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Interview: Charles Esten talks ‘bittersweet’ Nashville Farewell Tour ahead of UK and Ireland dates

Musical drama Nashville is coming to an end this summer after 6 seasons and it’s going to be a painful goodbye for the show’s loyal fans and the long-time cast members.

Charles Esten, who plays central character Deacon Claybourne, has been with the show from the very start and he’s one of the cast members taking part in the Nashville Farewell UK Tour, which kicks off on Saturday (14th April) in Birmingham. He will be joined by Clare Bowen (Scarlett), Sam Palladio (Gunnar), Chris Carmack (Will) and Jonathan Jackson (Avery).

Ahead of the tour I caught up with Charles to talk about saying goodbye to the show, discuss the emotional farewell and to find out if he’s planning to return for a solo headline tour in the future.

I can’t believe this is the farewell tour. How are you feeling about bringing it over to the UK?

The ending of this whole thing in general is obviously bittersweet but this is the sweet part. Some of the sweetest part is that unlike so many other shows when you’re done you just walk away, when we’re done we get to do this (laughs). We get to fly across the Atlantic and see our incredible fans in England, Ireland and Scotland. This is going to be unbelievable. I’m really thrilled.

It seems that every time you come over to tour, it gets bigger and bigger. You’re doing arenas this time and you can get much bigger than that…

No I guess not (laughs). I don’t predict a stadium tour at this point (laughs) but we are honestly just overcome to be in The O2. Obviously it was actually kind of amazing to be in The Royal Albert Hall and to sell it out. We added a show and sold that out too! That just speaks to the wonderful connection that Nashville has made in the UK and Ireland that I can guarantee you none of us take for granted. It’s one of the most special parts about it.

This is how we ended our season last year being over there. Some of those moments near the end of the shows where everybody’s on their feet and all the flashlight phones are out and everyone’s singing along… we were standing there looking at each other like, ‘how did this even happen that we make this little show so far away in the middle of the United States on these quiet sets and everybody does their little scenes and their songs and somehow, just through the power of the medium, it’s able to connect to people. This music of ours, of the shows I should say, is able to find its way into their homes and their hearts and their headphones’. It’s kind of amazing. It’s one of the sweetest miracles about the whole thing.

I feel like we need to get the Nashies together to pressure the network for another season now to get that stadium tour!

(laughs) This is more than I’ve ever dreamed so I’m not going to get silly now. This is truly just more than I could have ever asked so I’m happy to have it end like this.

Nashville - Charles Esten
Credit: CMT

Over its six seasons Nashville has had a few hurdles such as last minute renewals and changing networks. What would you say has been your biggest learning curve with the show?

It’s funny because I feel as though the rest of my career, which is rather long… I went to L.A in ’88 so we’re talking 24 years from the day that I went outs until 2012 when I got the job. I felt that was all prologue and that was all preparation. That was me putting together hopefully a set of tools and getting to do so many roles and so many jobs that would help make me ready for this moment. By the time this happened, I never really felt like, in terms of the show itself, (that was) where the learning curve was. It was almost the extracurriculars is where the learning curve was. The show itself, we were just very fortunate to have these incredible scripts and be surrounded by these amazing cast mates and musicians. That has always just felt like something that I had been waiting for for a long time and was finally able to step into, not that I haven’t learned anything along the way but that wasn’t the major part of it.

I think where I learned so much was in the music itself. From the very first time I sat down with T -Bone Burnett, who was our musical supervisor on the first season, he was the first one to give me many insights into his very valuable viewpoint on songs and on the making of music. Later I was able to work with Buddy Miller, who was our musical supervisor after him and Tim Lauer, all along the way Colin Lindon was there. Colin is the voice of Deacon’s guitar. When you hear Deacon sing, you hear me but when you hear Deacon play, 99 times out of 100 you’re hearing Colin play. These gentlemen, along with so many others, have imparted a ton of wisdom and insight for me about music, which was always my first passion but I’ve been able to sort of go next level with them and that’s why I’m so thrilled to say that Colin is, and has been, the bandleader on this tour.

My dear friend, the other half of Deacon, is standing right behind me and we’re making this music together. We w ere just talking the other day when we were shooting the final scene and I was just plucking away at the guitar playing something that he had helped teach me six seasons ago. We were laughing about how I will never be the player he is but I’m certainly miles closer (laughs) because of him and what he helped me. We were remembering how difficult that thing I was playing so simply was for me when I first started out on it and by now I was doing it without even thinking about it. That’s probably the biggest learning curve, is in my playing and my making of music. Again, not that I’m great now (laughs) it’s just that I’ve made the largest strides in that arena and even in performing.

When I started out as a young man I was in a band so I knew what it was like to stand on stage and perform. I brought a lot of that to some of my early work like when I played Buddy Holly in London for almost two years in the early 90s. Since Nashville started these arenas, literally, and these venues have opened up a nd I’ve been able to play at the Grand Ole Opry. The next time I play when we return will be my 95 fifth performance as the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve been able to play at the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe and as we mentioned the Royal Albert Hall and so many others. For me there’s a learning curve there in terms of stepping into these hallowed venues and delivering. I made a decision early on that I was going to say yes to these opportunities and so therefore if you say yes you need to bring it… bring all your focus and all your best abilities and see what you can do. That’s been part of it as well and that’s been a thrill.

