AIRPLAY WEEKLY: A Conversation with the star of ABC's Nashville Charles Esten
Last October, we sat down with Charles Esten star of Nashville, which after being cancelled by ABC has been renewed on CMT/Hulu this Fall.
Tim Hall of AW Country: I appreciate you taking a few minutes to talk to me. By the way, Congrats! Glad to see you (Deacon) made it through the surgery ok. Everybody was sweating that one.
Charles Esten: Yes, this summer has been crazy that is all anybody wanted to know.
Well, glad it worked out for you. Let’s go back to the early days when you were in College. Some people may only know your character Deacon from ABC’s hit show Nashville, and may not know who Charles Esten was or where you came from.
Music to me is like my first girlfriend. You will see where the metaphor holds up. I don’t say it just to be flowery. It holds up because I started very young loving music. My mom said I just wouldn’t stop, I was always singing. Then my sister took piano lessons and I would steal her books and go try to learn piano, so she gave them to me too. Even before that I would get on the guitar sometimes. When you are a new guitarist, sometimes when you are a little kid, you would get your uncle’s old guitar with a big neck. That’s what I had, but it just hurt my hand so bad I quit.
What drew me back to it, as I got older, was probably hearing the Stray Cats. I loved that sort of rockabilly thing. So I went and bought another guitar. I bought my first electric around then, but I still had an acoustic for a while. You could have found me in the ninth, tenth, eleventh grade, all through High School sitting at the piano trying to learn the parts on “Born to Run” or “Jungle Land”. I would just be sitting with an old album, which was way before CDs, and I would go reset the needle and run back to the piano and try it again. I would do it again and again. It got easier to do with a CD player but my mom didn’t have a CD player for a long time.
During those times I wasn’t in a band, but I had a bunch of friends that played so we would just mess around and jam. I was in a few talent shows. My dad was a fan of country music and 50’s music. I remember in the talent shows playing “All I Have to do is Dream” by the Everly Brothers and I also did “Runaround Sue” one year. I went off to college at William and Mary and I brought my guitar with me.
In my freshman year, we would get around a bonfire at the lake or something, so I would bring my guitar and knew a bunch of current songs, but no one was there to play along with, and every Summer I would take the guitar to the beach with me and everyone would do bonfires so all through that time I was just songwriting on my own, but it wasn’t in a really heavily focused way. So then my sophomore year in college, I joined a fraternity and I would play the guitar around friends, then see another guy playing guitar and go sit with him, then another guys turns out to play bass and another guy I knew from high school plays keyboard and another guy plays drums. Before I knew it, we were all down in the basement jamming and having fun.
We had some other bands on campus and they were good enough, but no one that I thought man, they are intimidating, I could never do that. If anything, it made it seem like the funnest and coolest thing in the world. Before we knew it, there was a dorm on campus that was having a big outdoor party and someone heard they were looking for a band and a lot of the bands then didn’t play a lot of covers or party music it was more college radio music so we thought let’s go see if we can do it. We pulled together two songs for our audition. I don’t remember what they were. We played them and did well enough that we got the job. We had 2 weeks to learn 2 hours worth of music at least, so that forced us to go in the basement and while our fraternity brothers were trying to study we were down there making a racket, but ultimately came up with enough to play that show. From those humble beginnings we started to play out more and more until we became one of the big bands on campus.
By the time I graduated, we had done well enough that I ended up staying in college for another year even though I had graduated. We ended up going to other campuses. From the campus of William and Mary in Virginia we were able to go play at Richmond, BCU or even Maryland or down to UNC, and all across the west to Virginia Tech.
We had a circuit we played and during that time I was getting to write and I will never forget the thrill of having an idea of a song in my head, having it almost written and being able to bring it to those guys and watch it just come alive, and then within a week being able to play it in front of an audience.
We played and did that for that extra year and from that made a little money and got to make some great music. We were a real party band and everyone was focused on what they were going to actually be doing. Out of that group there was a doctor, two lawyers, businessmen, a banker, and this guy who went out to California to be an actor, and that was me.
At that time, I knew I was making a choice between music and acting. I had always figured you can always go play music on your own while you are acting, but it’s kind of hard to act while you are playing music for a living. Plus, at the time I had my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I had a couple of friends who had gone out to LA. I knew the path to what they were out there doing and I was like I think I could do that and with music, without a band, I didn’t know my next step.
