If you watched Wednesday night’s premiere of Nashville—or caught the series opener on iTunes or elsewhere—you know that you don’t need to be a country-music fan in order to appreciate the soapy and seductive Callie Khouri–created drama, which revolves around the battle for dominance between a country-music veteran (Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton) and a young upstart (Hayden Panettiere).
While the two musical adversaries all but threw daggers at each other in the series opener, Nashsville is not just about the Grand Ole Opry but a canny exploration of gender and age politics in the music industry as well as a mayoral race, romance, and workplace-related drama. It’s also, not surprisingly, about music, which concerned me as I am far from being a country-music fan.
Britton and Panettiere, however, make the cold war between Rayna Jaymes and Juliette Barnes palpably hot, anchoring the show with their nuanced performances of a woman heading toward the end of her career and another happily stealing away the spotlight. But for all of their quips and sobbing jags, the true clincher in the pilot episode was the breathtaking song—performed by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio—that came at the episode’s end, one that pointed toward the season’s overall narrative, one that links the ambitions and high-wattage dreams of Britton’s Rayna, Panettiere’s Juliette, and Bowen’s Scarlett.
If you’ve found the episode’s final minutes and that song to be absolutely spellbinding (truly one of the first unforgettable moments of the new season), here are five facts about the song from the end of Nashville’s pilot:
1. While Clare Bowen’s Scarlett O’Connor—a star-struck waitress at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café and the niece of Rayna’s bandleader, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten)—claims to have written the lyrics as a piece of poetry in her notebook, it is actually a cover of a song by The Civil Wars that Bowen and Palladio perform. The song in question: “If I Didn’t Know Better,” which appears on The Civil Wars’ 2009 live album, Live at Eddie’s Attic.
2. The Civil Wars—singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White—won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo/Group Performance earlier this year. The disc that contains “If I Didn’t Know Better” is available as a free download from the band’s site, and had been downloaded more than 100,000 times as of early 2011. Their song, “Poison & Wine” was featured on Grey’s Anatomy and was included by Taylor Swift in her official iTunes playlist.
3. Last year, The Civil Wars released the single “Safe & Sound,” a collaboration with T Bone Burnett and Taylor Swift for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games. Not coincidentally, Burnett, a musician, producer, and songwriter who won an Academy Award for Crazy Heart’s “The Weary Kind,” is behind the music for Nashville, and is married to the show’s creator, Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise).
4. Though she is playing a Southern ingénue in Nashville, Clare Bowen is Australian; her best known credit is on the Aussie soap Home and Away. Sam Palladio, meanwhile, is British and played Stoke on Showtime’s Episodes—where he appeared in the skimpiest of tighty-whiteys—and appeared in two episodes of BBC’s period drama The Hour. However, it wasn’t easy to cast the roles of Scarlett and Gunnar, given the chemistry—both sexual and vocal—they need to display by the end of the pilot.
“We really searched very, very hard to find these two extremely talented people,” said Khouri at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. “We were fortunate enough to find a song that perfectly encapsulated where we hoped the relationship between these characters and the music was going to go, and it was a little bit of luck … Our music producer is also my husband, so we have a lot of time to talk about this at home and he made some phone calls and some songs started coming in and we found several really perfect songs for these two … It’s a beautiful thing to see young artists grow into something and find their voices.”
Despite growing up in Australia, “I grew up loving bluegrass, so I’m in my element,” Bowen told press back in early August. Palladio, however, wasn’t originally a fan of country. “My background was very kind of ’70s: James Taylor, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, that kind of vibe,” he said. “I’ve got a band back home and I grew up playing that stuff … Now I’ve got my iPod full of Vince Gill and Will Hoge and these great artists that you just find everywhere [here].” Palladio, it should be noted, is a singer-songwriter and has a London-based indie folk band called Salt Water Thief.
5. Bowen and Palladio’s duet is set at The Bluebird Café, where both Bowen’s Scarlett and Palladio’s Gunnar Scott work. It is a real-life legendary Nashville music club that celebrated its 30th birthday this year, and is the site where Taylor Swift—who would go on to work with The Civil Wars—was discovered when she was 15 years old. The club itself was also the setting for Peter Bogdanovich’s 1993 film The Thing Called Love, which was the last film in which River Phoenix appeared. In the film, Phoenix’s co-star Samantha Mathis played a waitress at The Bluebird Café who dreamed of becoming a singer/songwriter. Rather like Bowen’s Scarlett O’Connor, in fact.