Religion Dispatches posted a piece on ABC’s Nashville, whose third season is unrolling this week, and the Southern roots and country music industry it has worked so hard to depict justly. Carrie Allen Tipton, though, argues that the show–for all its efforts–seems to have exchanged, or consciously excluded, the element that the rest of America would never have been looking for: the religion. In an age where the religious nones have surpassed the attendees, the heritage of the South, the “Christ-haunted” nature of social commentary and inner-thought and popular music, Nashville has gone the way of the world, showing nearly no church services or pre-dinner graces or church potlucks.
Granted, it seems Tipton has not read Stephanie Phillips’ thoughts on the matter, especially in terms of the Deacon Clayborne thread of the show. More than that, it seems that the “redemption” of mainstays Rayna and Juliette–and the ways redemption has come to them–have certainly had their pull from the Good Book. All to say, the show may not pray on Sundays, and it takes a good show to do so convincingly, but it certainly has a Bible Belt proof-text.
What Tipton does point out, though, is the show’s use of the American Religion of Authenticity, and the near-synonymity it has with justification, so far as the characters go. Tipton argues that in the age of “secularism” we find just as many believers, even believers who believe in justification. The difference lies in where that justification comes from and, for the most part, it lies within. The True You, The alt.you, The Unplugged You is the wheat that must be brought forth from the threshing floor.
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.
…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.
…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.
Of course, what so easily gets missed is the final product of that kind of self-revelation, that, in finding ourselves, we find a helpless consumer, a hapless sell-out with “no new songs to sing” (D. Webb). Where are we then, when we’ve gone “unplugged” and find ourselves disconnected or alone? Perhaps this is the gap in the flavor-of-the-day American spiritualism. Everybody knows that Nashville–the real one–isn’t filled with Buddy Millers and T. Bone Burnetts. It’s the land of T-Swift and the songwriters that make her famous. Of course we all want this, but what would happen if you really went unplugged? Would your alt.self be the real self at all? And what songs would you still refuse to sing on that stage? And yet…