If Deacon Claybourne is the role of Charles Esten’s life, it also feels like one he was born to play. As the character who has become the heart and soul of network television drama hit Nashville, set in the country music scene of its namesake, he’s had a rollercoaster emotional ride through addiction, cancer, bereavement and fatherhood.
But for guitarists who watch the show, he’s also the most enviable figure, adding an essential sense of authenticity to the five seasons he’s spent so far playing the veteran guitar-slinger and singer Claybourne, who represents old-school country values and wields a bevy of drool-worthy vintage instruments.
And when it comes to the subject of guitar playing, Charles loves the chance to share his very real passion for it…
“I talk about why Nashville has been amazing as me as an actor all the time,” he admits to us. “That’s why I’m so happy to talk about what it means to me as a musician and a guitar player. I value that part of what I do easily as much as the acting.”
He’s certainly put the work in. Having recently completed a successful UK tour with his fellow Nashville stars, life has started to imitate art to some degree. And he’s clearly been genuinely moved by British fans who have taken the show and its soundtracks to their hearts.
“I’m surrounded by a bunch of very talented people,” says Charles.
“And those UK audiences have a reputation, even here in Nashville, for not just being enthusiastic but rather knowledgeable, too. Which is a very cool combination. So they’re not only on their feet making a ton of noise but they know the songs, they know the lyrics. They’re singing back to you. It was as good as it can get.”
But the UK isn’t a new landmark on the 51-year old Pennsylvanian’s career journey; he made his mark there many years ago. It turns out that the unique challenge of playing Deacon is the kind of part Charles was inadvertently preparing for in the early nineties when he was chosen to play the legendary Buddy Holly in a successful run of the musical Buddy London’s West End.
We talk about his time as Buddy, what it’s really like to have to juggle the roles of musician and actor on Nashville, and how his own musical career has benefitted from the show. He also shares also some great playing tips he’s learned along the way that all guitarists can benefit from.
The Nashville Season 5 soundtrack Vols 1 & 2 are out now on Big Machine. Series 5 of Nashville airs in the UK on Sky Living, Fridays at 9pm.
Just like Buddy Holly
“After graduating in college I went out to Los Angeles to be an actor at the very end of ’89, beginning of ’90. Within a year, I had a job playing Buddy Holly in the West End in the musical Buddy. And it’s funny how that relates to guitar.
“I’d always been an acoustic strummer, always enough to write a song, mostly. I had one or two electrics - I got one when I heard the Stray Cats. Mostly I was the rhythm guitarist and lead singer of my band in college. Then when I went out to LA I brought that acoustic and I got this audition.
“I had a manager I’d been working with for a couple of months. I realised they didn’t know me at all yet. They didn’t know the product that they were trying to sell to the rest of Hollywood. So I had them come by my house, we had dinner and I was letting them know who I was, and along the way I pulled out the guitar and played a couple of songs, just showing off.
“It was within a week or two at the most that they called up and said, ‘There’s a show called Buddy in the West End; would you like to play Buddy Holly in London?” I said, ‘Yes! That is exactly what I would like to do!’
“Having said that, as soon as I got the audition, I knew I could sing like Buddy because I’d been imitating him just for fun. I’d loved that voice since I was a kid and my dad introduced me to him. But I knew I didn’t have all those solos… I was going to have to play those solos live on stage.
“So I went on the Recycler, the classified ads, and bought an old Strat, which I was happy to do, anyway. I just put that thing around my neck and I put a Walkman on and I played those songs again and again. I had about a week or two before that first audition.
“So the first audition when I had to play a guitar, they liked the singing and they liked the acting but they said the guitar needed a little work. It was a new territory for me, playing the solo to That’ll Be The Day and the more intricate ones like It’s So Easy - that rockabilly thing. I just didn’t take [the guitar] off - I kept playing and playing. And that’s a great way to learn the guitar – to get a job playing!
“So the next week or two when I went back for a callback, I still wasn’t great on any level, but I was much better than the last time they saw me. They saw the learning curve. And then the same thing happened; I had another [audition] after that, and every time they saw me I still wasn’t good, but I sure was a little bit better. And somehow they gave me the job and I got to stand onstage for two-and-a-half years and play a Stratocaster, that famous sunburst, and knock those songs out every night.
“It was just a thrill to be there in London, where he’s so appreciated. I got to be a rock ’n’ roll icon eight shows a weeks. It was unbelievable.”