Nashville has been responsible for bringing Country music to the UK and helping it find a bigger audience. Now that the show is ending will you be coming over here to play a headline sometime in the future?

That would be on the cards for me. If that doesn’t happen I would be shocked and saddened (laughs). I plan on making that happen in one form or another. I would love that. We’ve been Anglophiles, my wife and I, from the very beginning back when we lived there. It was just amazing to go back there. I’ve been able to go back there and do Whose Line Is It Anyway? and then I get to go back there with Nashville and reignite that love affair. I would love to do that. I’m virtually certain that will be happening before too long.

Nashville - Charles Esten and Clare Bowen
Credit: CMT

You finished filming the show this past week. What will you take forward from your time on the show?

I was saying the other day that it was hard to put words to these emotions, just because there’s so many of ’em and they’re flying in in like a million different colours (laughs). To focus on any one of the colours sort of leaves all the others behind in your description. What I mean by that is you’re feeling at the exact same time my heart is low because I’m going to be missing these people that I work with every single day. On the other hand I know I will see them, they’re going to stay in my life but I won’t see them every single day like this. I was telling my wife the other day that I love that British word, that we don’t have over here which is a shame because it’s the best… ‘gutted’. It’s the one I’ve been seeing the most about people saying that Nashville is ending from the UK, that people are ‘gutted’. I love that and how that describes how you’re feeling and I feel that at this exact same time.

I feel satisfied, I feel grateful and I feel very blessed to have been a part of all this. I think mostly I walk away, and I’m very happy to say this, with a strange sense of completion and pride in the work my friends and I have done. We were at the wrap party the other night and they showed this video retrospective of the six seasons, they just put up clips from all across the six seasons, and the thing that struck me the most is how when you’re doing your work, your work is very detailed. It’s not about a season or six seasons. It’s not even about an episode when you go in to do your work. It’s not even really about a scene. It’s about the beats in the scene, the moments in the scene, the lines in the scene. My focus has always been so small and microscopic on this moment making it true and real, and this moment making it as true and real as we can, and this line of this song, singing it as true and real as I can and making this bit of guitar playing as accurate and on the money as I can.

What’s interesting now that part is over and I don’t have to focus so minutely like that anymore as we pull back away from it all, I’m as surprised as I can say to see this massive thing we’ve created, all detailed along the way, but it’s huge! It’s like working and making tiny leaves all these years, then you pull back and you see this forest full of trees. There were some scenes where I barely remember shooting them (laughs) because I’ve been focusing on the one right before and the one right after, and on we go! I guess that was a really nice feeling. I’m old enough to know that every moment you’re creating something that is chiseled in the granite, like in terms of whatever you’re doing right now today in the scene however you say that line will be the way that you say that line for as long as the show is ever shown. You sort of know that as you’re going, which is why you take such care, but now that it’s all there it’s like there it is and there will remain.

Hopefully other people will find not just the show and not just the scenes but the music as well. That’s the other ace we have up our sleeve, that other shows don’t get. When they’re done, all they can do is hope people watch it or binge watch the whole six seasons or whatever they’re going to do, and I do hope that, but along the way that’s something you do every so often. You don’t do it when you’re out in the world, you do it when you’re sitting at home but the music is portable Nashville. It means you can take it everywhere, in any moment. It can be in your car as you drive to work. We’ve heard people say it was in their wedding ceremony. We’ve heard people say it was at the funeral for their parent that loves that song. That really blows my mind. That’s the power of music that you find your way, not just on the outskirts of people’s lives like a show can, but on the interior of their lives as well.

How many tissues do I need to bring when I come to The O2 for the Nashville Farewell Tour? Is it going to be a tearful night?

(laughs) That word bittersweet, it’s hard to beat it. It’s going to be joyful and tearful. The way I think about it is, those tears are not exactly happy tears obviously but they’re not fully sad tears either because if you’re crying it means that this all meant something to you. That means that those moments in this concert will mean something to you and they’re going to be truly mean something to us. We’re all, the cast and the audience, going to be creating a night, or eight nights as we’re over for on this tour, that’s full of so many moments that we will not necessarily be in charge of… the emotions are going to be in charge of that night.

There will definitely be moments where we’re just trying to hold it together and there will be other moments where we’re laughing and full of joy. I t’s going to be cathartic, joyful, deep and meaningful. I know how fast time moves as you move along the road. Ceremonies, religious and otherwise, have always been about taking a moment in time and trying to hang on to it for just a second to note it. Here we are, this thing is important. Let’s note this and dig our claws into this moment and hang on tight for these couple of hours so later when it’s behind us we can know that we did and we can look back and say we got the absolute most out of that. I know that’s how every one of the performers and musicians are feeling about this. Hopefully the fans will feel the same.

Nashville in Concert: Farewell UK Tour starts on Saturday. The full dates are:

April 14 – Birmingham, Genting Arena
April 15 – Leeds, First Direct Arena
April 17  – Glasgow, SSE Hydro
Apr 18 – Manchester, Manchester Arena
Apr 20 – Cardiff, Motorpoint Arena
Apr 21 – London, O2 Arena
Apr 23 – Dublin, 3Arena
Apr 24 – Belfast, The SSE Arena

The Music Of Nashville Original Soundtrack Season 6 Volume 1 and The Music Of Nashville: Greatest Hits Seasons 1-5 are available now through Big Machine Records.

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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