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‘Nashville’ Takes The Show On The Road

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By Jon Bream

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)


Deacon will be there. Scarlett, too. And sisters Maddie and Daphne.

The stars of “Nashville” — ABC’s prime-time soap opera about country music — are taking their music on a brief tour. The concert tour means that Charles “Chip” Esten, who stars as cancer-stricken bad boy Deacon Claybourne, can now avoid answering the question: Are you an actor who sings or a singer who acts?

“I don’t have to answer that question,” he said recently. “Some days I’m an actor playing music, some days I’m a musician/singer-songwriter who is going to be acting later in the day. Both sides pull me equally. There will be times when I’m songwriting on Music Row here in Nashville and I’ll look at the clock and go, ‘Geez, I gotta go work’ as though I’m reporting to the coal mine or something. This is a fantastic job. I couldn’t be happier about where I am.”

On tour, he’s Charles Esten, although he’ll sing some of the songs Deacon did on “Nashville” as well as tunes he’s written. None of the show’s touring performers — Clare Bowen (Scarlett), Chris Carmack (Will), Aubrey Peeples (Layla) and the Stella sisters, Lennon (Maddie) and Maisy (Daphne) — will be in character. They’re just singers, backed by top-notch Nashville musicians including Colin Linden, the show’s music supervisor.

Esten stuck around the College of William and Mary in Virginia an extra year after graduating so he could continue playing in his rock band. But theater called him. Among other vehicles, he starred in a roadshow of the musical “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story” that brought him to the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992.

“It was one of the places I remember very well,” he said. The visit included a detour to Clear Lake, Iowa, where Holly played his last concert and then died in an airplane crash.

Esten joined the cast of the improv comedy TV series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” in 1999 and later “Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza.” In 2012, he landed his dream job in “Nashville.”

“This show is multiple dreams come true,” said Esten, 49, who moved to Music City with his wife and three children.

Working on the show has had a big impact on his own songwriting. “Part of it is being Deacon and part of it is being in this town,” he explained.

When a songwriter plies his songs at the tiny showcase club the Bluebird Cafe, “it demands a real truth when you’re that close to the audience,” Esten said. “When I was in a band in college, it was about the party aspect — keep it loud, keep it moving. So being in those (small) rooms and writing with people who sat in those rooms, it forces you to go deeper and to a more true place. It doesn’t hurt to have this alter ego who is going through the worst and hardest that life can throw at you. It gives me another place to write from.”

Esten is getting singing gigs under his own name. He performed recently at the mammoth Stagecoach country festival held in Southern California. He’ll also sing at the CMA Festival in Nashville in June, where all the stars in country music do cameo shows for fans.

On the current tour, two of the biggest stars of “Nashville” are missing — Connie Britton, who plays fading country queen Rayna James, and Hayden Panettiere, who plays Rayna’s rival, rising starlet Juliette Barnes.

“They’re busy,” Epsen said. “Hayden just had a new baby. Connie has a little boy, as well, and is doing a whole lot with her charity.”

Their singing can be heard on “Nashville” soundtrack albums. There are a dozen titles, including a Christmas album. Eight have landed in Billboard’s country Top 10.

“Just to see yourself on iTunes was a big thrill for me,” Esten said. “That’s where the lines between actor and singer-songwriter are blurred in the best way possible.”

The success of “Nashville” on TV and on the album chart may have opened a door for “Empire,” the Fox TV series about the world of hip-hop.

“It’s nice to think you’re part of this new thing of playing your songs live and describing the music business,” Esten said. “I love that ‘Empire’ has blown up. It’s one thing to be a smash hit, but to take it to the level they have is something else.”

Will “Nashville” return for another season next fall?

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Esten said. “I don’t feel I’m done with this character or anybody’s done with their characters. We should be finding out on the 8th or 9th of May when we’re performing in L.A. So hopefully that L.A. show will be a big celebration.”

©2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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‘Nashville’ Takes The Show On The Road