Unbuckling the Bible Belt: “Nashville” and the Nones

In the fall of 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirmed what we all knew anyway: in the United States, participation in traditional religion was falling off rather hastily. “One in five adults now has no religious affiliation,” trumpeted the poll.

Although the South, predictably, still contained the fewest number of “nones” compared to other regions, even this small southern band had increased from 12% to 15% in five short years. The Bible Belt was, at long last, losing its religion.

The day after Pew announced its findings, ABC premiered “Nashville”—returning for a third season next week—a tale of the rapidly-changing contemporary country music industry and the struggle of insiders to navigate its murky professional and personal waters.

Although not the buckle of the Bible Belt (that honor resides somewhere a little lower, in Alabama or Mississippi), Tennessee surely qualifies for a notch or two, and the intertwining roots of rural evangelicalism and country music stretch deep into the soil of American lore.

And yet—bravely, naïvely, incredibly, perhaps disingenuously—ABC’s “Nashville” tells the story of contemporary country music, smack in the middle of the South, while almost completely disengaging with the region’s evangelical legacy. Nobody attends potlucks, says grace at a meal, records a token gospel album. Even the show’s mayoral candidates never darken the doors of a church—still a cardinal sin in real southern political life. Central characters Scarlett and Zoey reminisce about attending church together in their youth, but even this is framed nostalgically, a remnant of distant, idyllic small-town life light years away from the grit and glitter of contemporary Nashville.

Only the Tim-Tebow-esque figure who appeared for several episodes in Season 1 to enter into a brief, impulsive marriage with the show’s country-pop star is shown in church with his family…once. Somebody at ABC must have read the poll.

Instead, animated by a more nebulous and new form of spirituality, the musicians on “Nashville” embark on a quest for existential authenticity which, mapping neatly onto a search for musical purity, finds its true north in a roots-Americana-alt.country musical aesthetic. As religious historian Charles Reagan Wilson said, “spirituality has become synonymous with finding the ‘true self’”—a crusade concretized by the artistic trajectories of the show’s leading musical characters. But the old orthodoxy dies hard.

Though the cast’s southern-inflected spirituality is not rooted in the church, “Nashville” is still church-haunted. In outlining a secular creed of devotion to musical and personal authenticity, “Nashville” recasts the southern impulse for spiritual absolution as a humanistic quest for salvation through Not Selling Out. Take Deacon Claiborne, played by Charles Esten. His first name clumsily foregrounds the broad contours of his character; Yoda-like, he guides other musicians toward finding their “real” artistic identities and functions, particularly in Season 1, as the community’s conscience.

Much is made of Deacon’s refusal to sell his songs for crass commercial purposes, and he critiques the sparkle-glam fireworks of the show’s country-pop queen with a caustic reminder that Johnny Cash riveted folks with just a three-person show. So “Nashville” has its prophet, its preacher who calls for atonement and furthers a sanctifying mission based on musical purity.

It has its sacred spaces, too. The Bluebird Café constitutes the show’s sanctuary, hallowed ground at which devotees meet to hear the acoustic guitar and close harmony singing of those who plug away on the margins of the country music machine, thereby retaining that elusive quality of artistic purity. Deacon still plays there, too, a lone big star holding court while enthralled congregants watch. Despite his success as bandleader and session player, Deacon’s Season 1 gigs at the Bluebird ensure his street cred and public virtue remains untarnished by his very vigorous collusion with the mainstream country industry.

Season 2 reaffirms the Bluebird’s church-like status: it is the site for Scarlett’s album debut after she nobly refused to let record executives craft a false, PR glamorous image for her. True to her rootsy musical persona, Scarlett appears triumphantly at the Bluebird after having managed to hold tight to her artistic virtue, in a white dress and scarce makeup, and sounding an awful lot like Iris DeMent. Gunnar, too, engages in authentic self-disclosure in the Bluebird; it is the only place he sings freely of his pain over his brother’s death, with a little help from a mandolin and acoustic guitar. Even country-pop starlet Juliette chooses the Bluebird as the location of a “memorial service” for her mom.

In an interview with the New York Times, “Nashville” show creator Callie Khouri said of the real-life Bluebird that

this little room, where music is sacred and the people who play it are revered, contains the essence of what makes Nashville unique, as much if not more than the suburban Grand Ole Opry Entertainment Complex or the venerable downtown Ryman Auditorium, the longtime former home of the Opry. That all three places use church pews for seats is hardly a coincidence.

The Ryman figures prominently into the optics of “Nashville,” too, both as a screen shot and as a testing ground for musical legitimacy. In Season 2, Reyna converses with a young potential country star about whether he will choose artistry over money in the pews of the Ryman, under the glow of its iconic stained glass windows. The Ryman signifies and signifies hard. The ancient temples stand intact, though they venerate new southern gods.