“When you see me sing on Nashville, that’s me. When you hear the guitar, that’s the studio guitar of Colin Linden. He’s just an incredible guitar player, and an incredible guy. His band Blackie And The Rodeo Kings are out of Canada - they’re fantastic.
“What happens is Colin shows me what it is he played. He spends some time with me, and I learn the exact fingering so I can play it. I’m not pretending to play it on the set - I’m actually playing it. But we have the music up on the speakers. Say we’re in the Bluebird (Cafe, iconic Nashville venue) or our set of The Bluebird as it is now - we started off with the original one but now we have our own - if I’m in there playing a song, you will hear the song playing through monitors, but my guitar will also be live. So I’m playing it, but you will hear him.
“The reasons for that are, number one, I’m playing a guy who is the best guitarist in Nashville. And I’m not that and nowhere near that. The other reason is what [Colin] can do - his tone, his fingering… it’s just going to sound so much better.
“But the thing about that is that’s another great way to learn guitar. To have this guy play a line and then he shows you what it is he played and you work on it and work on it until you can finally play what he plays, and then go onstage and play it. He taught me the beginning to a song called A Life That’s Good, which we just played all over the UK and Ireland. Everybody sings along and I just start playing this lick that I can recall so well because he taught me.”
Acting a song
“So Colin records the song and I generally get in there and do a scratch vocal. I always try to get in when the musicians are recording because it helps put it in the right key. They want to know your key, and sometimes you can kind of guess on that by yourself, but it’s much, much better and I’m very grateful they’ve allowed us to get in there and feel the vibe of the room.
“We might be recording a song and I might think on my own, ‘It should be in this key’, but once I’m on my own with all those players and I’ll say, ‘Let’s take it lower here.’ Also, I’m able to help them in the sense that these aren’t just songs that are unto themselves; these songs have to match the moment.
“When I’m singing one of these songs, I’m essentially acting still, because the songs fit right within the narrative of the story. So if Deacon is at his lowest point and is just about to give up on something and then he takes his guitar and he’s a little angry and he bashes something out, I have to make sure when I’m recording something in the studio that I’m in that emotional place, or that my voice is at least.
“The last thing I’d want is for the song to be recorded and here’s the scene going along and Deacon’s full of anger and energy, then here comes the song and they play it and it’s in a different place entirely.
“As a matter of fact, because they’ve started to be able to trust that we can do this, more than a couple of times now there have been songs that have been recorded right there as you’re going.
“For instance, in the third season, the very first song I sang that season was an original that I wrote with the great Deana Carter and we did that one live to air. So the whole conceit was that Deacon and Will Lexington, Chris Carmack’s character, were performing at the Bluebird and it was meant to be going out live over the air on public television. So they made us go out live over the air but there was no studio recording. We just stood up there and sang and played my song with these guys.”
“There was another performance on the show that was a slightly different situation where it wasn’t done in the studio [beforehand]. It was a song called A Hymn For Her, and it was when my sister Beverly in the show was in the hospital and she was dying. I was sitting beside her with a guitar and Deacon plays a song.
“It would have been doable to record it before, I guess, but it wouldn’t have had the same immediacy. It would have been very… that thing I was talking about that you try to recreate in the vocal booth, it would have been too difficult. So it was easier to sit right there. Because you also don’t want to be on the clock, on the click track or anything that forces the song forwards. Because it’s simply you and your unconscious sister. There’s nobody else in the room. So it’s not a ‘performance’ in any real sense of the word.
“I was in that moment able to tap into… that had happened to me, I had been in that place before. I had been in a room with my father who was in a hospice, and my father was a huge fan of music. He was the one who got me interested in all the music from the ’50s - Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley… all that and country music like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tex Ritter. So when he was there in the hospital, one day I brought along my guitar and I played for him when nobody else was there, and it was a different thing entirely.
“So in that situation on the show it was immediate. We had time to learn the song. So we do different versions of a song on the show - we have ones we do a couple of weeks before, but that is very rare. Generally, it’s just a week or so before we go to film the scene, and frequently it’s even less. I’ve done a couple where it’s just a couple of days, so you’re in the scenes and learning all your lines in your trailer, and if I can’t get a moment with Colin, he would videotape what his fingers are doing for me to learn.”
“I do think one of the things the show is very good at showing is it’s not just a cliche about the power of music. I’ve come to find that it’s very, very real.
“There’s moments on our show where you run out of words, and in those moments you have music. You step behind a guitar and you can speak on a deeper level. I have found that these songs the show Nashville has produced speak to people in ways that cross the ocean and cross cultures.
