RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tennessee is also home to musical storytellers in the country music capital of the world, Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALREADY GONE")
CONNIE BRITTON: (as Rayna Jaymes) (Singing) It's a long, long road to independence. But I'm leaving you for Tennessee. I got demons riding shotgun, telling me not to go. But what they don't know is I'm already gone. I'm already gone...
MARTIN: That was country music megastar Rayna Jaymes. Now, if you're a country music fan and that name doesn't ring a bell, it's because Rayna Jaymes is a fictional character played by actress Connie Britton. Britton stars in the new TV series "Nashville," which premieres this Wednesday on ABC. TV fans will know Britton for her Emmy-nominated roles on "Friday Nights Lights" and "American Horror Story."
For her latest role in "Nashville," Britton is belting her heart out as a veteran country singer whose career is being threatened by a new rising star. Connie Britton joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us, Connie.
BRITTON: Oh, it's my pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: So we just heard you singing a song from the first episode of "Nashville." So what's it like? What's it like to have to sing in character. I'm assuming you haven't done this before.
BRITTON: No, I haven't. And, in fact, that's actually officially the first time I've ever heard myself singing something on the radio.
MARTIN: You heard it here first.
BRITTON: So I'm sitting here a little freaked out.
MARTIN: How do you think you're doing?
BRITTON: You know, listen. It's been such an incredible experience, you know, hugely challenging, but that's kind of why I wanted to do this role.
MARTIN: Because we just said you're not just playing any old singer, or country singer. You're supposed to be the reigning queen of country music.
BRITTON: I know.
BRITTON: I mean seriously, there are many days that I think to myself: What was I thinking? I must have lost my mind. Because, you know. I mean, I've always been musical. I've did a lot of singing a long time ago. Well, not a lot of singing, actually. I sang a long time ago.
MARTIN: What kind of singing did you do?
BRITTON: Oh, you know, musical theater. Like, regional musical theater.
BRITTON: And it's been a long time. So yeah, I'm not quite sure why thought that then suddenly I could pull off being the reigning queen of country music. Actually, I do know why. The thing about country music is that it's really about storytelling. And that's my favorite part of being an actor and I thought, as an actor, I could tap into that aspect of it.
MARTIN: Let's talk about this woman, Rayna Jaymes. In the first episode, she's facing some big transitions. Let's set this up a little bit. Let's listen to this scene when your character meets with executives at her record label. A little background. They want your character to team up with a younger singer for a concert tour.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NASHVILLE")
BRITTON: (as Rayna Jaymes) Listen, I've stayed loyal to this company when every other label was trying to woo me away. I've got an album I'm very proud of and I'm just asking for a little support for that album and for the tour that will help sell it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Ms. Jaymes, you've got to find your place in a new market. I know that's not what you want to hear.
BRITTON: (as Rayna Jaymes) So you're telling me that after 21 years at this label, if I don't open for your little ingenue, who wouldn't make it as one of my backup singers, that you're not going to support me?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Those are your words, not mine. But still I need to know your decision.
BRITTON: (as Rayna Jaymes) Well, you can kiss my decision as it's walking out the door.
MARTIN: So, this little ingenue, I mean, there's this young rising star who's kind of nipping at your heels. And you play this woman who's really fighting to save her career in a very fickle industry. I wonder what about this plot line kind of appealed to you, personally.
BRITTON: Well, you know, it's funny. When you agree to do a pilot, there are a lot of different directions you can go from there. And I think a lot of the emphasis - certainly in marketing the show and the way the pilot was cut together - put a lot of this sort of competitive energy between my character, Rayna, and Hayden Panettiere's character, Juliette.
But for me, what it originally attracted me to the role is the comparison of the two different musicians coming from two very different places and two different world views in terms of their approach to music, their approach to their careers. And...
MARTIN: And two different places in their life. I mean, your character has a family, kids.
BRITTON: Yeah, exactly. And the music business has changed so dramatically in recent years. And, you know, I think our show has a great opportunity to give our audience some insight into what that really looks like, what it looks like from the backstage. You know, backstage at the Opry.
MARTIN: Rayna Jaymes, the character grew up in Nashville. And you also played a Southern character in "Friday Night Lights," Tami Taylor...
MARTIN: ...who lived in a small town in Texas. What's the difference between a Texas and a Tennessee accent? I'm sure we'll get all kinds of mail now from people in Texas and Tennessee saying: How can you not know the difference? But, as someone who's playing these women, did you try to calibrate differently?
BRITTON: You know, it's really subtle. And what I find in Nashville, in particular, is that there are really strong variations in the accents. There are people who have lived in Nashville their whole life who have actually very little accent. And then, there can also be very strong Tennessee accents. So, I think with Rayna, because she is this polished performer but she also comes from there, I've sort of made a choice that she almost goes in an out of an accent a little bit.
I grew up in Virginia. I grew up in the South and I also sometimes have no accent at all. And then if I'm around those people, I slide right back into it. I've also said I probably do a fewer y'alls. As Tami Taylor, y'all was a big part of who she was.
BRITTON: And it's funny listening to people in the music business in Nashville. There's a lot more you guys, which kind of surprised me. So I'm like, all right. All right, I'm going to make an adjustment. That doesn't mean there's not going to be any y'all, 'cause there is.
MARTIN: OK, good. All the "Friday Night Lights" fans would be disappointed.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that you studied Chinese...
MARTIN: ...and majored in Asian studies in college.
MARTIN: Did you have a different career path in mind back then?
BRITTON: Ah, no. I really didn't. I always wanted to be an actor. But when I went to college, I had to fulfill a language requirement and so I thought it would be really cool to do it speaking Chinese.
MARTIN: Wow. I mean, you know, not French, not Spanish. You went kind of top...
BRITTON: Yeah, you know, I grew up in a small town in Virginia. And when I went to college, I was like, really? I can take Chinese? You know, I didn't have opportunities like that and...
MARTIN: How is your Chinese these days?
BRITTON: Let's put it this way: These days, my singing is better than my Chinese, which, you know...
MARTIN: Connie Britton stars in the new TV series "Nashville." It premieres this Wednesday on ABC.
Connie Britton, thanks so much for talking with us.
BRITTON: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)