This week, in the absence of a new episode, the Slate Nashville TV club welcomes Jillian Mapes, a music writer, editor and producer for CBS, and former Billboard staffer, for a freeform conversation about the show.
Katy Waldman: Thanks for joining me, Jillian! I’m excited to fill the Charles Esten-shaped hole in my life with our chat today.
Jillian Mapes: That's a big hole, I'd imagine! Also excited—wasn't quite sure what to do with myself Wednesday night without Connie Britton.
Waldman: I don’t like moving in fits and starts with all these hiatuses. Especially because no one seems to know when exactly the season will end! Are we winding down? Gearing up? What’s going on?
Mapes: It does feel like this season is reaching a point where it could feasibly stop. Rayna's divorce seems like the end of a chapter, unfortunately.
Waldman: Though an inevitable/anticlimactic one. The suspense for me has never been about whether Rayna will stay with Teddy, but more: Who’s next? Deacon? Liam?
Mapes: Right, I don't really understand why they spent time investing in Teddy Conrad—as the mayoral candidate, in his Peggy backstory—if he's bound to be even more of a minor (and frankly, flat) character than he already has been. He just seems like the worst kind of guy, a real reaction to Deacon's youthful instability. The writers investing effort in a Teddy plotline makes me worry they won't end up going through with the divorce.
Waldman: It may require the additional push of Maggie's paternity coming to light.
Mapes: Ugh, I forgot about that. Rayna's family! It's all so Dallas. The father, the sister (who also plays the role of disapproving sister on Big Love). At least Juliette's family is complicated in a way that seems as though it could lead to resolution, as we start to see at the end of episode 13, when Juliette invites Jolene to move in.
Waldman: Jolene is the rare, dynamic supporting character on Nashville. We actually get to see her change, from desperate drug addict to a force for good in Juliette’s life. The other peripheral characters are so…static.
Mapes: They are pretty undeveloped. The managers are of a lot of interest to me in that way, because I've worked around the music industry. I've seen these kinds of guys in action. They're too... collapsed. Juliette's, you're meant to hate. Rayna's, he's one of the good guys.
Waldman: We’re supposed to hate Glenn?
Mapes: You don’t?
Waldman: He was Juliette’s surrogate dad! He didn’t have to take her back as a client after the shoplifting and TV interview fiascos, but he was loyal. Fine, he also stands for soulless commercialism and selling out. I know, I know.
Are there managers like Glenn in real life?
Mapes: Well, yes and no. I think he represents a certain type of manager—but the thing is, he seems harder on Juliette than he does on the forces around him. Usually with money/fame types like him, they're hardest not on the star but on the other members of the support system. Just, very demanding, opportunistic. Divas tend to fire guys that treat them like Glenn has treated Juliette, but then again, she just did.
Waldman: So artists typically have more creative control than managers?
Mapes: I've seen all different manners of relationships between artists and their managers—but most feel like partnerships in some way, like they're at least playing for the same time. The only time I saw that with Juliette and Glenn was during the shoplifting scandal. I think I'm just surprised that Juliette hasn't ditched Glenn until now because, frankly, she's not a 16-year-old girl who doesn't know jack about the biz anymore. And clearly the reason she's just moved out from under his heavy-handed management is because of his paternal role in her life. So when I do think of it like that, it makes more sense. Beyonce just left her father's management a couple of years ago. It took Jessica Simpson a long time to ditch her dad as her manager. The list goes on and on with over-controlling dad-managers in the music industry.
Waldman: So Juliette is outgrowing one parent (her "dad") just as she's allowing another one (Jolene) back into her life. But to leave the therapist’s office for a second, is there anything about the music world Nashville gets especially right?
Mapes: You know, everyone in and around this world that I talk to seems to think this show is spot-on with how accurate it is. It's probably one of the big reasons I watch the show. I was hesitant but so many people said it felt like the real deal. Now, I can't watch it without trying to figure out who the characters are based on. Creator Callie Khouri is very much from the TV/film world, but her husband is T-Bone Burnett, who started out in [Bob] Dylan's band and has produced so, so many stars (and also works on the show). So I can only imagine the kinds of information and conversations that Khouri is privy to.
