Making the Music of 'Nashville'

ABC relies on real-life Scarletts and Gunnars to create the sound of its prime-time soap.

Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett O' Connor (Clare Bowen) play aspiring songwriters on ABC's "Nashville," which culls its original music from real-life Nashville artists.

Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett O' Connor (Clare Bowen) play aspiring songwriters on ABC's "Nashville," which culls its original music from real-life Nashville artists.

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"Like a coin, I was tossed into a wishing fountain/I was only one of a thousand, looking for a little fortune," sang Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen) on a recent episode of ABC's "Nashville." The song, titled "Casino," is a love ballad Scarlett has written with her professional partner (and romantic interest) Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) after they receive news that their demo tape has caught the ear of country super star Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton).

But it might as well described the music on the hit show itself, culled from thousands of original songs written by hundreds by Nashville musicians – real-life Scarletts and Gunnars.

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"There's just incredible writers in Nashville," says "Nashville" music supervisor Frankie Pine. "Giving these writers a spotlight is what I think our show really does, more than it is about an artist per se. That's what I am most proud of on this show in particular."

From its very conception, the country music on "Nashville" was going to be a crucial element on the prime-time soap. "It just felt like there was an opportunity to highlight what I think has become really the popular music of the day that has a story to tell," Executive Producer Steve Buchanan says.

As the president of Grand Ole Opry Group, Buchanan has seen his fair share of a musical drama in the hallowed halls of the famous concert venue he oversees. (He insists none of the characters are based on real stars.) He has served as one of the show's connections to Nashville's music industry and his Grand Ole Opry has played a role in some of the episodes.

As "Nashville" depicts, the Scarlett and Gunnars of the world work for various publishing houses that pitch their music to artists – the Juliette Barneses and Rayna Jaymeses of the world – as well as to television and film.

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"There are a lot of routes that music flows to us," says Callie Khouri, the show's creator and executive producer. The show's producers and screenwriters have met with Nashville's publishing houses, musicians and songwriters, and even hosted a mass screening of the show for the local music community so they could get a feel for the characters and the music they would write.

Khouri has the final say of what music goes on the show. She and her team dig through thousands of songs – "as I much as I can possibly listen to" – to pick the final few featured on each episode. "We hear a lot of good songs, but it has to be good for a very specific reason for our show. The music has to be part of the narrative," she says.

"It's not like, 'Now we are going to stop and do a musical number.' We have to be saying something about the character or moving the story forward."

Oftentimes, the music team seek out songs according to what a script calls for. Khouri holds onto other songs – like "Casino"' – and waits for the perfect place in the narrative to use it.

"I'll hear a song and I'll think, 'Oh my God. This would be such a great song for so-and-so. It would be great if this character wrote it, and then this character hears it and wants to record it,'" she explains. "A lot of times, getting to the song first helps guide the story."

In addition to scouting out the music, Pine helps out with many of the logistical details that come next – figuring out what instruments will be needed, casting musician for the shoot, negotiating the legal rights.

Meanwhile, T Bone Burnett, famed producer of the likes of Taylor Swift, The Civil Wars and The Counting Crows, oversees the recording of the final product. "He starts out with people who haven't performed or haven't really even sung that much, and gets it to the point that they feel completely confident and at peace doing that," says Khouri, who also happens to be Burnett's wife.

"I always know that because he is doing the music, the quality of the music is going to be unparalleled."

But the producers aren't limited to mainstream country music. "Something we set out to do with this show is to really explore all the facets of music in Nashville," says Dawn Soler, ABC's senior vice president of music. "Nashville is not just country music. It's everything. It's rock music, it's indie music, and that's something that we try to achieve as much as possible in every episode."