The allure of ABC’s hour-long drama Nashville lost its luster for yours truly many seasons ago after the drama got so ridiculous you could see the plot twists coming from a mile away. And the music—though still a decent component—got somewhat sidelined in recent seasons in lieu of keeping the sappy and seductive scenes coming to keep eyes glued on the TV screen.
Nonetheless, during the first season, Saving Country Music slapped together a sloppy rundown of Nashville‘s real-life counterparts, which over time has become increasingly outmoded and unhelpful due to changes in the cast and life events of the characters. So instead of allowing that to be the last word, I thought it might be helpful to some to take a more in-depth look.
Regardless of what you think about the show, the characters are an interesting case study into the archetypes that make country music tick. In truth, none of the characters are based on anyone specific, but are an amalgam of different country music characters over the years. But here’s some educated guesses into the inspirations of some of the Nashville cast.
Luke Wheeler – Tim McGraw
“I’ve got to protect my brand.”
Sinewy, country sophisticated, black is the new black with a cowboy hat that could take a bullet and still not lose the perfect bend on the brim, he’s the 50-something well-off veteran that is just enough country to make him rich and the daydream of every bored housewife. He is probably not a bad guy offstage, but will do whatever he can to protect the integrity of his brand. Just like Tim McGraw who married fellow country performer Faith Hill, Luke Wheeler made a run at leading lady Rayna James before being left jilted at the altar.
Will Lexington – Ty Herndon
For, you know, the obvious reasons these two share a story. Ty Herndon came out of the closet as the first major gay male country star in November of 2014 while Nashville‘s Will Lexington was still in the closet. But eventually art imitated life, and Will also had his own coming out party. The factual and fictitious gay country stars also share a somewhat similar experience. Ty Herndon was arrested in 1995 after exposing himself to an undercover police vice officer in Ft. Worth’s Gateway Park. “The moral of the story is, don’t take a leak in the woods, ’cause it can get you arrested,” Ty said at the time, but it started the gay rumors about the country star. Will Lexington also went to a park to attempt to solicit sex in one episode, and was assaulted by anti-gay hoodlums.
The biggest difference between Ty Herndon and Will Lexington is Ty was more of a contemporary country star in his day, and Will is more the traditional country act.
Juliette Barnes – Mindy McCready
“Give me something to help me sleep.”
Though elements of the Juliette Barnes character began in with a similar narrative to Taylor Swift, including the young starlet needing Auto-tune to fix her vocals, and being the young upstart who upstages legends, the character became much more complex over time, including being upstaged herself at one point by the younger reality star Layla Grant.
But as the series has gone on, the Juliette Barnes character has grown much more complex, and grown to mimic the life of now deceased 90’s to 2000’s country star Mindy McCready. Like Barnes, McCready publicly battled drugs, suicide, personal tragedy, and had wild romantic romps with public figures.
McCready dated actor Dean Cain, and NHL player Drake Berehowsky. Incidentally, Barnes’ real-life counterpart, actress Hayden Panettiere, is married to pro boxer Wladimir Klitschko, and she also dated NFL’er Scotty McNight. Mindy McCready dated an aspiring singer named William Patrick “Billy” McKnight, who was charged with attempted murder after beating and choking McCready in December of 2003.
After the incident with William McNight, Mindy McCready’s life began to spiral out of control. McCready attempted suicide in July of 2005 via alcohol and drugs before eventually getting back with McNight. She then tried to attempt suicide again via antidepressants while pregnant with McNight’s baby. She gave birth to her son Zander in March of 2006.
Mindy McCready attempted suicide again in December of 2008 by slitting her wrists. In 2009, she joined the 3rd season of Celebrity Rehab. In May of 2010, she overdosed once again. In April of 2012, she gave birth to her second son, Zander. The father was record producer David Wilson—similar to Juliette Barnes who had a child with Nashville producer character Avery Barkley. David Wilson ended up committing suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January of 2013. On February 17th, 2013, McCready killed herself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound as well.
Another interesting fictional/real life similarity: Hayden Panettiere has admitted suffering from postpartum depression and seeking professional help—a similar condition suffered by Juliette Barnes.
Rayna James – Reba McEntire/Faith Hill
“The only non 360 deal in town.”
At the beginning of the series, the Rayna James character took on the (somewhat) real-life narrative of Faith Hill. Faith famously could be seen mouthing “What?” and flinging her arms in the air when the much younger Carrie Underwood won the CMA for Female Vocalist of the Year in 2006. The plot in the story thickened when Carrie Underwood replaced Faith Hill as the Sunday Night Football theme song singer in 2013. This is believed by many to be the real-life inspiration for the ever-present young vs. old conflict between Nashville characters Rayna James and Juliette Barnes.
In likeness, Rayna James appears much more similar to Reba McEntire. No major female country music performer has started her own label however, but the artistic freedom James extends to her artists is similar to Nashville labels Big Machine and Thirty Tigers.
In reality, the most complex and central character of Nashville is more an embodiment of the tough, strong, wise, and resilient spirit of the country music woman, exemplified in legacy female performers such as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette.
Gunnar Scott – Charles Kelley (Lady Antebellum)
Tall, lanky, fuzzy-faced singer and songwriter who has written some hits for artists other than himself, and prefers to spend his time as a performer in groups as opposed to a solo act, Gunnar Scott may be a good comparison to Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley. Kelley announced in late 2015 he would be releasing a solo album and released a single, but Kelley still remains possibly the closest approximation to the nervous and somewhat shy Gunnar Scott.
Layla Grant – Cassadee Pope
Both Layla Grant and Cassadee Pope are reality show TV stars—Cassadee Pope won the 3rd season of The Voice, and Layla Grant was a runner up in a fictitious singing competition. Both stars had some initial success in the industry, but have spent the rest of their time in Nashville trying to get the attention of the industry to get their career back on track.
Played by Clare Bowen
Instead of symbolizing a specific real life counterpart in Nashville, Scarlett O’Connor symbolizes the hundreds, maybe thousands of Nashville musicians living in the shadows of the stars, sometimes receiving big breaks, sometimes sinking right back into obscurity, and most importantly, battling their own psychological hangups with stardom, and attempting to balance musical passion with personal life, love, and artistry.
Played by Charles Esten
Similar to the character of his niece on Nashville, Scarlett O’Connor, Deacon Claybourne may not symbolize someone specific as much as the consummate sideman who helps write the songs, plays the music, keep the show on the road, and sometimes are the real talent on the stage, regardless of where the spotlight is pointed. Where Deacon started out as the guy who kept saving the day, as the series has rolled on, in many cases he’s become the one causing the biggest problems. But in the end his heart and his conscience wins out.
Played by Jonathan Jackson
It beats me.