Waldman: Ooh! Who’s who?
Mapes: We got into an intense conversation about this at work the other day, and the general consensus was that Rayna and Juliette are definitely composite characters. Rayna has elements of Faith Hill, but she's more interested in songwriting and experimentation, so there's a touch of maybe a Lucinda Williams type—someone more alt-country. But I also see some shades of Shania [Twain] in her, particularly in the sense that her most significant creative collaborator was someone she was romantically involved with. (Twain was with her producer /ex-husband Mutt Lange). It's funny, because Mutt Lange was a big rock producer when he worked with Shania, and now Rayna's working with Liam. I mean, it's a different kind of thing, but just generally speaking.
Waldman: This is riveting. I am riveted.
Mapes: I've heard Juliette is drawn a bit from Carrie Underwood, but there's also the element of her fans being so young and pop-country that I get a whiff of Taylor Swift in there, too.
Waldman: I’ve read speculation that Juliette is the fantasy of what Taylor Swift is like behind closed doors (a nightmare).
Mapes: Ha! You know, if Juliette was anything like Taylor, she would still be in bed crying over that Tebow ripoff.
Waldman: HA. And also, while Taylor is drifting towards pop, Juliette wants to go less mainstream, right? Am I wrong that that’s kind of an unusual trajectory IRL?
Mapes: I definitely think it is an interesting trajectory for Juliette. She's seeking out more credibility. That concept, in general, is not an uncommon one, but we just haven't seen it in all that many big country stars, especially not female artists. They're usually moving away from the Nashville-centric stuff and toward the mainstream.
But looking at Rayna, too, she's working in ways that aren't obvious for someone who could almost be considered a legacy artist in the country world. She's collaborating with Liam, who to me, feels a little like Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (who hasn't worked with country stars).
Waldman: These deviations—do they make Nashville feel unrealistic to you? Or plausible but interesting and surprising?
Mapes: I think they’re a testament to the complicated nature of some of the characters. Because Jack White would never work with Shania Twain. We can't collapse Rayna and Liam into those people. Maybe it's a slightly unrealistic and even romantic view of the country music world, but I wouldn't say it's hollow.
I'm curious for you, what is your perception of the show’s validity? Does it feel like these plotlines could be rooted in reality?
Waldman: The emotional conflicts, sure. The music biz itself is more of a cipher to me. I suppose I can imagine mentor/mentee relationships like Juliette's and Deacon's blossoming, along with all the rivalry and uncertainty and ambition. Then again, one of Nashville’s perks for me is its escapist shimmer. I wouldn’t want to know too much about the world it’s representing, or have a bunch of expectations that needed to be met.
Mapes: Speaking of expectations, were you off-put by Hayden Panettiere’s presence before watching the show?
Waldman: Hmm! Well, I never saw Heroes and had practically no impression of her. I wasn’t anticipating brilliance, I guess, but I wasn’t recoiling from Nashville either because she was in it. You?
Mapes: She's one of those actresses whose bitchiness seems to transcend her roles, but then I saw that a.) She's quite good in the show; b.) We're not supposed to like Juliette at first.
Waldman: One last question. What do you make of Nashville’s music?
Mapes: I'm admittedly not a huge mainstream country fan, but I actually like a lot of it. They have folks like Elvis Costello and The Civil Wars writing music for the show, and it kind of comes off like that. To me, a lot of the songs lean just slightly Americana or alt-country, especially with Scarlett and Gunnar (one of their first song, "If I Didn't Know Better," gutted me—and I know I'm not alone in that.) The songs are charting on Billboard's country chart.
The actors are impressive in that way, too. They're keeping up. Connie Britton doesn't have the most incredible voice I've ever heard, but she can carry a tune just fine.