“These songs have found their way into their homes, their hearts and headphones. And because my character goes through so much emotionally, whether it was addiction or cancer or losing his sister, all the things you see coming down the road, people feel like they can reach out and talk to me about how they’ve been through these things as well. And again and again I hear that not just the show and the scenes, but the music, is able to bridges some gap and help them get through.
“There’s a song near the end of this season called Sanctuary, and I played that song in Manchester. And I think there’s something about music that’s a sanctuary and it lets you go somewhere safe and healing. Somewhere that will lift you up and let you rock for a while. It’s a real honour to be part of a show that not only puts out songs like that but, in general, puts out that theme that music can heal.”
What it takes
“When you’re shooting a scene and you have guests on the set, they’re struck by how many times you shoot it. They cannot believe it.
“For instance, if I was shooting a scene as we did not that long ago at the Grand Ole Opry, by now the crew, the directors, the DP, they know not to start on my fingers. Start on everything else - start on the audience and get all their angles from behind me so you don’t see anything. And I’m playing guitar each time every one of those happens. Then they start on some of the rest of the band, then start wide on me and then start closer on me, then my face and then maybe somewhere near the end go grab the fingers.
“Because then I’ve been playing for an hour or two and I’m thinking less about my fingers. Those are the ones where you need a little help, because you just got this thing and were literally learning it as you were shooting it. Again, an unbelievable way to learn the guitar. I still have so far to go, but I’m a markedly better guitarist than when I started off.”
T Bone’s tip
“When I started off I remember sitting down with T Bone Burnett who, aside from being an incredible producer, is just a fantastic guitarist. And he made me view even the acoustic guitar differently. I wish I could have learned a thousand of his lessons, but the ones that I was given I hold dear.
“One of those is that I realised I’d been using a guitar like a one-man-band for so long. And that involves a lot of overplaying, because you’re trying to get so much of the percussion out of the guitar. You’re banging away on it like it’s a drum and you’re hitting that bass note like it’s a bass - you’re trying to create a bigger sound than there actually is in that moment. At least I was. And I’ve seen it here in Nashville with the great guitarists - their hands are just so gentle on the guitar.
“T Bone taught me some great early lessons. Another one was even how I was holding it. I was clamped all about it in a way that would cut the resonance. By the way, T Bone’s wife is Callie Khouri, the creator of the show, and he cares about these details passionately. I did, too, so I was very fortunate to have a guy who wanted me to look like I was holding a guitar right. He knew before I played a note and the camera came up that I was holding it wrong and that the people that know, would know. So he showed me that.
“And in terms of the over-strumming he said, ‘Let’s take this guitar, strum it as lightly as you can at a nice even pace and then keep going gently but get louder and louder.’ And I was doing that, and he basically showed me that there’s a natural point where the sound breaks down. The chord breaks down. There’s a natural peak volume of the instrument, and once you go past that, it might be louder but it’s an ugly louder. So those are just two of the lessons he taught me, but both of them stuck with me.”
“There’s the guitar that I play all the time. It’s Deacon’s - it’s Deacon’s and he lets me borrow it! - Martin D-28. I have it around my neck half the time I’m onstage. And when Deacon plays, he plays that one an awful lot, too.
“There’s just something about it that really felt great. Especially when I put it down in double drop D. It just sort of resonates down on that D. By the way, I didn’t know much about double drop D [tuning both E strings down to D] until I got here in Nashville. Somebody showed it to me and I loved it immediately. Dropping the high and the low E sort of takes out that third, which makes it not quite as positive if you’re playing a major, and not quite as sad if you’re playing a minor. It’s that kind of nebulous area which I like a lot. It’s something Deacon likes a lot.
“The very first song I think I played on Nashville was Back Home. And that was in double drop D, and another one soon after that was Undermine with Hayden Panettiere. Deacon and Juliette [Barnes, the character Panettiere plays] wrote that one on the show. I just fell in love with that tuning. I went to write with somebody here in Nashville and I strummed my guitar and it was in double drop D and they said, ‘Oh, they got you!’ I had to laugh because he was right. Somehow he had intuited that somebody had recently shown me that tuning and I was hooked. That was true!”
“There’s actually one that I did take home. I think it was on the show at one point. There was a ’55 Gibson J-200 that I got to play on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for one of the Nashville On The Record shows that we did. At the end of some of our seasons we have these concerts called On The Record. The first one was at the Ryman, the second one was at the Grand Ole Opry. Colin [Linden] was onstage, as he always is for those concerts, backing all of us.
