Small Screen, Big Pickin’

Crew Strives to Keep it Real on “Nashville”
Actresses Lennon Stella (left, with a 1934 Kalamazoo KG14), Connie Britton, and Maisy Stella on the set.

It’s not often that prime-time network television captures an audience of working class, professional musicians. In 1968, players watched Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore swap their Gibson SJ-200 and a Super 400 during Elvis’ “Comeback Special.” More recently, it’s been done with grace in a fictional musical drama.

“Nashville” aired for four seasons on ABC, then, after the network opted to not take it on for a fifth, a fitting new host emerged in Country Music Television (CMT). The show is particularly popular in the city for which it is named and has earned high praise not only for exposing millions of Americans to the world of vintage guitars, but also for the way it realistically portrays the sights and sounds involved in creating music. Much of the credit for that goes to two men who share a passion for their work on the series.

Danny Rowe, the show’s propmaster for musical instruments, along with musician/music producer/music director/songwriter Colin Linden, strive to ensure that what viewers see closely matches what they hear in the show’s performances. Critical to that authenticity is the attention to detail poured into each episode.

“We’re truly righteous to the gear,” Rowe said. “Whatever they’re using in the studio to cut the tracks, I match to the camera; so if it’s P-90s in the neck position on a Les Paul goldtop, that’s what you’re seeing.”

Charles Esten with a ’55 Gibson J-200. Photo: Mark Levine.

Rowe hunts down the guitars.

“I rent instruments from Carter Vintage Guitars, Corner Music, and Gruhn Guitars. They know I’m looking for a specific guitar with particular pickups to use on-camera, and they take great pride knowing that somebody cares enough to get it right.”

Pulling it off is quite the process.

“For every song performed, Buddy (Miller, the show’s Executive Music Producer) has to submit three to the network. Then they’ll go back and record it, and that’s where they figure out sound and instrumentation. Then, engineers send me photos from the sessions. At that point, I know what I’ll be renting.”

And, for each character who plays, the crew tries to establish an instrument of choice as part of the story.

“We have to consider, ‘Is he old school, is he new school?’” Rowe said. “The hardest part is when I’m listening to the session before they’ve been able to send photos; but I know they have a million things on their plate, too.”

Just as crucial is a convincing performance.

“T-Bone (Burnett, the show’s former music producer) wanted me to work with the cast on-set so they could really learn to play the parts, and not fake it,” said Linden. “I supervise the shoots and not only notate for errors, but work with the cast and bands to play – exactly – the parts we did on the recording. We never want to dumb-down the music so the actors ‘get’ it – and they don’t want us to.

Actor Mark Collie with a Gibson J-200. Photo: Mark Levine.

“For instance, if there’s a part that Sam Palladio’s character, Gunnar, is supposed to be playing, Sam will move heaven and earth to learn it.”

“The actors work their behinds off learning parts – alternate tunings, capos, whatever it takes,” Rowe adds. “It’s more than just some guy with his head buried in his lap playing this intricate voicing. We’ve had Brian Setzer, Doyle Bramhall II, Kenny Vaughan, and all kinds of heavyweights here to cut stuff.”

That quest for realism and accuracy even extends to the on-screen backing bands.

Everybody who plays in a backing band on the show is a full-time professional musician,” Linden said. “A lot of them play with Carrie Underwood, Toby Keith, and other bands that are out regularly touring. Casting always confers with us to make sure the parts are right for the people and the people are right for the parts.”

For Linden, that means getting into the characters’ heads.

“Colin is absolutely phenomenal,” says Rowe. “When he’s in the studio recording an actor’s guitar part to teach them later, he takes the time to really understand how they play, then records it in that manner. He’s not in there playing as Colin Linden – he’s thinking ‘How would Avery Barkly play this? How would Deacon Claybourne play this.’ Then, during rehearsal, I’ll watch the actors pick up the guitar part with Colin helping; ‘Here it is from the mirror of how you play.’ That is mind-blowing to think of, on a TV show. It’s not just, ‘Hey, I banged out this great part.’ It’s ‘Hey, I banged out this great part that you probably would have played.’”

“The different worlds collide to a degree,” Linden says of the process. “There’s what Charles Esten would do versus what his character, Deacon, would do. And of course, storyline is key. In season two, Deacon was recovering after a car accident, and he could barely play. Callie Khouri (series creator) suggested that since his problem was his left hand, maybe he could get back into it by playing slide. So I started playing Deacon’s slide on the goldtop. Charles wanted to learn everything about it. He gets into the weeds so much. Really, though, they all dig in deeply, and that’s what I am trying to do with each of the characters.”

As developing musicians, the actors blend their own style to make the roles their own.

“When Layla Grant, who is played by Aubrey Peeples, started playing guitar on the show, I asked Aubrey how she’d be most comfortable,” Linden recalled. “She asked, ‘Would it be okay if I played without a pick?’ I said, ‘Of course’ and asked how she would strum through something and she said, ‘Well it’s kind of like I’m holding a pick – I put the two fingers together.’ So whenever I play her parts, that’s what I do; I play it in a style that she would, and then I teach her the parts. There have been a couple of times when she’s been given a solo, and she just rises to the occasion.”

