Female Agency in Callie Khouri’s Nashville



Given the state of modern America television, who would have expected a new network serial drama about country music to feature some of the strongest female characters this side of HBO?  Knowledge of Nashville’s most famous export, however, helps to broaden an exegesis of this particular text.  In the country music industry, cash is king, or perhaps in relation to Nashville, “queen” would be a better term.  Characters Rayna James and Juliette Barnes are divas dueling for the cash and devotion of their audiences, but this is also a plot line as enduring as the competition between Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette utilized by Robert Altman as a plot device in his 1975 film of the same title.  The tradition of empowered women in country music, however, goes all the way back to Kitty Wells and in particular, Patsy Cline, who had her first hit in 1957 with Walking After Midnight and became a cross over pop idol, much like Juliette Barnes.  Cline’s songs came from the repertoire of rising male songwriters such as Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, and Willie Nelson who were anything but mainstream patriarchy.  And recent collaborations in Nashville between Loretta Lynn and Jack White continue this tradition, as reflected by character Rayna James’s collaboration with rock producer Liam McGuinnis.  Nashville must also be viewed in the context of its cultural location.

 Country music arises from indigenous American folk and bluegrass music and in many ways is the language of poverty, struggle, and desire.  From its industry inception in Nashville, there was never any question that female artists carried the passion and bravura of this genre in a way that opened the gates to the citadel of the patriarchy for them.  Women vocalists sell country music and that fact has always empowered them in the market.  Films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Walk the Line (2005) also show us determined, powerful women who know how to get their demands met.  Nashville producer and writer Callie Khouri grew up in West Kentucky and is no stranger to this culture.  Country music is class-based and rises from rural settings.  Fighting to authorize their vision and careers—the women of Khouri’s tale do indeed reflect the lives of those women who rose through the ranks of the Nashville music industry to call the shots.  And the sparring between James and Barnes is also indicative of class warfare—their difference reflects youth and middle age, but also old money, new money, ethics, and education.  However, one couldn’t expect any less from the mastermind of Thelma and Louise.

 Nashville is also a metanarrative.  It gleans information from the local music scene, from the current state of the industry, and of course from the genre of soap opera, to synthesize a guilty pleasure and high form of entertainment for those of us who get to see our local color synthesized for national, and now, international consumption.  Both Deacon and Scarlett “live” around the corner from my house, the show employs many friends and acquaintances, and it is one of few American television shows actually filmed on location.  And if for no other reason, Ashley Spurgeon’s hilarious recaps in the Nashville Scene every Thursday morning are a treat: http://www.nashvillescene.com/countrylife/archives/2013/05/23/nashville-recap-ill-never-get-out-of-this-world-alive

For those of us who live in Nashville, the show is a guilty pleasure and a reflection of our hometown that is an absorbing, ironic drama laced with actual facts that are familiar to both the country music novice and professional.  Most importantly, Nashville has intelligent and strong women characters at the very heart of its drama.  You might have noticed that the primary male players of this narrative are all damaged, unethical, or delusional, while the typical female character is not only a powerhouse but also a nurturer.  And the show is close enough to the real thing that there isn’t one true Nashvillian among us who ever doubted Rayna James’s ability force the male CEO of Edgehill Records do her bidding.  That’s just how it works down here.





One Comment on “Female Agency in Callie Khouri’s Nashville”

  1. I haven’t had a chance to see this of course, but glad there is something on television that is depicting strong women. Glad you are pointing this out!!

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