One of the hottest new dramas of the season has been ABC’s Nashville, a soapy show that has (excuse the expression) struck a chord in the town it portrays. And while many of the cast members — including stars Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere — can actually sing, J.D. Souther, who plays producer Waddy White, actually has a music career that has spanned decades.
He may not be a household name, but many of the songs that he wrote or co-wrote are among the biggest hits of the past few decades, including The Eagles‘ “Best Of My Love,” “Victim Of Love,” “Heartache Tonight,” “New Kid In Town” and “How Long.” He also co-wrote, and sang with, James Taylor on “Her Town Too.”
Nashville isn’t his first time acting; he’s also appeared in thirtysomething, Postcards From The Edge and My Girl 2. But he, as well as many other residents of “Music City,” had reservations about ABC doing a weekly series based on their town.
He cites the 1975 Robert Altman film Nashville as an example of a portrayal that didn’t click, at least with people who live there. “Oh Lord, no, people here hated that,” he says. “I’m a huge Robert Altman fan, don’t get me wrong. It happened to be an area he wasn’t familiar with. Nashville seemed to make fun of country music, and I know that’s how people here thought of it.”
So people in town were a bit wary of the ABC show. As Souther puts it, the feeling was, “‘They’re not gonna make us look like hicks again, are they?'” But he reports that it’s gone over well: “People in town love the show.”
A big part of the show’s appeal is the actual music: new songs that are used in Nashville are released on iTunes weekly. Legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, the man who produced the music for O Brother, Where Art Thou and Crazy Heart, and who has produced albums for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Elton John and Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Elvis Costello, B.B. King and Willie Nelson and others, is the show’s Music Supervisor. Burnett works with Buddy Miller, who has also worked with Plant, as well as John Fogerty and Emmylou Harris, on the show’s music.
“Those guys aren’t gonna let too much get by them that isn’t good,” deadpans Souther.
So, as a songwriter with a gig on the show, has Souther submitted any of his own songs to Burnett and Miller? “Every songwriter in town wants to get a song on that show. I gave them one of mine that would be really terrific for Rayna,” he says, referencing Connie Britton’s character.
Souther still makes his own albums, but they don’t resemble the music that he wrote with The Eagles in the ’70s (which directly influenced much of what Nashville — the actual city and the TV show — sounds like today). His recent music is more jazz-tinged.
Are long-time fans who know Souther from his “Love” songs (“Victim Of…,” “Best Of My…”) surprised to hear his not-so-new direction?
“Yes. That always comes as a shock to me, it’s been thirty years! I’d be very disappointed in myself if I was making exactly the same music that I made thirty years ago.”
Indeed, his next album will feature him collaborating with other songwriters who are pretty far from the country-rock he’s most known for. He reveals that he plans on working with Arthur Hamilton (who is most well known for the classic “Cry Me A River,” covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Aerosmith) and also Burt Bacharach.
But no matter what else he does, his association with The Eagles never goes away. Their first single from their 2007 reunion album Long Road Out Of Eden was “How Long.” That song was written by Souther, and The Eagles played in concert in the ’70s but never recorded it. That was because Souther wanted to keep it for one of his own albums (it appears on his 1972 John David Souther). J.D. says he was surprised to find out that they revisited the song more than three decades later.
“I heard about it when someone from the record label called me and asked if I wanted to see the music video! I was shocked, I was absolutely thrilled. But they did a bang up job, they sang the heck out of it.” He reports that he was interviewed for the band’s long-talked about documentary, and he is “mildly curious” to see it.
For now, he’s happy to focus on his own records and Nashville. One question that he, and the rest of the cast, is always asked: who are Britton and Panettiere’s characters based on? He stresses that no character is directly based on anyone.
“They’re all composites. Even mine is a composite.” He suggests Waddy White is loosely based on “Harlan Howard, Cowboy Jack Clement and to some degree, T-Bone.”
Nashville airs Wednesday nights on ABC at 10 pm ET. Souther’s latest album, Midnight In Tokyo, is out now.
— Brian Ives, CBS Local