.1 million’s worth of funding across state and city government initiatives, as well as the local tourism association. As The Tennessean reports, the overwhelming bulk of said funding — $12.5 million — came from the Tennessee film incentives fund, whose budget has been slashed to just $3 million for Nashville‘s third season. And so, Nashville producers have considered filming in Georgia and/or Texas — a move that will continue to widen the gap between Music City IRL and the one the show portrays. Keeping the real and fictional Nashvilles as mirrored as possible is key, as the series places more of its emphasis — and potential revenue — on the music.

“Our No. 1 goal was the pickup for season 3, and an equivalent goal for all parties is that the show is shot here in Nashville, where it should be,” Steve Buchanan, Nashville executive producer and Opry Entertainment Group president, told The Tennessean. “The studios and the network want to see that happen; the state and the city, who have been incredibly supportive, want to see that happen; and obviously, from the Ryman Hospitality [“Opry” owners] perspective, we share that, and we will do whatever it takes in partnering with the city and the state to try and ensure that that happens.”

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Thanks to a deal with top country label Big Machine (i.e., Taylor Swift’s label), the multiple original songs featured every week in Nashville hit iTunes and are later compiled into physical soundtracks released twice each season. (The Music of Nashville: Season 2, Volume 2 was released just last week.) Since the start, the idea was to produce songs whose quality and catchiness could rival actual country hits. Nashville‘s stars, after all, sang their own parts in and out of the recording studio, even marquee leads Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere. Mrs. Coach and Heroes cheerleader Claire were angled as the next country stars, given backstories and personae that felt like amalgamations of country’s current leading ladies. It was perfect, except for the part where the songs didn’t pick up on country radio, a world that’s as narrow-minded as the series makes it out to be.

Nashville started with T Bone Burnett — famed producer of rock legends, husband of Nashville creator Callie Khouri, and the man responsible for compiling the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line soundtracks — as its head of music. Under Burnett’s direction and production, the show featured songs penned by — though not specifically commissioned from — Elvis Costello, Kacey Musgraves, Lucinda Williams, John Paul White of the Civil Wars, and top country songwriters. With every plot twist and new character (of which there was an abundance) came more songs, many of which were neither heard nor referred to again in the series, despite their apparent quality.

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Starting in Season 2, Americana staple Buddy Miller took over for Burnett on music production duties. Gone were the songwriters with star appeal; perhaps this was for budgetary reasons, or because producers had come to realize that the personality of the character who sings the hits is more important than the songwriter behind the scenes. Most importantly, the writers have given characters time to grow into their songs, relating them to plotlines and airing repeat performances that make them as recognizable as real radio hits. Just in the last couple of months, “Don’t Put Dirt On My Grave Just Yet” has become the signature song of Panetierre’s Juliette Barnes, as she makes a defiant career move; newcomer Scarlett shows what makes her different from her country-pop competition with her dark “Black Roses”; and Britton’s Rayna Jaymes embraces her single divorcee romps in the sack via “This Time.”

Never before has the show’s music been so in synch with its plotlines, making ABC’s recent push towards live Nashville performances seem all that more relevant from more than a revenue perspective. Last month, the show’s B-level stars embarked on a four-city live tour that sold out in mid-size venues. On April 23, in lieu of an episode, ABC aired a concert special filmed at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, Nashville: On The Record. Following its airing, music from the show re-emerged at the top of the iTunes country chart. Just last week, real-life country star Kellie Pickler performed amidst fictional stars like Luke Wheeler. A few months back, Big Machine baby band The Cadillac Three appeared on the show as a potential signee for Rayna’s new label, Highway 65.

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The decision on whether to keep Nashville set in, well, Nashville will likely come soon, as the show needs to begin shooting its third season this summer. Just as the show starts to make headway in truly incorporating the real, insular, Nashville-centric country music world, the last thing it needs is a trip outta town.

Nashville’s season two finale airs this Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC.