Here's Wednesday's featured new show

By Melissa Maerz
Updated September 07, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

New Drama

Debut Oct. 10, 10-11 p.m., ABC

Whenever Connie Britton talks about ABC’s new musical drama, Nashville, everyone asks the same question: Is her character, Rayna Jaymes, based on Reba McEntire? Or Faith Hill? Or any other star whose name comes up when you Google the words female, country, and legend?

It turns out that even the singers themselves would like to know. Not long ago, Britton was on a flight when she noticed that the most famous redhead in country music — Reba McEntire — had grabbed a seat on the same plane. ”Reba reached out and said, ‘Have you been reading that you’re playing me?”’ recalls Britton, 45, kicking up her platform heels in her trailer. ”I didn’t know if she thought that was a good thing or a bad thing!” Britton insists that it hadn’t occurred to her that Rayna might be a version of Reba. As a beloved Nashville icon who’s not filling arenas like she used to — her record label wants her to jump-start her career by opening for young country-pop starlet and resident mean girl Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) on tour — Rayna could’ve been inspired by any mid-career country star. ”But you know,” says Britton, her green eyes twinkling, ”Reba loves the idea of this show. I think all of Nashville does.”

Judging by a totally scientific study conducted by EW while sitting on the back of a pickup truck parked on set, she’s right. Rolling by in a minivan, one local woman can’t resist calling out, ”Y’all are gonna have a great show!” Nearby, Clare Bowen, 23, who plays undiscovered country wunderkind Scarlett O’Connor, smiles. ”That happens all the time.”

A country musical might’ve been a hard sell just a few years ago. But the timing for Nashville couldn’t be better. It’s hard to remember a period when television featured more country stars — Blake Shelton on The Voice, McEntire herself on ABC’s Malibu Country — or more TV musicals, thanks to shows like Glee and Smash. In fact, it was when Scotty McCreery won American Idol last year that Nashville‘s executive producer Steve Buchanan realized country was having a moment. Fortunately, he’d already pitched a drama about the country-music scene to CAA, and because he oversees the Grand Ole Opry, he felt uniquely qualified to help steer the project. The agency soon connected Buchanan with filmmaker R.J. Cutler (The September Issue), who tells EW, ”I had this notion for a couple of years that it would be great to build a television series around a city.” Cutler and Buchanan partnered with Lionsgate, and all parties thought Thelma & Louise writer Callie Khouri would be a good match for the project. She had worked at the Nashville music venue Exit/In after college, and today she’s as interested in the small clubs as the big stars. ”[The show] isn’t just the side you see on the Country Music Awards,” she explains. ”It’s the real Nashville, which is that people come there with nothing but talent, and they either break through or they don’t.”

To help tell that story, Khouri tapped her husband, Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett (the music heavyweight behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), to serve as Nashville‘s executive music producer. He’s already enlisted Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, and members of the Civil Wars to contribute original songs for the show, which features real-life performances from two up-and-coming singers you’ve never heard on country radio before: Britton and Panettiere.

Before this role came along, Panettiere wasn’t exactly what you’d call ”country.” She was born in New York and started recording pop songs in her teens for Disney (Tiger Cruise, Ice Princess) before she got her breakout role as the indestructible cheerleader on Heroes. And yet Panettiere says the seductive, ambitious up-and-comer Juliette is so much like her, thinking about it too much makes her feel like a ”head case.” ”This character embodies everything that people assume about young women — that they’re spoiled brats, that they indulge in bad behavior — and I can definitely relate to that,” says the 23-year-old. ”But before you judge any young woman, you should think about how you were when you were that age. What’s great about Juliette is, you get to see the story of why she acts that way, which makes it hard to judge her.”

Certainly, when Panettiere sings, it’s hard to tell the difference between her and her countrified alter ego. While filming a scene at McEntire’s Starstruck recording studio, the actress sounds like she could be the next Carrie Underwood, tapping her cowboy boots and singing sweetly with just a hint of twang. Charles Esten (The Office), who plays Rayna’s guitarist and ex-boyfriend Deacon, joins her for some high harmonies on a song called ”Undermine.” The title is telling: In the scene, Juliette’s drug-addict mother has just come back to ”reconnect” with her famous daughter, and Deacon’s possibly betraying Rayna by recording with the competition. As it does in most episodes, the music tells a story of its own.