It is a very strong possibility that if I had known two people in Nashville instead of LA, I might have gone to Nashville and started writing with my guitar and would have had a whole different life, I don’t know, but instead I went out to LA because I knew some actors and had always wanted to be an actor. It is all the same part of the desire that comes up out of me, and that is to move people. Either to make them laugh with an improv sketch on Whose Line is it Anyway or on a sitcom, or on a show like The Office, that just makes people laugh or makes people cry or to even make their heartbreak. The same is true with music, you can make them laugh, you can make them dance you can make them cry. There’s not as much room between music and acting as you might think.
Staying on that track, almost instantly music was not a part of my life except for that single guitar I had again. Real quickly a couple of things happened, I had a job, I got to show my managers I played guitar. I had a manager within a year or year and a half or so, within a week or so after I showed them I played guitar, I got an audition in London to play Buddy Holly and somehow I landed that audition and it took me a while to get the lead in that, a couple of months or so. In the end, I ended up playing Buddy Holly in that amazing musical where I got to act as well as sing and play. I got to do that for two and a half years all total. So all during that time I was doing what I knew, I was playing and singing and I got to do what I was learning, which was acting. By the time I got out of there I was a much better Actor and was ready to go. I dabbled in music, when I was in London, and we were surrounded by musicians, but when Buddy ended, that was pretty much it for music except that Buddy was my connection to Whose Line is it Anyway When I was in London, I ended up getting on that show. That was a place where I would just make up songs off the top of my head. Music improv was a part of that show. Other than music improv there was just me and my guitar again, for years and years, and then a piano. I kept things alive and active by playing music at my church. I played in the band at my church and wrote a couple of songs, maybe 3 or 4, but other than that, I didn’t have a vehicle for my music and that went on for a long, long time.
I started being an actor in 1989 or 90, right around then, so if you do the math, all the time it took before Nashville started in 2012, all that time, I started focusing and thinking on it more, especially Country Music around 2008. So that’s a long time in between those, but I can say I never stopped picking up the guitar and I never stopped playing piano, whether it was playing alone, getting a book of Elvis Costello’s music or Springsteen, or just writing my own songs.
When I finally got back in that place where I was writing in a more focused way, it was the best feeling in the world, doing writers rounds, which was as rewarding as any tv show I had done back then, so I knew I was on the right track.
I figured in all reality, that I had missed the boat to be a performer, but I thought maybe it wasn’t too late to write for somebody else and that would be fantastic to be able to get a cut on somebody else’s album. That would blow my mind. Then that leads up to all of a sudden this show Nashville coming along. It’s changed everything and it has opened doors that I never imagined would be opened and it has blown them wide open and now here I am talking to you. So let me finish the metaphor. So I met that girl music when I was really young. We dated in high school and in college we really fell in love. I was head over heels and we were totally together. To be honest I majored in economics but that’s not really the truth, I majored in my band in college. It was an every day, every night thing, and I was head over heels in love. When I went out from college I thought I left that girl behind, but with Buddy I got to hang around with her for a couple of more years. It wasn’t my music, but I got to meet her again, and then I said goodbye for a long, long time. I might get a phone call every now and then, but this is my meeting back up with music again. I don’t know much about the future but I do know this, I won’t be saying goodbye ever again. It’s not going to happen, and I don’t care what form I am about to do ends up in. I don’t know how well what I am going to do is going to do, I don’t have a clue, but in the real sense it doesn’t matter to me. That relationship is real. I am going to play music, and if 10 people come to see me, I will go do that, you know what I mean? If way more come and get to hear it on the radio, Amen and Hallelujah, and so be it, whatever it is going to be. I love being around musicians and songwriters, and this community too much to ever say goodbye again.
Well, I’m sure glad you are back and I know you have much more to say, write, sing and do. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. What is it that you think has made people resonate with your character Deacon? Deacon is one that just stands out when you hear people talk about Nashville. I hear more about Deacon than any other character on there. Why is that?
Well that is very kind to say. What I will say is the character you have to go to the creator Callie Khouri, who wrote that first script, and dreamt up this character of Deacon Claybourne. I’ve been around in acting long enough to know a great lead role when I see one. As an actor for years and years I got to play supporting characters and guest characters and you would be very happy if you got someone who would have a couple facets that was maybe more than one thing. On a sitcom especially, maybe you are the boyfriend who is a neat freak and that is all you get to play, the funny episode as the guy who is a neat freak, driven crazy by how messy your girl is. What you don’t get to play, until you get real lucky, is somebody who has so many facets, who is a real human being and that is who Deacon is.
