Rayna James is Country Music. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say: Rayna James is what Country Music was. In the opening minutes of the premiere of Nashville, we meet Rayna at her big house getting ready for a big show. She gives a big hug to her two adorable children and her genial hubby. Within moments, she’s onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, celebrating Watty White: Producer, Nashville legend, Rayna’s person Mr. Miyagi. She’s flanked by lead guitarist and love-slave Deacon Claybourne, and she’s singing one of her hits. She’s Faith Hill, or Reba McEntire, or Tami Taylor with a singing voice. She’s on top of the world. There are cracks in the facade, of course: Her husband happily tells the kids that they’re rich, but they’re a different kind of rich: “Cash poor.” But she’s a star. Stars don’t go broke. What could possibly happen to upset Rayna’s happy life?
Time could happen. The evolving state of the music industry could happen. Juliette Barnes could happen. We meet Juliette Barnes backstage. Juliette is a multimedia darling. She’s written a book: Driven ‘Em Crazy, a bestseller, no credit given to the ghostwriter. She’s got a number-one album in a weird new era where people never buy albums. Her voice is pretty, but auto-tune makes it sound robo-beautiful. She’s Taylor Swift, or Carrie Underwood, or the cheerleader from Heroes with zero moral code. And she’s got a new line of perfume, coming soon to a Wal-Mart near you. Juliette tries out some perfume recipes. It doesn’t smell like anything. The actual content of the perfume doesn’t matter; all that matters is her name on the bottle. We’re less than three minutes into the first episode of Nashville, and already, the show has provided a handy metaphor for modern pop stardom: A beautiful perfume bottle filled with water vapor.
Juliette’s handlers tell her to meet Rayna. “Just kiss the ring. Tell her you’re a huge fan.” Juliette tells Rayna that her mom was a huge fan, back in the miserable days before Juliette Barnes was born and brought light back to the world. “Well, bless your little heart,” says Rayna. “That is a charming story. You probably gotta go on soon, make sure you got those girls tucked in real good!” Juliette makes a face that looks like a smile. And this is how we are introduced to one of the most important supporting characters in Nashville: The Barely-Repressed Hayden Panettiere Bitchface.
It’s a look that seems to say: “I am a bloodthirsty Warlord Chieftess, and I am laughing while I decide whether I’m going to decapitate you or disembowel you.”
Juliette goes onstage, and the label boys lay some truth grenades on Rayna. The new album is failing. It charted at 20 and hasn’t stopped falling. Her tour is hemorrhaging money. But here’s a hot high-concept idea, straight from the new head of the label: Why not co-headline a tour with Juliette? The kids love her! She’ll sell out stadiums from New York to LA. “Who goes on first?” asks Rayna. The label boys hem and haw and stare at the ceiling. “Yeah, no,” says Rayna. The conversation ends. Rayna stares up at the screen as Juliette squawks through her latest multi-platinum chart-topping country-pop hit. The youth of America is singing, and so we are introduced to another supporting character: Connie Britton’s Nails-On-The-Chalkboard Wince of Abject Existential Disgust.
It’s a look that seems to say: “My name is Sarah Connor, and SkyNet has officially taken over the world.”
From there, the show quickly sketches in the ecosystem of power which underlies the modern country-music metropolis. Rayna is the prodigal daughter of Lamar Wyatt, a man so powerful that Nashville gave him his very own holiday. “Happy Lamar Wyatt Day!” says Rayna to her non-prodigal sister, a professional Girl Friday and future Shadow-Empress of Nashville named Tandy. Rayna is planning to support her old friend Coleman in the mayoral race. (Aside: Fans of The Wire will recognize Coleman as Robert Wisdom, the guy who played Bunny Colvin, mayor of Hamsterdam. Fans of Prison Break will recognize Coleman as “the dude from the Season 3 Prison,” and then wonder why they were still watching Prison Break in season 3. Based on those two previous roles, we can assume that Coleman’s mayoral platform includes a lenient drug policy and also totalitarianism. End of Aside.) But Lamar has his own plans for the mayoral race. He wants to build a baseball park in the middle of Nashville. Coleman is anti-baseball, apparently. So Lamar suggests an alternate candidate: His son-in-law, Teddy Conrad, Mr. Rayna James.
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