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    Charles Esten takes on the real Nashville

    Charles Esten as Deacon Claybourne in “Nashville.”
    Charles Esten as Deacon Claybourne in “Nashville.”

    NASHVILLE — Charles Esten cannot stop fidgeting.

    An hour ago, the actor who plays Deacon Claybourne on ABC’s “Nashville” — he’s the smoldering singer-guitarist with the tortured, torrid past with country queen Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) — was just another patron at the 3rd and Lindsley nightclub, enjoying a beer, some grub, and the first set by the virtuosic Time Jumpers.

    This jaw-dropping collective of Grammy-nominated Nashville music veterans — including superstar singer-guitarist Vince Gill in low-profile mode — has convened every Monday night for years to play some of the best country music you’ve ever heard. Recently, while the Globe was in town, we asked Esten to the Time Jumpers show to talk about playing a musician on “Nashville” while simultaneously enjoying the nightlife of the country music mecca as a fan and exploring songwriting and recording himself.


    “There are three things going on in any given day,” says Esten as he settles into his seat at the side of the stage. “Either I’m working on the show or I’m able to go home” to see his wife and children in Los Angeles. “And if it’s not one of those two things, I’ve been trying to schedule a writing session.”

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    The actor has been collaborating with some major songwriting names in country music, including Victoria Shaw (who has written for Garth Brooks), Trevor Rosen (the Band Perry), and Jeffrey Steele (Rascal Flatts). It was a performance by Steele in particular six years ago that inspired Esten to seriously pursue his songwriting.

    “I’ve always wanted to be on a great TV show,” says Esten. “But if one of my songs went out into the world and was enjoyed by people, and it came on the radio, I’d have to pull my car over and hyperventilate a bit. So it occurred to me if that [was the dream], I wasn’t really acting as if it was. So I realized I needed to focus more and become more professional about it.”

    He then fortuitously landed “Nashville,” which led him to write with Steele. “It’s all come full circle,” he says, admitting it’s a fantasy to land a cut on a major artist’s album. “Nashville” returns with new episodes next Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Channel 5

    This immersion in music is a bit of life imitating art imitating life for the 47-year-old Pennsylvania native.


    Esten began his career portraying Buddy Holly in London’s West End and has played guitar and sung since he was a teen. While music has played a part in some of his roles — most memorably during his stint as “Chip” Esten on the improv comedy series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — as he flitted between the big (“The Postman,” “Swing Vote”) and small screens (“The Office,” “Big Love”) Esten has mostly played it non-musical.

    As a lifelong fan of artists like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and newer discoveries like show consultant Buddy Miller, Esten is loving the convergence of his worlds, thanks to “Nashville” and the proximity it’s afforded him to seeing shows in town, and performing on such venerable stages as the Ryman Auditorium.

    As the band tunes up, Esten recalls his first reaction to seeing the Time Jumpers: “I didn’t know that instrument could do that.” This is his fourth trip to check them out, and many in the packed house are happy to be checking out the actor as well.

    Much more cheerful than his oft-brooding character Claybourne, Esten laughs often, is prone to self-deprecating humor, and graciously greets and takes pictures with fans and chats with band members who stop by the table. Steel guitar player extraordinaire Paul Franklin stops by to praise his band mate Gill’s recent appearance as himself on “Nashville.” “He was so believable,” quips Franklin. “Complete diva, though, on the set with his demands,” replies Esten without missing a beat. “There was a makeup staff. It was more like a pit crew.”

    Soon enough, Gill stops over, calling Esten “my thespian brother.” A big fan of the show, Gill is one of several musicians — including Chris Young, Pam Tillis, and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys — who has made a credibility-lending cameo.


    “That’s been one of the cooler things for all of us,” says Esten of the positive feedback from the music community. “Number one they watch, and number two, and more importantly, they like,” he says with a laugh.

    Sarah Rodman/Globe Staff
    Charles Esten (center) joined Vince Gill (right) and the Time Jumpers for one of their weekly performances at the 3rd and Lindsley nightclub in Nashville.

    During intermission, Esten chats with more fans and fields a few more questions. When asked about the “Whose Line” reboot coming to the CW he says, “They haven’t asked and I don’t even know if I can. But would I like to work with those guys? Always.” Of whether he’s heard yet if “Nashville” is getting picked up for a second season, he replies with a smile, “Everybody asks. I feel like it’s like asking ‘When is he going to ask you to marry him?’ ” He answers in a goofy voice as the hypothetical bride. “I don’t know, but he seems to like me, though.”

    Near the end of intermission, however, Time Jumpers fiddler Kenny Sears comes over to ask Esten if he’d like to join the band for a number during the second set. After some (admittedly heavy-handed) prodding from the reporter at the table, Esten agrees to sit in. And that’s when the fidgeting begins.

    “I can’t believe I’m doing this in front of the press,” Esten moans aloud with what sounds like genuine worry at one point, checking and rechecking song lyrics on his phone.

    And then, as if on cue to make him even more nervous, Gill performs perhaps the most beautiful song of the night, a wrenching ballad that makes use of both his celestial warble and his mighty guitar skills.

    Mercifully, the band launches into a jaunty instrumental after that tour de force. When we lean over and try to reassure Esten that the band is doing him a favor by putting space between him and Gill’s performance, he deadpans, “They’re only doing me a favor if this is the last song.”

    Of course, Esten had no need to worry.

    When Sears does call him up to the stage he steps to the microphone and executes a flawless cover of the Hank Williams classic “Lovesick Blues,” hitting each yodel, quake, and croon like the professional he is, and adding some pathos for good measure. Five seconds into it, the entire band is grinning from ear to ear that the Hollywood kid has got bona fides. The audience is hooting and hollering. And Esten is visibly relaxing. He’s the real deal.

    Afterward, he returns to the table and takes a swig of his beer with satisfaction. Life is good.

    “I’m so out in front of what I dreamed right now that it’s sort of ridiculous for me to continue planning.”

    Sarah Rodman can be reached at
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