He is a great representation of the human condition, which is he feels things very very deeply. He loves very deeply and he has a strong desire to be a great friend and a good man and someone who can be depended on but meanwhile he has this broken side that comes from all the layers that have been unwrapped. As we have gone through the seasons about his past whether it was the early abuse as a kid with his sister that he went through, the tough upbringing there and his addictions, the demons that came along when he became an addict. What you find out is there is this guy you can root for. #1 you know he is trying, and you know when he fails, no one shows it more deeply, more hurt by the hurt he causes others, and after that, they made him one of the guitar gods here in the town of Nashville and one of the people respected by the characters. There he is put up to be meaningful and important and full of depth. So you get all those things and that is a hell of a guy to get to play. On top of that you have these songs that I get to sing and play and that guitar work of Collin Linden I mean it’s my voice but it is his guitar voice playing and then to be honest, from the first episode you sit me at the Bluebird and a guitar from the late 1900’s a pre-war Martin in my hand and I am sitting across from Pam Tillis at the Bluebird and surrounded by other great Bluebird characters, great Bluebird musicians like Pam. In the back of the room is Hayden Panettiere playing Juliet Barnes with the tear slowly running down her face. I knew quickly, this was a special role. You get to play this one of a kind guy. It is all we want to be and sometimes find out who we are.
When you are performing a song on the show Nashville or you are performing a song live on the Opry or touring somewhere. Do we see more of Deacon in Chip or more Chip in Deacon?
It’s funny it is very song specific. If I am on screen playing Deacon it’s always more Deacon. It’s hard to say the parts that make it up cause it is clearly all Deacon. There is not an ingredient in Deacon that is not in Chip. I am not able to add what is not in me. In some ways I am definitely more animated and less cool than he is. I played at the Bluebird before and I said, I know y’all came here to see Deacon, I’m sorry he’s not here tonight. I’m Chip, he’s a better guitar player, I might be a slightly better singer, I don’t know just because I have a wider range, Deacon doesn’t usually get up too high, it’s part of the character he just sits a little more, Deacon hits some notes up there and I am at the top of my range as well. We overlap here and there, I don’t know. This is me, this is him. If I am playing a song, let me add he has totally influenced me. I sound like a crazy man. Believe me I know he’s me and vice versa but really it is great as a songwriter, I am blessed I can write from a place where everything is great, but to get to sit in Deacons’ shoes everyday and going through the things that he has, let’s me write and paint with a different pallet, more blues, blacks and grays and darker browns. My palette is a little light cause there but for the grace of God, I have these brighter things going in my life. He’s been through it. He has gone through darker things. So he paints with that darker palette, so having said that I have access to that palette now when I write. And clearly I have access to my own darker palette when I am playing him. Nobody gets to 50 without going through some tough times. But he does inspire some of those songs. At least not inspire like, hey I will write a song for Deacon, but we just came out of a week of playing something very hard. It’s not surprising that you would come out with something that would move you into that direction.
What is it about Country Music that resonates with you as an artist?
First of all let me say it is hard to put your finger on it. I know it just does, and it has, whether it was listening to the classics with my dad when he was playing Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Acuff, Patsy Cline, and others, it could have been very possible that I went oh dad, change the channel, but it did appeal to me, it pulled those heart strings and the longing was just in there. As I got older and the decades go by with Country Music whether it was in the 90’s or in the 2000’s, the stories that are told are great in country music. There is an odd combination of literal versus, there isn’t as much symbolism as you might find in avant-garde rock. I was always impressed with a band like U2 that was able to make their songs sound epic and mythical and biblical. They knew how to paint from that palette of things that would sound universal, yet there was rarely a story that you could delineate what just happened per se. Like “Mysterious Ways”, it’s alright she moves in mysterious way. I wasn’t able to pull a story out of that, but to go back to what I was saying about Springsteen earlier, I can pull a story out of “Jungle Land”. I can figure out what is happening out of “10th Ave Freeze Out or Thunder Road”. Like Elvis Costello, he could write both of those kinds of songs or he could write “My Aim is True” where you got a sense of the story of Allison, but it was oblique though. I like that there is something about me, I like the literal. There is something about the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” type of story. It’s funny, in some ways it can be limiting or you think it could be limiting. I mean I am here to tell you a story about a gambler that I sat next to, or here’s a story about once in a west Texas town of El Paso. Now let me tell you what happened, or let me tell you about Pancho and Lefty. You would think that you would be limited in that, but somehow in that limitation it opens it wide open to make these universal themes. I mean, “I Drive Your Truck” let’s talk about that for a second. First of all, you are at a place in country music where they say truck songs are done, quit singing about trucks, and they say no. I tell you what, I am going to write a chart song that is the best of all of them and can break your heart, cause you are not expecting it. You see that title and hear that song and listen to that story and it gets me every time. There are a lot of stories out there like that. That’s what I love, that’s what I love and my songs tend to go toward that direction. I was never good at the abstract. It would either come out sounding too abstract like I was a bad poet, or trying to be a real heady poet or not abstract enough, like what are you even doing that for, just say what you mean. So I was never good at the middle where great music exists in and I love so much of it. Maybe some of it has to do with not having a band all of those years that it becomes about the song and not about the production. I can totally see and I remember it happening, I was in my college band and you would just start on a jam, so it would come from these chords, that bass line, that drum rhythm. Now just sing some words on top of it. Which is always what U2 felt like except Bono was able to access something deep when he did it, or REM, sure you are like this is all nonsense but it feels so meaningful. I was never really any good at that. I was always moved by the literal anyway.