Choosing guitars for a character is given the same consideration as casting for a role.

Sam Palladio with a ’67 Gibson Country Western. Photo: Mark Levine.

“We feel like an old guitar says something about the uniqueness of a character’s aesthetic, so we really try to keep that in mind every time we choose an instrument for someone,” Linden says. “Willie Nelson has Trigger, and when you think of Willie, you think of him playing that guitar. People are bound to play more than one instrument, but you also know that every guitar player has a ‘food group.’ Making those choices really helps say something about the nature of that character.”

The team also does an incredible job intertwining personalities with the script.

“In season three, Layla made the transformation from sort of a fluffy pop singer to a more-serious artist,” explains Linden. “Buddy thought she should be playing an archtop, and I’d recently found a ’35 Gibson L-5. It had a badly repaired crack, but the crack had some pathos to it – like the guitar had seen some pain. The character had gone through something pretty difficult and was coming out on the other side, so that became her character guitar. It really says something for a 20-year-old girl to be playing that guitar. Aubrey knew exactly what was cool about it, and why it was perfect for Layla.”

Prior to that, the songbird had been seen strumming another super-cool American timepiece.

“There’s a scene where Layla goes into a tent where someone is selling guitars and – without being directed to do so – she picked up is a ’62 Harmony Monterey,” said Linden. “She’s just drawn to archtops, and we pay a lot of attention to those details when choosing character guitars.”

And the selection rides hand-in-hand with the plot. “When creating the characters, musically, they started to figure out what’s in these guys’ wheelhouse,” Rowe said. “Gunnar (Sam Palladio) initially had an LG-2 that belonged to [singer/songwriter] Julie Miller, then we had a reissue that served as his clunker to bang around on and work stuff out. Once he started going to bigger arena stuff, he started using Colin’s ’67 Gibson Country Western.”

Of working on Gunnar’s parts, Linden recalled how Palladio became a better guitar player in the last couple of years. “I kind of know what he goes for and what he likes,” he said. “I play his parts on a guitar that his character would play, like the Country Western. He has borrowed that guitar for gigs because he’s really comfortable playing it; it has become part of his persona.”

Other key guitars include a ’64 Guild Starfire IV with mini-humbuckers Rowe puts with the band backing Scarlett and Gunnar.

“Gunnar also uses Buddy Miller’s older Danelectros, and we use some Kay reissues in his music room,” he said.

Colin Linden with his 1951 Gibson CF-100e. Colin Linden: Laura Godwin.

Throughout the series, characters identify with an array of unique axes.

“Avery [Jonathan Jackson] started with a ’60s Harmony Rocket, then once he made a little money, moved on to a 335,” Rowe noted. “He also plays a ’51 Gibson CF-100e with a Florentine cutaway; it’s an amazing, beautiful guitar.”

While many of the guitars are rented, others are pulled from Linden and Rowe’s personal collection.

“I had my eyes on a 1940 Gibson L-00 at Corner Music, but the bridge was pulling up, there were no pins in it, and it needed a re-fret,” Rowe said. “Still, it spoke to me; it had the ebony tuning keys and there was a rattlesnake rattle in it. So I bought it for myself as a front-porch guitar and took it for Gibson to go through. They called and said, ‘Your guitar is done, but Miranda Lambert wants to play it in her video for ‘Automatic.’” When I got it back, Callie needed a guitar for Deacon to give Rayna (Connie Britton) at the end of season two, for their daughter, Maddie (Lennon Stella); something with a story. I said, ‘I’ve got this L-00 and the story could be that Deacon had worked with this guitar and he wanted his daughter to have it.’

“From then on, Lennon played it in the show, and she loves that guitar. She’s so great at it, and when you’re seeing her play, Colin recorded her parts with that guitar.”

Deacon, one of the protagonists, is a Nashville go-to guitarslinger and session guy, and as such uses the widest range of guitars.

“He’s a performer – side man and session player – so he’s more-versatile,” explained Linden. “In his portrayal, Chip plays my ’56 Gibson LG-2 with a Baggs soundhole pickup for a lot of scenes, and a ’66 Martin D-18. As of late, he’s also playing my sunburst ’64 Gretsch Double Anniversary with a Bigsby. Those have become Deacon’s roots.”

Rowe expands on the character’s toolbox.

“Deacon has a ’55 J-200 with a pickup that I grabbed from Carter’s. When we filmed our second On The Record Live, Chip asked to borrow it and afterward said, ‘I don’t think this guitar is ever going back to Carters’,’ and he bought it. Prior to that, he was shown mostly with Buddy’s ’54 SJ-200, which Emmy Lou Harris had given him. For slide, he’s using a 2012 Goldtop, and we have a ’52 reissue Goldtop with the trapeze tailpiece. Then there’s Buddy’s Gretsch Black Penguin with a Bigsby and D’Armond pickups, and one I got from Fender with the original-style tailpiece.”