Later, back in her trailer, Panettiere strums a ukulele, a birthday present from Esten. ”I’m getting more confident,” she concedes, playing a chord. ”The last time I sang in front of a real audience was at the Capitol” — she sang the national anthem for the A Capitol Fourth concert in 2007 — ”and I literally spent the whole morning on my hands and knees, hyperventilating.”

Britton was even more nervous in approaching her first performance for the show. When asked about her professional music experience, she jokes, ”I played Dolly in Hello, Dolly! when I was 16.” Along with the rest of the cast, she trained with vocal coach Valerie Morehouse, who works with contestants on American Idol. Burnett also gave her an iPod loaded up with artists he imagined Rayna might’ve grown up with, like Doc Watson, Linda Ronstadt, and Memphis Minnie. (Panettiere got one too, but it wasn’t exactly the same thing. ”I think Beyoncé was on there,” she says.) The first time Britton had to record a song, she was so self-conscious, she cleared the studio of everyone except Morehouse and the producer. But listening to those sessions now, Burnett thinks she’s a natural. ”Some voices are capable of carrying emotion and some aren’t,” he says. ”Connie’s got that innate thing. She’s a storyteller. She has the ability to tell the truth.”

”The truth” comes up a lot when you’re talking about Nashville. Everyone involved is very focused on making the fictional Nashville feel as authentic and varied as the real one. Britton’s Rayna represents the good-ol’-girl country tradition. She comes from old money — her estranged father, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), is a wealthy businessman — and long ago, she chose to marry straitlaced Teddy (Eric Close), who’s now being prepped by Lamar for a mayoral run, over the wilder Deacon, who has spent some time in rehab. But with her status waning, she’s getting sick of making safe choices. ”She has been at the forefront, and now she’s behind the eight ball,” says Britton. ”[Her story] is about changes in the music business and what it’s like to be dealing with that.”

Compared with Rayna, Panettiere’s Juliette is younger, meaner, and more Top 40-friendly — a self-made star who’s equal parts pop and country. But she wants the same critical respect that Rayna has earned, and she’ll flirt with Deacon in hopes that he’ll help her get it. The rivalry between Rayna and Juliette will prove to be professional and personal. Says Esten, 46, ”It’s a competition on two levels: for Deacon’s guitar and for his heart.” Luckily, Rayna has a secret weapon: Scarlett, an unknown singer-songwriter who might help boost her career.

The bid for authenticity on the show means that often the characters play in real Nashville venues. In the pilot, Rayna has a headlining gig at the Opry, while Scarlett performs at the vaunted Bluebird Cafe. Future episodes will feature an exact replica of the Bluebird, right down to the posters on the walls, which have been scanned and reprinted. A member of the crew who’s from Nashville tells EW, ”Being in there, it’s eerie.”

Burnett is encouraging the cast to write their own songs, too. And that shouldn’t be hard, since many of the actors are also musicians. (Britton and Panettiere have expressed interest in co-writing with help from industry professionals.) And with backers like Buchanan, there’s potential for turning this show into a brand, with Opry concerts and maybe even a national tour. It’s also easy to imagine a scenario where ABC makes a deal with iTunes to sell the songs from each episode, à la Glee. But for now, Cutler insists that the priority is storytelling. ”We’re just so focused on getting the show off the ground,” he says. ”People may be making plans, but we’re focused on making episodes.”

Besides, Britton says she doesn’t need to be a country star. She’s just happy to play one on TV. ”I had a conversation with Shawn Colvin, and she said in country music, women are only appreciated more as they get older. I’m sticking to that. I really like the idea of getting on stage and playing this powerful woman.” So that was the main appeal of this role — that and, y’know, being able to wear sequins. ”I mean, c’mon!” says Britton. ”Sequins and rhinestones? I defy any self-respecting woman to say no to that.”