“F*&%ing A!” Hayden Panettiere a.k.a. Juliette Barnes of television’s Nashville exclaimed. She threw her head back, nearly tipping off her stool on the brightly lit stage and clapped her hand across her mouth, laughing. “I can’t believe I just said that in the Ryman! I’m so sorry, guys!”
In front of an audience, every bit a commanding singer—when Panettiere reacted to her flub, she did so with humor and graciousness. “Guys” sounded familiar enough to imagine she spoke to every single person in the theatre. She did that thing actors do well, the friendly flash of a smile, the demonstrative clap of her hands, and nod of her head to raise the energy in the room, the audience in the palm of her hand thing. Her hair, just below her shoulders, didn’t cascade in big, long Taylor Swift waves. Her sparkly silver T-shirt and close-fitting black pants was obviously more casual and mature and confident than her character’s initial flashy, skimpy costumes.
She’d flubbed during the go-through of her character’s season one anthem (“Nobody’s Ever Gonna Break My Heart Again”). During this for-television “concert” there was a chance for another take. Welcome to Nashville.
How, you (and for that matter I) might wonder did I get here?
It started innocently enough. A couple of years ago, I read about Connie Britton’s next television show, in which she’d play a country star on the fade and Panettiere would be one on the rise. That was destined to be my favorite new show, I decided, since I’d follow Tami Taylor many places (not everywhere; I didn’t watch American Horror Story). The selling point: I love the folkie side of country music. And I was born in Nashville. Call it my perfect storm. Despite myself, fangirl status soon followed.
Now, I know most fangirls aren’t fifty. And most fifty year-old fangirls probably didn’t start their careers in over-the-top adoration for some facet of pop culture at forty-nine. So, let me raise my hand right this minute. Because I am currently at a computer and device charging station in the Nashville airport. My plane—I had to fly here from New England, it wasn’t exactly convenient—is delayed. I’ve ditched my responsible adult with four children persona just enough to take off on a weekend adventure (that will be extended another night, it turns out, due to a cancelled flight) in order to appease my inner fangirl. My destination was the hallowed hall of the Ryman, where elements of a concert were being filmed for a special musical episode (to air April 23rd at 10 PM).
Friends, it was totally worth the effort.
For when I stepped the Ryman, where the stars of Nashville (although not Connie/Rayna nor Lennon and Maisy/Maddy and Daphne) took to the stage and belted out their songs, I couldn’t believe I was there—hot lights, cameras on the move, high decibels—and yet, it felt very much like I was exactly where I belonged. Physically mired in the place where fantasy and something like reality (is the making of television reality?) met, that’s where Nashville—the show and the lure of the music industry in this legendary city—shines. And that’s what hooked me to Nashville.
The evening dazzled from the very start, an hour before the show when the doors opened and we walked right past Chris Carmack under a layer of makeup in the lobby. He grinned widely and was much smaller than I’d imagined. All the actors were smaller and more gorgeous than on television. The bustle onstage before the show confirmed that to make a performance is to believe in a moment by investing on the front end. The pre-show excitement is palpable. People in black paced wing-to-wing. They stopped to check something or move something or kibbutz for a few, nervous moments.
Musicians went through their version of the same phenomenon. It wasn’t the practice of a song, but the warm-up, the tune-up, essentially a form of waiting. The show’s musical director, Buddy Miller, in his red jacket and dark hat—went over something by the keyboard. He clapped folks on their shoulders.
What I love most about the show is how much music means to its key characters. Music—and self-expression—is as essential and real to them as air or water, and a dream to make true all at once. A deeply felt song pours out; a happy song flies out—and then, if all goes well, the wiles of chance are sprinkled over like fairy dust to carry the whole shebang to the top of the charts. Obviously, I know life is far more complicated than this fantastical rendering of how to succeed in the music biz (without even trying). And when I say love the most, I mean, listen to the songs endlessly and watch each and every Behind the Music video many times over until the songwriters become—for me—credited costars, not unnoticed in the slightest. At the very end of the evening songwriters Jill Andrews and Shawn Camp took to the stage to sing “The Blues Have Blown Away,” a song that I appropriated as personal mantra from the first time I heard it.
But to be fair, although this is for sure my favorite thing about Nashville, I dive right into the drama, which is as big as the cowboy hats some of the characters sport. This season, in a nod to my complete fan-dom, I joined the rager that is live tweeting the show Wednesdays at ten. I live tweet nothing else; I don’t even watch television in real time. Nashville has become my exception. Did I mention the responsible mom with four kids I am? I’m not her between ten and eleven on Wednesdays. Although the teens and often the tween are up, I tell ‘em to get lost (the dear hubs, too). I don’t just tweet, I super-tweet (is that a thing?). I’ve been a “top tweeter” many times now. The first time I was mentioned by tweet as part of the top five, I felt a little embarrassed until I realized I’d been a team player, as any fangirl would be honored to do. I can only imagine what the people on Twitter who aren’t Nashville fans think of me during that hour. I’ve actually turned quite a few people onto the show due to my rabid fandom. So, there’s that. Full disclosure: I do re-watch the show when I get on the elliptical machine, during the day, no tweets anywhere, the more “adult” way I prefer to watch my television. Of course, this means I watch every episode twice. The undeniable fact is that I cannot shake my fangirl.
There’s more, though. I didn’t hesitate to go to the Ryman. Sure, there were other incentives, like cousins to visit, and the tantalizing thought to any mother—an airplane ride and overnight alone. But really, nothing would have driven me out of my routine except this sense that I could not pass up the possibility of pulling back this curtain a bit. Even to glimpse these folks who matter so much to me these days—and to honor this music that’s done more than entertain me. To be starstruck by these men with ultra-white teeth, like the easygoing Chip Esten and the enthusiastic Will Chase. To see in real-life Aubrey Peeples and Chaley Rose and Clare Bowen dressed like a cross between a princess and goddess.
In her off-white and silver dress, Bowen skipped after the first time through “Black Roses,” as if to celebrate how she’d nailed it. And she had nailed it. The way she belted it out was magical. Could she bottle that impossible beauty? Moments like that, melodic sounds, and the lights and the heat and the camera in her face, will play again and again in my mind, personally bottled. The smooth wooden pew sure felt like a seat of worship.
Sitting there, next to my cousin Else, who loves her celeb sightings when she ventures off the Vanderbilt campus, I realized how much the ability to love the pure pursuit of art—and entwined in that, fandom—reminded me that what I love counts—to me. That’s reason enough to go with it. When you steep yourself in all sorts of duty, even if it’s for love, like raising a family, you can lose a little spontaneity and maybe even a little of your selfish heart. It’d be trite to say I found myself through the abandon of myself as a fifty year-old fangirl. Except, it feels like the truth.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer and blogger whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child Magazine and Salon the Huffington Post, Babble and Ceramics Monthly. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies including The Maternal is Political and Wait a Minute, I Have to Take Off My Bra. A writer for Preview Massachusetts Magazine, she keeps a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows at the publication’s news site, the Valley Advocate and a tumblr Refractions. She is a sometime contributor to Momfilter. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows or Pinterest.