Let’s talk a minute about your recent move from LA to Nashville and how that transition has gone for you and your family.
Chip- Not just seamless, which would be something, but a seamless dream is all I can say cause it really just clicked. I would have been willing to put up with hardship for this amazing show to do things that I get to do, and I was fearful for it with my wife and my kids but I found out instead it was like Lego pieces and in some weird way it has always been like coming home to a place we have never lived. It’s been more than I could ever ask for.
We see you around town all the time and you are obviously very involved in the community. A lot of artists like Trisha, Garth or Vince, are regulars at Belmont Basketball games. I have seen you at a few of the Belmont Basketball games too. Is there a connection for you?
First connection is first season we were invited out to Belmont and that was fun and I really did enjoy it and went back for a while and then I got to know Vince over the last couple of years and how welcoming he is and his heart to make us feel very welcome here in Nashville. Not just our Nashville family but he was on our show very early on and welcomed us on the Opry Stage which is as good of a welcome as you can get. Between Vince and Little Jimmie Dickens, who can say anything if Little Jimmie Dickens and Vince Gill have opened their arms? Then quite literally when my family came out here, they came at Easter a couple of years back and Vince and Amy welcomed us to their home and made us feel personally welcome. Later I went to a Belmont game with him and that is the clear way to say I got in deeper. My daughter Taylor, who was a senior when we moved here went to Brentwood High and is now a Sophomore at Belmont, and loves it so much and is really thriving there. Also, we just had the premier of season four out at Belmont and a lot of the cast members live tweeted while we watched the first show on the screen there in the beautiful new facility. Taylor said she might not have counted on Belmont being an option if I had not got this job. So again this job leads a way into all these perfect situations.
You have a special event coming up on Friday, October 9 called Light the Night Walk. For those that don’t know about your history with the organization or about your daughter, tell us about Team Addy and your connection with the charity.
Well that is just another of the puzzle pieces that clicked together so well. My family has been involved with the leukemia and lymphoma society for so long. My daughter Addy is almost 16 now and when she was 2-1/2 years old she was diagnosed with leukemia, and for about 2 years she was under a regimen of chemotherapy. She went into remission rather quickly but you continue the chemo for 2 years and we were extremely blessed to find out she was cancer free at the end of those two years. It was obviously a dark and very hard time for the family but in strange ways there are always blessings at the darkest times and we got to learn what was really important. We got to see the love of family and friends who came alongside and made it work for us during those times and we also got to become involved with the leukemia-lymphoma society. We were able to be with other people that were going through it or others that had lost family members or friends and to see what they were doing. We knew very quickly that my daughter was given an 85% survival rate and that 15% sounded way to high clearly but we knew that compared to when I was a kid that was a virtual death sentence. So that number had been changed by people that did research and those researchers had been funded by people that fund raise, so that is what LLS is all about. We started dabbling in that and putting our toe in and becoming involved. I would help with auctions for LLS in LA and would become the live auctioneer. I would have a couple of things signed from the cast of Whose Line is it Anyway and used the small measure of fame I had then to do what we could. Addy was girl of the year one year when she was finishing up her treatment, so we tried to be a part of it out there as much as we could and then here, through my friend Pete Fisher out there at the Opry, I’m gonna name drop there, we came in contact with the Nashville Chapter. The first year we got to go to the Light the Night walk and that will be like the one we are having Oct 9th this year. I was blown away. My daughter Addy was there. We had a Team Addy that had fund raised to friends and family, new friends from Nashville and family that had come to visit. We were there out on the bridge in the shadow of the football stadium in downtown Nashville and all these thousands of people with their lanterns in support, Red in support of those who are going through their treatment for their cancer. White for those who were survivors and Gold in memory of those who had not made it. Along Addy’s journey we knew people who had not made it, so to be a part of that night where you are walking through the streets so strong you are literally lighting up the night with these lamps and also the fireworks. I am very glad to say along with the convention bureau here in the city of Nashville, and along with a bunch of the landmark buildings here they have agreed to light up themselves red in honor of and support of LLS. Literally we are going to be lighting the night. It is an amazing event for anybody that has unfortunately come across blood cancer in their life currently or in their past or if it is just that they have a heart for people that are. I will say that all research that goes into blood cancer, it is so elemental that it has an outside influence on other cancers. Things you learn at the blood level tend to help all over throughout the body and other forms of cancer, so you are helping all over when you help LLS.
