Nashville at TCAs: It's Hayden vs. Connie, but "This Is Not a Catfight"

Hi everyone! Today I'm pretending to be a real journalist and sitting in on ABC's sessions at the Television Critics' Association press tour in Los Angeles. Here's what I saw and heard at this morning's Nashville panel.

Even the most casual film fans might find Nashville's storylines sliiiightly familiar: an older singer touring with a younger singer (Country Strong); a struggling singer-songwriter working the bar scene (The Thing Called Love); an array of artists and businesspeople navigating show business as dramatically as possible (Robert Altman's Nashville). In audaciously using the same title as that last film—kind of the granddaddy of all country music films—it's clear the producers of ABC's drama don't mind coming across as familiar. But when it comes to TV, Nashville IS pretty unique. It's an original, music-heavy drama centered on the emotional lives of strong female characters in a city decidedly different from Hollywood or Manhattan. The fact that it's filmed in Nashville and boasts the musical talents of T. Bone Burnett adds to its authenticity, but despite country music's popularity on the charts, it's a fairly untested milieu for a weekly series. So despite how familiar Nashville might seem, it's anything but a safe bet.

Co-star Hayden Panettiere, for one, doesn't seem to think the country music angle will be a problem: "You'll realize how broad the term 'country music' is. There's soul, and there's blues and there's bluegrass. There's a wide variety— it's America. I think people will come to find that they like this kind of music even if you think you don't."

Beyond the presence of country music, though, another untested element will be the original songs as sung by Connie Britton and Panettiere. Both actresses had nothing but praise for each others' skills, though: "She's a legitimately great singer," Britton said of her younger counterpart. But Panettiere was quick to counter that though Britton has been downplaying her skills in interviews, "She's gonna be schooling us all." For her part, Panettiere admitted that her teenage dalliances as a pop star were a mere prelude to her role in Nashville, and returning to music in the country world has been a "dream come true."

Fans of Britton will inevitably be curious to see how she'll approach the part of a brassy Southern woman after knocking it out of the park for five seasons on Friday Night Lights. Just don't expect a repeat of Tami Taylor: "This character is actually incredibly different from Tami. I think even her accent is different. There won't be as many y'alls." (Cue audible audience disappointment). But Britton did elaborate on why she loves playing Southern women so much: "There's something about Southern women that is so unique yet so universal. Strong southern women are allowed to be soft and feminine and have a sense of humor. But what I love about Southern women in particular is their universality."

For those who have seen Nashville's trailer, you can be forgiven for assuming Britton and Panettiere might be playing riffs on real-life country singers. As Britton explained, "I ran into Reba McEntire on a plane, and she said, [affecting Reba's drawl] 'Did you hear that you're gonna play me on a show?' And I said 'NO, I had no idea!' For me this character is actually an amalgam of a number of [real-life] people. But I also think it's fun to take from that palette and let this character emerge." But just to be clear, Britton was emphatic: "I don't have any one person I'm basing it on." Panettiere would agree that her character bears little relation to the obvious comparison: "I've heard the Taylor Swift thing quite a bit, but I think it's only because we're a similar age and blonde. Different heights! But I think when you get to know [the character] Juliet a little bit you'll see how different she is. I think Taylor Swift would disagree about the similarities also. She's much nicer than my character."

As of right now there aren't plans to incorporate real-life country singers as themselves, but director and Executive Producer R.J. Cutler admits that "We'll be open to it if it serves the story." So, you know, don't expect Taylor Swift to be confronting Panettiere's character backstage anytime soon.

Although it's built into the premise that two powerful women will be at odds as they tour together, Britton was careful to emphasize the positives of that intergenerational relationship: "We have a real opportunity to show the complexities of these two kinds of people in show business, particularly women. I feel a strong responsibility to do that in a way that is true and dignified. My mantra is 'THIS IS NOT A CATFIGHT. I AM NOT DOING A CATFIGHT.'"

And yes, in case you're wondering, the show's original songs WILL be available for purchase. Though it's safe to assume they'll be downloadable Glee-style, writer Callie Khouri confirmed there'd be more formal releases: "There will be a soundtrack." Cutler promises that whether the songs are original or playing in the background, the music in Nashville will be omnipresent: "There will be at least a few songs in each episode. Music is the texture of the show. It's the air that these characters breathe, so it's always there."

Nashville premieres Wednesday, October 10 at 10pm on ABC.

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