“Buddy Miller was also there. T Bone Burnett was our first executive music producer in season one. Season two, three and four was Buddy Miller, and then in season five recently it was Tim Lauer. So Buddy Miller was also onstage with that band and he’s also an incredible guitar player. Our guy Danny Rowe was also there, who is in charge of all the instruments on the set and is immaculate with his care of those instruments and also making sure the right ones are always there. Danny makes sure we’re not holding something in our hands that makes no sense to the song that’s being played. And he makes sure we’re not holding something in our hands that’s less likely to make a guitar aficionado drool a little bit! With Danny we’ve always got that right guitar.
“I knew I wanted to buy a new acoustic for myself. Treat myself as it had been a couple of seasons here in Nashville. So I asked them to let me know if they found anything or saw anything. In any event, the three of them were there at the rehearsals and onstage as we were getting ready for this concert, and I had this J-200. I was already falling in love with it.
“So here I am holding this guitar that we had gotten for the show and every one of them came up to me basically drooling and looking at the guitar asking, ‘Can I see it? Can I hold it? Can I play it?’ So their reaction alone helped me know, besides my own gut, that it was a gorgeous instrument. These guys that knew what was what were crazy over this thing. So basically I ended up getting that one - probably with the pay cheque I got from doing the concert! It’s hanging on my wall right now. And if I never played it, it would still have been a good investment. It’s like a piece of art. It’s just so gorgeous.”
Guitar mountain climbing
“Any songwriter is the sum of all the songs they’ve listened to, but the funny thing about me is I love a great guitar lick, I love a great riff, but I think in the end I’m probably better at thinking them than I am at playing them!
“Sometimes I really have to work on learning the things in my head. And I like that - I don’t want things I think of to be limited to how good my fingers are. In other words, I’ll think of a solo and I’ll have to assemble it much more than a great guitar player.
“And please let me cop completely to the fact that this interview is because I play this great guitarist, I am not a great guitarist. If you’d asked me before I came to Nashville, I might have been foolish enough to think that maybe I was pretty good, but getting to this town shows you, it’s thrilling and depressing at the same time with the level of talent and the level of skill.
“But it’s such a great journey. It’s one of the great journeys of my life, looking at this guitar mountain I still have to climb and taking a few steps every day. And it’s a wonderful thing where you remember this lick or this solo that gave you such trouble for so long and now you find you’re playing it without the thought of how to play it and more with the thought of how you’re feeling. You’re able to skip past the head and into the heart of playing it.
“I like to throw myself into the deep end of the pool, and when you’re at the Grand Ole Opry and you’re live out on the air, it would be very easy to give that solo to somebody else, but I frequently like to take it and push myself. And if it doesn’t go well, you breathe through that, because I find that experience of it not going well frees me up for the next time, when it will. You survive that and you keep going.
Art influencing life
“Doing the show absolutely affects my own music. I’ve been doing this project called Every Single Friday, which is rather insane for any singer-songwriter musician. I’ve been putting out a new single once a week. I promised to start doing that, instead of an album or EP that just didn’t seem like the path for me at that point.
“Because number 1, I can’t really go and tour an album, because I’m here in Nashville. But I am surrounded by these great writers that I get to write with and these great musicians that I get to record with. So I was amassing this catalogue that was just kind of sitting there and I thought, ‘I’m going to start releasing one a week.’
“And doing that has been this unbelievable boon to creativity. It’s a deadline machine which I thrive on. I need those to push me forwards. It’s really pushed my writing, not just lyrically but musically. Especially with guitars.
“I’ve got a basement where I can sort of play as loud as I want, and that’s where a good lick that you can wrap a song around comes from - just plugging in a Les Paul or something and making a few moves. Then you find something you like and really use that to write a song.
“I’ve ended up with some really guitar-heavy songs. I’ve got a song called Buckle Up that I used to open up virtually all the sets on this tour that we did, and that’s just a flat-out rock riff. In fact, it started as almost a rock ’n’ roll dream; I just had it cranked up to 11 and just started in on it. And as soon as I heard that it immediately sounded like an arena rock intro anthem, plus it’s called Buckle Up - ‘get ready’.
“Low and behold, I find myself standing onstage and singing at our last show in Belfast and the lights go off and out comes this riff I wrote in my basement. That’s the absolute thrill of it all. I’m living this dream where I get to play this guitar god, and while I do that I get to not only get better at guitar myself, but live these moments that I’ve dreamt of as a guitar player with my own music.”