On top of having the walk here, we have all these people that have just finished a walk and are in a great mood and here we have all these musicians and all these performers, so why not have a Light the Night late night concert. We had Light the Night walk, so now let’s have Light the Late Night. A bunch of my friends from the show were kind enough to come together at 3rd and Lindsley and just throw down and have a party there after the walk last year, and we are going to do the same thing this year. Tickets are already flying out the door and we can’t wait to pack that place with people that deserve a great night and people that are celebrating and people that are supporting and people who are just flat out fans of Nashville that have come to find out how they can help a great cause. When I think all that came from the show as well. It is just another one of those great things.
You released a new single this summer called “Hot One”. Any definite plans or time frame for putting together a full length record or are you just going to let it happen organically?
Well I have been letting it happen organically for too long. Sometimes for me letting it happen organically means I am not going to do it. You know what I mean. Sometimes I have to be more proactive. I notice when I am surrounded by other people’s deadlines I get more done. Having said that I am not about to give you a date right now although I probably should if I had any guts that would force me to do it. I will say this if I get through this season without an album it will shock me or maybe even somewhere in this season or right when we finish up its got to be coming out almost immediately.
I have had a blast these last couple of summers touring. I don’t want to be the guy touring without music people can find anymore. I want them to have a little time with those songs. If they come to love them and that’s why they want to come to the show then yes by all means please, please. Yes that is what I want to do.
Can fans expect to see you out on the road live much in the near future?
Yes. I have already done that. Clare Bowen and I have gone on the road together some, because it is just a great package. She is a great performer and we get along great, and I have also done a bunch on my own already. Just yesterday, Jonathan Jackson and I were up in New York City where we got to play at this incredible event at the Towers Run. It raises awareness about all the fire fighters and first responders that lost their lives there on 9/11 and we wanted to do something for the families. We got to go there and play that there at Ground Zero. Jonathan played a set and then I played a set. That’s been one of the most meaningful places I have ever played. It was just another great life experience that I chalk up to my Job from my friend Callie Khouri, and to all the people that make it happen for us. Steve Buchanan one of the exec producers here and my friend Deacon Claybourne.
If there was one thing about you as an artist or an actor that people haven’t discovered yet what would that be?
I am pretty exposed. I don’t tend to hide a lot in performances; I am a bit of a show off from way back, from the time when I was a kid. When I am on stage and I am playing, there is nothing I love more than getting that connection with that audience. Chip tends to pull out all the stops I just want to advance. For the most part I would say, actually ironically, my music is the thing that most people don’t’ know about me. They know this song here or that song there, but people that come out to my shows or are on social media tend to know those songs that are not even released but you can find on YouTube, but even those aren’t the best version of my songs. So this album when it does come out will be a whole big part of me that hasn’t seen the light of day. Your songs are almost like your children in the sense that you just want them to get a chance to go out into the world and do what they can do. This will be that.
Everything I have seen you do I have seen you throw yourself into. Even before I met you personally, even watching from a distance, you can tell you lay it out on the line and you go for it. You don’t play it safe.
I appreciate that. That comes out of two things, #1 I am sort of joking but sort of telling the truth when I say I show off and the other is I just love that connection, to get them going you know what I mean? Finally the one thing that is the most responsible for it is I don’t take any of it for granted I don’t take a single performance on a single stage for granted. Especially now. I know how special this is, where I am. I am in the promised land right now in terms of the show I get to play in and the things I get to do. I don’t know how long this show will go, I hope we get many, many seasons but I am not going to act like we are. You make hay while the sun shines. I remember when I got to play Buddy Holly it was a thrill every single time and every single performance and I made a promise to myself that I would suck the marrow out of that job and I wouldn’t leave anything undone. I was going to get everything I could out of it. I think that is specifically how I look at this. I am notorious for saying yes I will be a part of that. I fear sometimes people will be sick of seeing me at the next event they go to in Nashville, but I don’t’ have the heart and I don’t have the will to say no. If I can go along and play with a band that’s good, then yes I will be there.