Nashville, By Way Of Atlanta: 'Troubadour' Brings Country To The Theater Stage The musical about 1950s country artists springs from a collaboration between a playwright and a modern country star, Kristian Bush of Sugarland.
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Nashville, By Way Of Atlanta: 'Troubadour' Brings Country To The Theater Stage

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Nashville, By Way Of Atlanta: 'Troubadour' Brings Country To The Theater Stage

Nashville, By Way Of Atlanta: 'Troubadour' Brings Country To The Theater Stage

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Kristian Bush is one of the most successful artists in country music both as a songwriter and part of the duo Sugarland. His latest venture is a musical about country music in the 1950s. It's called "Troubadour," and it's opened not in Nashville but in Atlanta. Bradley George of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

BRADLEY GEORGE, BYLINE: When it comes to collaboration, Kristian Bush says he's open to just about anything.

KRISTIAN BUSH: If you ask nicely (laughter).

GEORGE: That's how he connected with Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer.

JANECE SHAFFER: And I wrote him an email that Saturday. And then that following Wednesday, we met for breakfast. And at the end of breakfast, he'd written the first song for the show, "Father To The Son."

BUSH: Right, OK. One, two, three...

GEORGE: Her play "Troubadour" is a story about family and legacy, familiar themes in many country songs.


RADNEY FOSTER: (As Billy Mason, singing) Said the father...

ZACH SEABAUGH: (As Joe Mason, singing) Said the father...

FOSTER: (As Billy Mason, singing) ...To the son...

SEABAUGH: (As Joe Mason, singing) ...To the son...

FOSTER: (As Billy Mason, singing) ...I am so proud of...

SEABAUGH: (As Joe Mason, singing) ...So proud...

FOSTER: (As Billy Mason, singing) ...What you have done. Follow my footsteps one by one.

GEORGE: The idea for the musical came from an exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville about clothes.

SHAFFER: And it started off in church wear - dark pants, white tops, string ties - very, very plain. And then there was this moment in the exhibition where it exploded with color and decoration and rhinestone. And I was like, I want to know what happened at that moment.

GEORGE: That was in 1951, when tailor Nudie Cohn's embroidered and rhinestone-studded outfits began to catch on with country and western musicians. Director Susan Booth says a character based on Cohn was the original focus of Janece Shaffer's story.

SUSAN BOOTH: But it was an idea, and it wasn't yet a full-on narrative. And we talked for a while, and she went away. And she came back. And all of a sudden, the story of the tailor was the story of a father and a son, a moment of profound transition musically, personally, aesthetically. And I was in.

GEORGE: In "Troubadour," reigning king of country Billy Mason is nearing retirement. Son Joe sings backup in his father's band, and he's looking to break out on his own. In this scene, Joe wants to sing at his dad's final concert, but Billy has other plans.


FOSTER: (As Billy Mason) This is what we're going to do. I'm going to let you stand out on that stage all by yourself in the quiet.

SEABAUGH: (As Joe Mason) Yes, sir.

FOSTER: (As Billy Mason) And then...

SEABAUGH: (As Joe Mason) Thank you, Dad.

FOSTER: (As Billy Mason) Shh. You say real earnest something like, this stage can only belong to one Mason, and that's my daddy, Billy Mason. And then I'll come out, and I'll do a final song. I'll write a tribute to my father.

GEORGE: To convey a story that's so intrinsic to Nashville, director Susan Booth says it was important the actors have a real-life story that reflects the characters they portray. So this Atlanta-based theatre company held auditions in Nashville.

BOOTH: And I think we all had a shared epiphany when Radney walking in the room. Just in his little chatter before he picked up his guitar, he was inhabiting the role. And then he opened his mouth.

GEORGE: That's Radney, as in Radney Foster, who's had Top 40 country hits of his own and whose songs have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Keith Urban and Sara Evans. Foster never acted before. He says he wasn't used to the trial and error of rehearsal, where it's OK to fail.

FOSTER: It's really going to come down to my best efforts to get the playwright, the composer and the director's vision in front of people. And it feels weird to crash and burn in front of people. I'm not used to that (laughter).

GEORGE: While Radney Foster is steeped in the traditions of country, the playwright and composer come from more contemporary worlds. But Kristian Bush says it didn't take a whole lot of work to find the sound of another era.

BUSH: I got on, you know, blessed Google and started typing in obvious things like country music in 1949 and country music in 1950. So I didn't really have to go dig through bins.

GEORGE: Bush's online digging took him all the way to the 1930s to write "White, White Steeple" in a way that might've been a hit for Radney Foster's character.

BUSH: (Singing) He lifted me just like a cross so I would not be wandering lost, so I could always see - raised it high, high, high - was a white, white steeple in a blue, blue sky.

GEORGE: Bush wrote 16 songs for "Troubadour." Fourteen made it into the final show. Radney Foster says it was a little strange at first to perform music written by someone else. But when he first heard the title song from the show, he was in.

FOSTER: 'Cause that song is my life. And I think it's really any other singer-songwriter's life.

GEORGE: As Foster's character sings, there'll be nothing left when I'm gone except this old case, this guitar and a song. For NPR News, I'm Bradley George in Atlanta.


FOSTER: (As Billy Mason, Singing) They won't remember the way that I look. You won't see my name on the spine of a book.

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