Interview: As ‘Nashville’ Winds Down, Charles Esten Reflects on Playing Deacon Claybourne
For six seasons, Charles Esten has portrayed Music City's most tortured heartthrob. In his role as Deacon Claybourne on CMT’s (formerly ABC's) Nashville, the artist and actor has seen the character through his share of ups and downs. Throughout the series, Deacon has battled alcoholism, devastating losses and the ever-churning change of the music industry; as the show heads into its final episodes, though, he's a character who has — mostly — come full circle.
Ahead of the mid-season premiere for Nashville's final season (June 7 at 9PM ET), The Boot sat down with Esten to talk about Deacon's evolution, and what it’s like for a musician to play another musician. There’s also plenty of inside intel on what it’s like to work with megastar Connie Britton, and what fans can expect in the future as the music of Deacon Claybourne transitions into the unique sound of Charles Esten.
How do you see Deacon’s evolution throughout the show?
That’s the nature of learning and growing: You take three steps forward, one step back. Sometimes it’s one step forward, three steps back. When we started out, that was Deacon. Then, eventually, the ratio changed: He started taking one step forward, one step back. Now we’re out on that positive area, where he maybe takes one forward by itself. That’s a natural progression if you’re looking to learn anything in this world, and he’s learned so much over the course of these six seasons.
Deacon learned so much from Rayna [Jaymes, played by Britton], so much from his work with Alcoholics Anonymous, his niece Scarlett [O'Connor, played by Clare Bowen]. When he had another shot at being with Rayna again, he tried to up his game and be a better man. And the time he found out that he was a father -- that’s a fairly realistic portrayal as a man’s maturation, I think. It’s the first thing you want to grow up for; you find a woman that wants to make you a better man. Then you think, "Oh my God, I’m going to have children. I really have to buckle down." It’s okay to be the guy who drinks a little too much and gets into fist fights when you’re younger, but you have to grow out of it.
As a musician, what has been the best part about playing this character, who is so revered as a musician by his contemporaries?
The first time I shot a scene at the Bluebird [Cafe], I was sitting with these incredible players around me: I’ve got Gary Nicholson around me, Pam Tillis is singing harmonies on this song, and I am holding a pre-war Martin [guitar] in my hand, playing this gorgeous instrument. I’m in this hallowed institution, the Bluebird; at the back of the room is the lovely Hayden Panettiere [who plays Juliette Barnes], who has tears slowly rolling down her face at the ineffable beauty of what I’m playing, and I think to myself “This is going to be a good job.”
It came from the very beginning; as soon as I heard the name Deacon Claybourne, I wanted to play that guy. As soon as I read the script [and saw] that Callie [Khouri, creator of Nashville] was creating a guy who was flawed but trying hard and loving -- a guy that didn’t want to tell you too much, but you put him behind a guitar, and he’ll tell you anything.
Honestly, I love everything down to the wardrobe. It’s comfortable as hell to wear those flannel shirts every day. Deacon’s had the same pair of boots for six years; they’ve resoled them once or twice.
What about the show’s music? How does it feel to hear your own songs on TV and play songs written by some of the best in the business?
I get to sing songs written by the greatest songwriters in this town [and] got a few of my own on this show. Truth be told, that’s part of it, too. I always just say it’s like the song: Life is good at the end of the day; I did all that I could.
I want to look back and say that I did all I could. I feel like I can do that. I’m not a young man; I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been doing jobs like this for a long time.
Now that the show is over, what’s next for your own music?
The short version is that, it will continue the same. I’ll be able to focus even more on it. A lot of songwriting in this town, the appointments are made far in advance. I couldn’t write because of the show!
I’m going to get to double down on the music for a while, while I’m waiting on the next acting job to come around. It could be a long while before that happens; there’s no knowing. It depends on the role. It has to be something that inspires me, so I’m going to dig in, write as much as I can, start touring more.
I don’t have a time frame in mind for recording or releasing new music. I’m trying to run through the finish line as strongly as I can for the show. I’ll have a lot of time after hat.
Did you ever worry about the character taking over your own music?
I don’t worry in general; people are going to do what people do. Believe me, there’s overlap between the two of us: He — I say that like Deacon is a real guy — that character has influenced my music. I’m sure he has.
If you look at the 54 songs released last year, you would think, "Wow, that was really influenced by playing Deacon." Some of those darker ones -- I wrote the song “Looking For The Light” with Dennis McCoskey and Charlie Worsham. Is that me? Is that Deacon? It’s both.
If it’s new to somebody, nobody seems to react against it. I have, maybe, more worlds in me than Deacon. Deacon stays in his lane and opens up from that lane, but maybe he has a narrow path. If I’m anything, I like to spread out and go from the super-quiet song and take you to something where the full band is bringing it, E Street Band style. I like to make people feel things with the acting. I like to feel a spectrum of things: sad sometimes, lifted sometimes, laugh sometimes. That’s what you hope to do.
How has engaging with Nashville’s fanbase been? I mean, Deacon Claybourne is totally a heartthrob.
I know this was written as a bang-on leading male character, written in all the ways that would make this guy attractive. That’s cool; that’s great role to play. Ultimately, what came to me more in terms of fan reaction was, the things he’d been through and was going through on the show seemed to resonate with people. From the beginning, whether it was addiction or cancer or life issues or the difficulty of raising kids, all these different things seemed to be a touch point for different people.
I scheduled a performance called Charles Esten Sings the Songs of Deacon Claybourne; it sold out rather quickly, so we booked another, and it sold out, too. I’ve played Deacon songs as part of my shows for the last six years. I organized a Spotify playlist just so I could reacquaint myself with his body of work and dig in. It’s really nice to see this body of work of Deacon Claybourne’s music. All that music is where the rubber hits the road on those issues that Deacon’s been through. These songs, they sing that pain.
I loved being Deacon for these six years. As I was pulling this all together, it occurred to me that it’s not completely true for me, because whenever I want, I can just sit behind a guitar, and I can play those songs. For just a little bit, I can be back in his boots.
What was the most difficult part of playing this character?
Early on, I felt like I knew who this guy was. I thought there for the grace of God go I. I was able to empathize and feel those things. I’ve lived long enough and been doing it long enough. I have a Rayna in my life, but we didn’t have to spend all those years apart. You think, "Man, what would that be like?" I felt like I understood him rather quickly, even in terms of the audition. From there on out, I would think about it a lot.
A lot of the times, I would just feel it. When you see Deacon being moved, that’s me being moved by the situation and the great actors that I’ve been surrounded with. During the first season, a little after the pilot, we had a couple months off. That time off, I can remember coming back to the second season wondering, “Do I know what it’s like to be Deacon? Do I remember?” Then you walk back in the door, and you put those boots back on, and those jeans and that denim shirt, and you hold that guitar, and you sit across from Connie Britton, and you become that guy again.
What did you learn from Connie Britton in her role as Rayna Jaymes?
I learned so much. I was already a fan from watching Friday Night Lights. It was instantly obvious that she was committed to speaking the truth, and speaking truthfully, as she said it. You felt like you were talking with someone who was actually listening to you and actually responding to you. That was the answer to making any scene better.
There was almost a “BS meter” that would start to go off -- not that she would call you on anything. When you’re acting with someone who is being very truthful in the moment and you do something that’s a little heightened or “actor-y,” it feels more that way than when your scene partner is joining you in that. I liked the way she would fight against those things that seemed to not be true.
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