It seems fitting that one of the earliest scenes in the premiere episode of ABC's music drama series "Nashville" is set in a recording studio. An excited producer tweaks the controls on the mixing board during a session with a bratty young country-pop singer. He drops everything out of the sound mix but her voice, which is noticeably off-pitch.
"Don't worry," the producer says, "we can fix that." The singer's manager, sitting nearby on a couch reading, nonchalantly responds, "Thank God for Auto-Tune."
Not only is "Nashville" one of the few prime-time TV series to be based in the country music capital, it also peels back the curtain to expose just what, and who, really makes Music City tick.
J.D. Souther, one of the architects of '70s Southern California country-rock, has a key cameo in the series opening on Wednesday night, as does bluegrass band leader Del McCoury, adding to the television vérité quality of this enterprise. One key scene is filmed at the venerable Bluebird Cafe songwriters' vortex, and in another, the main character wears a T-shirt from the Loveless Cafe, a storied food and music emporium.
"It's a community that has been marginalized, overlooked and made fun of at the same time that it's been wildly successful," series creator and executive producer Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 1991's "Thelma & Louise," said a day before her show hit the airwaves.
"I felt I had never seen a really true representation of what my experience of Nashville was. I felt like I always saw a hokey version of something that really could be incredibly moving and wonderful and just deserved more than it was getting."
The first episode focuses on the drama between Rayna Jaymes, played by Connie Britton, who is also a producer of "Nashville." Jaymes is the reigning queen of country music whose career momentum is starting to nose-dive, thrusting her into a contentious relationship with the young singer on her way up, Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere. This friction — a pop tart upstaging established country royalty — personifies the day-to-day real-life clashes between old and new guards in the country music world.
Khouri was born in San Antonio, made frequent trips to Nashville to visit relatives during her childhood and lived there for four years after graduating from college. She's drawn on those deep roots in the city in single-handedly writing the script for the pilot, insisting that Britton take the starring role, and is even personally soliciting original songs from musicians she knows for the show's characters to sing.
She's also tapping a powerful musical ally in producer, songwriter and musician T Bone Burnett, who also happens to be her husband. ("Now we actually get to see each other," she said.) Burnett is the show's executive music producer and composed the score for the pilot with Keefus Green.
She said she expects some members of the Nashville community to be skeptical about how their town will be portrayed to a broad national audience. Ultimately, though, "I hope that it feels real to the people who are watching it who have no idea about the music, and that it feels real to people who are in the music business; that they'll see it and say 'Wow, OK, that's close enough for me.'"
Among the latter is Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine Records — Taylor Swift's label — which has struck a deal to distribute the music heard in "Nashville," including some Big Machine artists such as the Eli Young Band, Eden's Edge and Justin Moore.
"Any time we're pitched on a movie or a TV series, you always go in hoping that somebody did the research, got it right and it doesn't have all the stereotypes," Borchetta said. "Ten or 15 minutes into the pilot, I thought, 'This is really good.' It has a kind of 'Dallas'-era feeling meets modern-day Nashville music business."
After Big Machine's role in disseminating music from "The Hunger Games" film, Borchetta said, "I was wanting to do something more in depth" in terms of a television or movie project. "Not everyone in a production scenario wants a real partner. They'll say to us, 'Go do the record — here's what we want, you put it out.' So we've stayed away from 99% of them."
Ken Levitan, whose Nashville-based Vector Management represents Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, the Kings of Leon, John Hiatt and other critically respected musicians, has provided some technical input for the show, such as allowing one of the writers to spend a day with the Fray when the band played the Hollywood Bowl to witness first-hand the process of loading in and out for a major concert.
"I've sat in on sessions with writers and they want the stories and the details of things they're representing to be correct," Levitan said. "They take creative license with some things; it's not a documentary. But I think the real upside is that Nashville is a wonderful, cosmopolitan city that has a lot of arts, a lot of culture. It's a great food town now. I think for a lot of people outside of Nashville there's still a little bit of a 'Hee Haw' mentality about what they think Nashville may be. I think there's a lot of anticipation from the city" that "Nashville" may help change that perception.
There is, however, at least one misleading element in the pilot, one that Khouri was happy to point out. It was in the recording studio scene leading up to the quip about Auto-Tune, the electronic device that can shift a singer's pitch to be 100% on key.
"There's one thing I want to clarify about that," Khouri said. "We had to do that to Hayden's voice — we had to de-tune her voice. She was a little worried [and asked] 'Are you really going to do that?' We told her, 'It's one time — it's about making a mistake, it's not about you.' She said 'Promise me,' because she really prides herself on her singing, and she's an absolutely wonderful singer."