TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The TV show "Nashville" is in the middle of its first season. Set in the country music mecca, it follows a number of storylines about various musicians, and its music is sung by actors, including Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere. The show's music director is T-Bone Burnett.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "Nashville's" soundtrack album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELESCOPE")
HAYDEN PANETTIERE: (as Juliette Barnes) (singing) Yeah. Won't do no good if you run from me. There ain't no cheating scheme that my heart don't see. You left your troubles in my head, in my head. You left your secrets in my bed, in my bed. You're like the cover of a book that's been read, baby. I know what line is coming next, coming next. You can't hide from me. There ain't no tricks that you can try on me. I know your every move before you even breathe, baby, thinking you know something I don't know. But my eyes, my eyes, my eyes are like a telescope...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "Telescope," the fictional hit single by the fictional country star Juliette Barnes, on "Nashville." The song was sung by the actress who plays Juliette, Hayden Panetierre. And 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, either. It may be that they excel at a rather darker, grimmer level of country storytelling, as on this song "If I Didn't Know Better," produced by Miller.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I DIDN'T KNOW BETTER)
CLARE BOWEN, SAM PALLADIO: (as Scarlett O'Connor, Gunnar Scott) (singing) If I didn't know better, I'd hang my hat right there. If I didn't know better, I'd follow you up the stairs. Stop saying those sweet things you know I like to hear. The horns are blowing louder, the bailiff's drawing near. Why do I keep drinking, wasting my time on you? If I didn't know better - damn it, I do...
TUCKER: That song was 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 this album displays a few superlative match-ups between actor and material.
Take, for example, "No One Will Ever Love You," 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 voca,l such as this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU)
CONNIE BRITTON: (as Rayna James) (singing) Don't you try to tell me someone's waiting. They're not waiting for you. Oh, and don't you try to tell me that you're wanted, that you're needed, 'cause it's not true. I know why you're lonely. It's time you knew it, too. No one will ever love you. No one will ever love you. No one will ever love you like I do.
TUCKER: You "Friday Night Lights" fans never thought the coach's wife could sing like that, did you?
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 this Juliette tune - "Love Like Mine" - would be embraced as a stadium sing-along in the manner of female-led hit acts such as Little Big Town and Sugarland.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE LIKE MINE")
PANETTIERE: (as Juliette Barnes) (singing) So you think that you're the one who's up in score just 'cause you're the first one walking out the door. Well, take it when you leave. I don't need the sympathy. I might stay up drunk a while and hurt like hell enough to cry black mascara tears. I might lock my door and sleep with my phone; miss your bed for a month or so. But let me tell you something, my dear. I'm gonna be just fine, but you're never gonna find another love like mine.
TUCKER: The "Nashville" soundtrack album is a success on its own terms. You rarely question the abilities of the actors as singers, and the material; which is performed by superb musicians, including guitarist Doyle Bramhall, 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.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the new album featuring music from the TV series "Nashville."