"Telescope," the fictional hit single by the fictional country star Juliette Barnes on Nashville, is sung by the actress who plays Juliette, Hayden Panetierre. If it didn't become a real-life hit when the song was released a few months ago to country radio stations, it wasn't for lack of catchiness, courtesy of producers T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller. Of course, neither Burnett nor Miller, each exemplary performers and songwriters themselves, aren't mainstream country stars themselves. It may be that they excel at a rather darker, grimmer level of country storytelling, as in the song "If I Didn't Know Better," produced by Miller.
That song is sung by Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen, who on Nashville play two young singer-songwriters trying to break into the industry with songs that are more folk-influenced, and whose music dramatizes their tangled love lives. In the real world, that beautiful song wouldn't be a country hit, either — these days, the mainstream industry doesn't like tangled and dark; it likes lighter anthems. No matter: Exploring the various strata and struggles of the music industry is what makes Nashville a compelling TV show, and its soundtrack album displays a few superlative match-ups between actor and material. Take, for example, "No One Will Ever Love You"; it's sung by Connie Britton, who plays the country star Rayna James, who in turn is trying to sustain a career in an industry that prizes youth over the hard-won wisdom symbolized by a song and a vocal such as this.
In the TV show, Rayna's middle-aged melancholy is positioned as more authentic than Juliette's pop-country cynicism. But in the real Nashville, a song as good as the Juliette tune, "Love Like Mine" would be embraced as a stadium singalong in the manner of female-led hit acts such as Little Big Town and Sugarland.
Nashville's soundtrack album is a success on its own terms. You rarely question the abilities of the actors as singers, while the material is performed by superb musicians such as guitarist Doyle Bramhall and Sam Bush on mandolin — and overseen by Burnett as the show's musical director. Right now, Nashville the TV show could use bigger ratings, as more viewers need to get past their own parochialism about the Nashville setting to see the ways that the various plots connect to their own lives. You know, just the way the best country music has always done.