And what the show venerates is a non-pop, acoustic, edgy, alt-country ethos that shares little DNA with mainstream contemporary country. As John Jurgensen accurately noted in the Wall Street Journal, “‘Nashville’ is dominated by intimate, acoustic numbers that would fall into the category of ‘Americana.’” No great shock this, since T. Bone Burnett was the program’s music producer in the first season, followed in Season 2 by Buddy Miller, a co-producer from Season 1.

Burnett’s and Miller’s tracks draw on the songwriting talents of alt.country luminaries Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams, among others. But the show’s narrative pushes even further, denigrating pop-inflected country as both musically and ethicallycorrupt. In episode after episode, characters’ moral choices are conflated with musical style. For example, Gunnar and Scarlett, with their blues-inflected, sparse, roots-based songwriting, are framed as naïve, salt-of-the-earth country folk easily abused by unscrupulous person, always victims and never perpetrators.

Season 2 both sustains and complicates this narrative, as balladeer Gunnar commits “Nashville”’s cardinal sin—passing off his brother’s outlaw country songs as his own, thus projecting a false artistic and personal image. The wages of inauthenticity are steep; he is punished by losing his romantic relationship with Scarlett, who manages to hold the moral high ground by retaining her alt.country sound and image at the cost of enraging big-label executives.

Reyna James, an aging country queen played by Connie Britton, searches throughout Season 1 for a fresh sound that will reignite her passion for singing country music. James/Britton is understood to be “good” as she inhabits the self-sacrificing maternal archetype; endures a dying marriage (he files, not her); and resists extramarital sexual temptation, all while rediscovering her voice with input from a rock producer who helps her foreground an edgy, alt.country sound and diminish the pop tendencies of her music.

At the other end of the ethical spectrum is the promiscuous and thieving pop country star Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), who in Season 1 exhibits a moral and relational bankruptcy equaled in profundity only by the hollowness of her musical aesthetic. She is flagellated, narratively speaking, for her artistic filthiness by repeated emphasis on how contemptible others find her. The authenticity gods frown on auto-tune and the tramps who use it, and beam on the pure in heart who write sparse, bluesy ballads.

But there is yet hope for the sinner. Echoes of revival and resurrection ring midway through Season 1 as Juliette, increasingly disgusted by the artifice of her own material, breaks with her formula to experiment with an unplugged aesthetic. Repentance: she strides onstage with just a stool and a guitar, dressed in street clothes, backed only by Deacon. The unholy is purified. Catalyzing her awakening is Deacon himself, traveling revivalist for the doctrine of the authentic inner life, intoning clichés about being true to oneself, which, not coincidentally, excludes singing pop-flavored country. That Deacon himself is a hypocritical preacher of his own gospel constitutes the essential irony that exposes the folly of the quest for artistic purity—he actually is touring with Juliette’s stadium show, enabling her musical transgressions while simultaneously urging her towards artistic orthodoxy. He also sleeps with her, enabling transgressions of another sort.

Season 2 pushes harder and less subtly towards redemption, reaching its apex to date in the literal death of Juliette’s mother to save her daughter’s public reputation. Mom’s sacrifice buys back a sex tape of Juliette—“redeems” her daughter in the old and literal sense of “buying something back”—with the declaration that “you deserve to be clean and free.” The death transforms Juliette, who begins to show fledgling signs of acting unselfishly not long afterwards. Juliette’s ongoing efforts to craft a more mature and authentic musical ethos also continue in the second season, furthering her moral transformation.

As per the New York Times, the show is “going for something more nuanced and ambitious than the promos might suggest, encompassing a musical universe that goes far beyond mainstream country.” Not only nuanced and ambitious, it is also weird, intriguing, inaccurate, and ultimately smart for the show to substitute a utopian Americana soundscape for what Nashville country actually sounds like—because the show’s version of the country industry sounds way better than the reality.

In crafting a “pure” country music scene unfolding in a mythical Nashville, ABC adopts a deep and gutsy ironic stance, because in reality, the roots/alt-country community has set its face like flint against mainstream country, and a pop sound won a long time ago. Like the idealized, calcified sonic rendering of New Orleans on HBO’s Treme, the television version of Nashville is constructed from particular and selective sound bites, which powerfully correspond to moral hierarchies within the script.

The choices and consequences on “Nashville” are shaped not by evangelical faith, but by redemptive crusades to achieve an awkward, messy, and ambiguous sense of moral and musical purity. By exchanging the role of traditional southern Christianity for postmodern Bible Belt spirituality, in which the cult of the true self and the pure artistic product forms both existential center and moral compass, the show brings the South into conformity with the shifting demographics of the rest of the country.

In a throwback to 19th century German Romanticism, “Nashville” gives us southern-fried humanism bound up with the ultimate transcendent value in country music—authenticity. Imparting an ethical framework, a raison d’ètre, a redemptive impulse, sacred spaces, prophetic voices, and the possibility for conversion—everything but Jesus and an aisle to walk—this new spirituality is all at once far removed from and hauntingly close to the blood-washed South of yore.