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When The Right One Comes Along: How 'Nashville' Tells Stories In Song

Characters Scarlett O'Connor and Gunnar Scott are young, unknown artists in <em>Nashville,</em> just like the songwriters behind their song, "When the Right One Comes Along."
Katherine Bomboy-Thornton
Characters Scarlett O'Connor and Gunnar Scott are young, unknown artists in Nashville, just like the songwriters behind their song, "When the Right One Comes Along."

With Nashville's first season about to wrap up — and a second one just ordered — the prime-time TV drama has found a niche audience on Wednesdays. The soundtrack has also enjoyed pop chart success.

The characters in Nashville fall into three categories: struggling unknowns looking for their big break, struggling up-and-comers and struggling superstars. And the songs — most of them previously unheard originals — are woven into the drama. They appear organically in living room songwriting sessions, late night honky-tonks or stadium dress rehearsals.

Makes sense for a town nicknamed Music City. But tracking down those songs is no easy thing. That job falls to Frankie Pine, the music supervisor for Nashville, who tells All Things Considered's Audie Cornish that when she first put out a call for unreleased music, she guessed she received "at least 50,000 songs."

I've read that you keep hundreds of songs on your computer in folders for each character. Is that true? And, if so, can you talk about what is the sound of one character versus another? Say, this Rayna Jaymes character — the main country diva — and the upstart character, Juliette Barnes.

"We started with Rayna being more of our poignant, lyrical country artist. The songs had to be saying something about some kind of matter rather than 'I don't like boys' or some kind of girly-type song. Juliette was our young pop princess, so songs that just had a lot of fun in them — it didn't really matter what the lyrics were saying at the beginning. As her character changed, we moved into a more poignant lyric that was more to the story point of what was happening in Juliette's life.

"As we sit in the writer's room and talk about where our characters are going, I just start pulling stories as I'm listening and I make a big, long playlist, so that when and if that story comes up, we've got something there for them."

And one of those songs that Juliette, the character, sings is "Hanging on a Lie."

"The writers of this are my new favorite 'little kids,' I call them. [Laughs.]"

This is a song that was written by Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman, people who were unknown, right?

"Yes. On my trip to Nashville, we got this last-minute call from Universal Publishing, begging me to please come to their offices. They had some young songwriters there that wanted to perform for us. We were actually on our way to the airport. So we just said, 'OK, let's just swing by. Let's see what this is all about.' I am so thankful that we stopped to see them because they were the two greatest — they probably played like four songs for us and we loved every single one of them."

This pair is also on another song on the soundtrack called "When the Right One Comes Along," which is interesting because it's also written for characters who are supposed to be unknown, young people trying to break into the business.

"That was the part of it that felt so natural to me when we heard that song. They played it that day. We just thought it was amazing for Scarlett and Gunnar, knowing that ultimately that they would find themselves in love — obviously with a struggle, of course, it wouldn't be good television without a struggle. When it finally came to fruition, this was the most poignant song that, I feel, exuded how these two people feel about each other.

"When I'm listening, I'm listening very specific to our characters. One of the things we said from the very beginning is that we only want to use great songs. To us in television, what makes a great song is how it's used in the program and how it comes across in the storytelling. I think that's the one thing that the show has done so successfully: Allowing those songs and the lyrics of those songs to be another part of the story rather than just the writers of the scripts, per se. When we're listening to music, that is the highest criteria. Obviously, finding a hit song, that's great, but what makes a hit song in television is when it's used so incredibly well. I think that's what our audience responds to in regards to the iTunes downloads and things like that."

What has it meant to these songwriters for the song to appear on the show? Has this opened up new avenues?

"I think it has. I think there has been a struggle for years for Nashville to get heard within the film and TV community. Their music is not hugely used in film and television. It was a bit of a learning curve because that's an area that they typically have within the publishing houses. They don't have film and television pitch people like we do here in L.A. And here is the perfect show to make that happen for them. I think the other thing Nashville would like to see is we're representing that music and those songwriters in the right way. And I think that our show has done that."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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