Early on, the Juliette Barnes character, played by Hayden Panettiere, gifted Deacon a rare Martin.

Charles Esten with a ’66 Martin D-18 and a Gretsch Country Gentleman. Photo: Mark Levine.

“That was a ’29 OM-28 – an incredible guitar that sounded unbelievable,” said Rowe. “We got it from Norman’s Rare Guitars. T-Bone flew with it from L.A. to Nashville and, after, it sold for $50,000.”

In the era of “product placement,” very often the appearance of product like musical instruments happens through endorsements, but Rowe explained that is not the case with “Nashville.”

“A lot of what we’re doing is Gibson and Fender because it works so well with the music – Gretsches, Teles, and Gibsons are just so tasty, and Buddy, T-Bone, and Colin are finding the voices for the songs. It’s such an Americana vibe.”

And when it comes to “Fender or Gibson,” well, it’s far more often about “old versus new.”

“We love old, sweaty guitars,” said Linden. “They have that mojo. We’re all out there – the whole music team – looking at old stuff. And the funny thing is, we tend not to buy anything for the show because we’re afraid it will end up in a warehouse somewhere.”

“There are a lot of great new instruments, too,” adds Linden. “I’ve used a couple of Eastwoods, including a Tuxedo. But if someone was to ask, ‘What’s the definitive guitar of the show,’ I’d say my ’51 Gibson CF-100e. It’s got a K&K pickup, so it really does have two outputs. There are several of them in the ‘Nashville’ TV family now; there’s something about them that feels like it’s ours.”

The organic methods of recording and performing are carried out beyond cinematic storytelling.

Aubrey Peeples with a ’35 Gibson L-5. Photo: Mark Levine.

“T-Bone really values the sound of an acoustic guitar played acoustically,” says Linden. “When we did a promotional performance on ‘The View’ with Chip, Sam, Clare Bowen, and Jonathan, we didn’t use pickups; we just put mics in front of guitars. We even brought an RCA 44 for the upright. Whenever you see somebody on the show not plugged in, we want to say in our own subtle way, ‘These really cool guitar sounds were done with mics.’ Even people who aren’t musicians can kind of tell if something is a crock.”

“We don’t want to make a show with no strings on the guitar,” Rowe adds with a laugh. “There’s nothing worse than hearing a vibrato bend played when there’s no vibrato arm on the guitar. I talk to a lot of people who couldn’t care less which guitar that hunky guy is playing… but then there’s guys like us!”

Certainly, when the show’s list of fans includes names like Brad Paisley, Chris Martin, and Seymour Duncan… “We wouldn’t want to go on the cheap with anything, especially when people we respect are watching.”

Beyond keen-eyed musicians, though, Linden points to the bigger picture – and broader audience.

“We’re doing our best to represent this great music community in Nashville,” he said. “It’s so stylistically diverse and versatile, and we want to put it on proper display.”

Other not-easily-impressed people laud the efforts of Collin, Rowe, and others on the show staff. Instrument dealer George Gruhn is one.

“Executive Producer Steve Buchanan hired exceptional talent to see to it that the quality and authenticity of the music is top-rate,” he said. “The musicians are extraordinarily talented, and I think the show benefits tremendously from featured entertainers being not only actors, but people who do indeed sing and play; Charles Esten, Aubrey Peeples, and some of the backing players have done multiple guest spots onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and they pursue musical careers beyond their role in the TV series.”

Lennon Stella with a ’64 Fender Mustang. Lennon Stella: Colin Linden.

Walter Carter, whose shop, Carter Vintage, is another primary source for instruments, also appreciates the work of Rowe and Linden.

“Though some aspects of the show are Hollywood-ized, the instruments are true. When you hear a guitar on the soundtrack that sounds like a Gretsch with a DeArmond pickup or a vintage Gibson acoustic, that’s what you see onscreen,” he said. “When they showed a Gibson SJ the character claimed belonged to Hank Williams, it was period-correct.

“Behind the scenes, there’s a great appreciation for vintage guitars that started with T-Bone Burnett as music director and carried on through Buddy Miller and Colin Linden. Danny Rowe, of course, is the one who holds producers’ feet to the fire when it comes to ‘truth in instruments.’”

Arguably even more important than the on-screen singing and handling of instruments, though, Gruhn credits the show with spurring interest in Nashville, the city.

“The show has provided a huge boost to local and state tourism,” he said. “Ten years ago, it was common to see the Opry House filled only on the ground level and the balcony almost empty. Today, with summer shows Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, often with two on Saturday, the 5,000-seat auditorium is consistently filled.

“Not only does the show have good ratings, but its success has been a significant factor in Nashville’s currently booming economy, which has in turn resulted in massive new development in the downtown area and rising real-estate values throughout the community.”


This article originally appeared in VG December 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.