Family Ties in “Nashville”

Rayna and Juliette perform together (abc.com).

Rayna and Juliette perform together (abc.com).

We can run, but some ties inevitably bind. Especially where family is concerned, those ties act like rubber bands, snapping us back to our past. Attempts to both escape and mend those familial relationships are familiar, but the first soapy season of Nashvillebrimming with glitz, glamour, and fabulous music—devoted a notable amount of time to those universal, and often thorny, issues.

Nashville showcases the country music industry, through the stories of various musical players. However, we learn a great deal about lead characters Juliette Barnes and Rayna Jaymes—including what motivates them—by delving into their family drama.

Nashville storylines could easily hew to Juliette and Rayna’s fabulous friends, fans, and careers. The show has razzle dazzle and bed-hopping aplenty. However, the writers devote significant screen time to these women’s families.

Valuing family seems like an old fashioned virtue, especially in an era when so many Americans move regularly, often living far from extended family, and traditional family structures are rapidly disappearing. In Nashville, family is always close, even if family members are physically or emotionally distant.

We are regularly reminded that forty-something country music queen Rayna Jaymes and rising star Juliette Barnes hail from incredibly different worlds, but both have troubled family relationships that dog them off-stage.

JULIETTE

Only child Juliette Barnes has tried to outrun (and disown) her family. We don’t know who her father is—or whether even she does—but we are familiar with her flawed mother, Jolene. Juliette left her humble Alabama beginnings behind after being discovered at a fair.  She’s now become successful by entertaining the tween set on-stage and brandishing a perpetual too-cool-for-school attitude off-stage. Juliette is variously attached to a series of men, but she’s never serious about anyone and typically uses these men to fill the time and a seeming emotional void. Even Sean Butler, the nice guy, Tim Tebow-like football player whom she dates and briefly marries ends up disgusted with her.

While Juliette has had a meteoric rise in country music, she believes she’s had to fight for every win; she has the mindset of a scrappy survivor, not someone who has already made it. Juliette is young, wealthy, and independent, but she rarely seems happy. Unfortunately, Juliette shares her unhappiness freely with her band, her manager, and her general entourage.

Juliette’s attitude makes more sense after her mother follows her to Nashville. Jolene’s great contribution was introducing Juliette to country music’s greats, including Rayna Jaymes, but beyond that, she’s clearly an energy drain. Over the course of the season we learn that Juliette spent her childhood parenting her mother, who raised her in a dirt-filled home and spent money intended for Juliette’s birthday party on her own addiction.

Jolene’s arrival heralds a heap of problems. Juliette initially sends her away, but then takes care of Jolene, as she tries to conquer her addiction. Jolene moves in, and then tours, with Juliette and sober companion Dante. Being physically close to her newly sober mother offers Juliette a new chance at a relationship, but it’s somewhat tortured. Mother and daughter compete for Dante’s affections, prompting a withering comment from Juliette about that not being a first.

When Jolene dies of a drug overdose, Juliette is bereft, now completely alone in the world. As the daughter of an addict, she tells Rayna that she always knew this day would come, but the reality of it still shocks. Only after Juliette receives a letter her mother mailed before overdosing does Juliette learn that Jolene killed sober-companion-turned-blackmailer Dante to protect Juliette, a (twisted) final maternal act.

RAYNA

Rayna can relate to Juliette, having lost her own mother at 16. Rayna’s mother—a musically inclined free spirit—would have understood her. Instead, Rayna has had a frosty relationship with her power broker father, Lamar Wyatt, never realizing he saw his wife in her. She knows he disapproves of her remaining emotionally close to her longtime guitar player, recovering alcoholic Deacon Claybourne, who unknowingly fathered Rayna’s daughter, Maddie, just before she married Teddy Conrad.

Rayna’s sister Tandy plays the glue, linking Rayna and Lamar. It is Tandy who tells Rayna that their mother was unfaithful. And when Lamar pitches a fit in the hospital post-heart attack, because he’s seen Rayna’s producer, Watty White, Tandy explains: Watty was the other man.

Rayna and Tandy have a close, but not entirely honest relationship. When Lamar backs Teddy for mayor, Tandy pushes Rayna to be supportive, while withholding pertinent, damaging information about Teddy. Rayna seemingly shares more completely with Tandy, who knows about Maddie’s paternity, as well as Rayna’s recent dalliances. We, the audience, know little about Tandy, but we like her because Rayna does.

Rayna and Juliette live in an undoubtedly glamorous world, regularly rocked by scandal in familiar soap opera fashion. But the more we know about their families, the more human they seem. They may hire people to coif their hair and manage their superstardom, but they spend much of their own time managing often fraught family relationships.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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