All throughout the second season, Nashville slowly drifted more and more towards becoming an outright soap. Much was made last year of T-Bone Burnett leaving his role as music supervisor mostly because of the way ABC forced Callie Khouri (the showrunner as well as Burnett’s wife) to steer the story lines at play into blatantly soapy territory when her goals were to make the show as realistic as possible based on her experiences in country music. Looking at the transition from the first to second season, the difference is apparent and in my opinion brought the overall quality of the series down a notch even as the entertainment value skyrocketed. The second season finale aired on Wednesday, and even though I don’t have much to say overall I did want to post a few notes on the musical strengths and weaknesses I’ve noticed that clearly manifested themselves in the season finale.
The main trend I have seen in regards to the song choices in the most recent episodes is the humongous disparity in the quality of the “stadium anthem” songs and the emotional songs the artists sing. Last year there was a pretty clear gap in which style was better as well, but this season it is borderline embarrassing how absolutely boring the supposedly entertaining and rocking songs are here. Not to mention how many times the show reused songs of this nature instead of making excuses for Rayna or Juliette to be rehearsing something new for the tour like they did in the past. It seems as though the producers have all but given up on finding songs that will chart on iTunes or people will enjoy as they hoped would be the case less than a year ago. This was the case in the finale as Rayna and Luke sang “Ball and Chain” for what seemed like the 1000th time in the past 10 episodes, and Juliette and Rayna half-heartedly performed “Ain’t Gonna Change” just so the two characters could be seen on stage together.
I would much rather have some more character building or little moments than waste time on a performance we’ve witnessed multiple times at this point. Would it have been so difficult to have Luke and Rayna magically come on to perform a new love song they wrote together? The show finds it believable that a stadium concert with three major artists could be flung together in 48 hours but they don’t want to put in the effort to shoehorn a new song in to the mix that would actually add some more emotion to the on-stage proposal? That’s simply lazy.
Fortunately, even though the up tempo songs fell completely flat, the show has always done a much better job of landing intensely emotional movements through song anyway. Nothing was different near the end of the season as almost every storyline was brought to some sort of close with a moment between two characters confessing, begging forgiveness, or both. The few cliffhangers that were left hanging were of no real importance. Rayna and Deacon are always going to be a will-they-won’t they, so nothing has changed there as far as suspense, and to be quite honest I don’t care at all if Scarlett stays in Nashville or goes back to reading Leaves of Grass on an Ole Miss bench somewhere. Do. Not. Care. In fact, at this point I’m leaning towards being legitimately happy if they wrote her off the show. Clare Bowen is a talented actress but it is obvious at this point the writers don’t know what to do with her anymore and Gunnar’s plot will only be brought down with her sticking around.
Even with all of this weak storytelling surrounding most elements of the show, it’s a real testament to the local songwriting talent the show taps that the emotional beats they want to hit hard actually manage to do so. Look at the duet between Scarlett and Gunnar, for example. “It Ain’t Yours to Throw Away” is a solid piece of music, and I was genuinely moved by the plaintiveness and longing in Gunnar’s voice and by the way Scarlett joined in just the proper amount by barely joining in at all. We saw this performed once before this season when Gunnar was originally writing it, but instead of last night’s scene being a retread it was a new take on the song due to a different situation. Two characters that haven’t done much in months on the show all of a sudden seem worthwhile to watch again just by the addition of a genuinely powerful piece of music. The same goes for Avery’s love song to Juliette, who even though was halfway blacked out at the time and itching for a beating from Deacon understood how much it meant for him to write something like that for her. Plus, I am not ashamed to admit how biased Jonathan Jackson with a guitar in his hands makes me.
These are songs that could easily have been sold to multiple artists in Nashville if the show hadn’t bought them first. Many songwriters have a dozen songs or more in artist’s pipelines at any given time, so long as a show that highlights the industry like this is using them properly it could bring more publicity than some artists actually choosing to record them. The fact that these slower, more deeply felt pieces of music are when the show is still truly able to shine says a lot about where its strengths lie. The fact that the producers and music coordinators would rather rely on chart-topping songs to tell a story that would be more effectively portrayed through poignant and reflective music says a lot about where the priorities lie behind the scenes. ABC announced this week Nashville would be back for a third season, so even though my expectations for the show at this point remain tempered, I do hope everyone in charge takes a step back to reassess what kind of music they want to be dealing with versus the kind of music they should be searching out.