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Charles Esten On His Love of Music, ‘Nashville’ And Coming Full Circle – Interview

C2C Charles Esten

We were lucky enough to be front and centre during the press conferences at the recent C2C Festival in London. Charles Esten (AKA Deacon Claybourne in ABC’s Nashville) stopped by to talk to the media about music being his first love, writing with Deana Carter, playing Deacon, his respect for Connie Britton and the writers and actors on the show, playing Buddy Holly in the West End, his work on Whose Line Is It Anyway, UK audiences, playing the Opry and staying humble. You can read what went down below.

RW Publicity: First of all, I just wanna make quite sure I know who I’m sitting next to, and that I’ve got the right name –

Charles: I’m Ashley Monroe. (laughter)

RW Publicity: Some people think you’re Deacon, and some people think you’re Charles, and a lot of people who seem to know you very well are calling you “Chip” I’ve noticed.

Charles: There might even be some here who know me as Buddy. (laughter) Buddy Holly.

RW Publicity: So can you tell us who you really are please?

Charles: Uh, what day is it? (laughter) No, I’m Charles Esten but everybody that I know calls me Chip. Usually it’s written as Charles on documents, things like that, but everybody that knows me calls me Chip, and has since I was little.

RW Publicity: How did you feel about [the CMA Songwriters Series]?

Charles: Well, I have to tell you that a whole lot of my career has involved getting thrown into the deep end, into things that are sort of above my head and above my pay grade, and just trying to do my very best at it. I know that was true when I played Buddy here, when I did Whose Line Is It Anyway I felt that same way. I felt that way again last night, that as a group of songwriters and performers, it just doesn’t get any better than those people. So to be on stage with them and to be a part of that night, you’re right it was a special night. It was pretty magical, and we all felt the same way. What they said was true. That audience was unbelievable, they weren’t just there and attentive and listening, but you could tell they were knowledgeable, they were passionate, and it was like a dance – they were there for every step of it. They lifted us.

RW Publicity: So you asked them a question, which caused an extraordinary reaction. You asked the question if some of the Nashville people came to the UK? And then what did you say?

Charles: Well they seemed to be for it. So because of that I said “Hey, what if we came in June, how would that be for you?” Like setting up a lunch appointment or something like that! But they were for that as well, so on the moment, on stage, I’ve organised a Nashville tour to come here in June.

RW Publicity: Just quickly tell me who’s coming, apart from your good self?

Charles: It’s gonna be myself, it’s gonna be Chris Carmack, Sam Palladio, and Clare Bowen. Let me just say I was of course joking – this tour has been put together for a while by Steve Buchanan and the people at Gaylord and the people around our show. I was the one that went to Steve, because I’m such a sucker for free applause, I said “Can I please announce that from the stage?” And they were kind enough, I think they moved it up where I could, and I’ll probably do that same trick again tonight inside the arena. But I can’t even begin to tell you, for someone who started off his career here in London playing Buddy, to get to come back all these years later in this other amazing role, it’s the joy of a lifetime. So I was as thrilled as anybody in that room when I got to announce it.

RW Publicity: What will you be performing? Are there gonna be songs from the show or will we get what we got last night which was real songs of yours?

Charles: Well we get both, is the great thing. With social media and just the way the world is now, more than ever you’re not just the character on the show. I certainly am Deacon to so many people and these friends of mine are also their characters, but there’s something about social media that lets people go that next level, so they’re able to hear our music and talk to us. I think Steve and the other people that organised this agree that it’s nice to not only have the songs from the show but to get to know us a little bit. A lot of that came across in our special we just did, regarding last year’s tour. So we’re gonna be both. Tonight I imagine I’m gonna be playing one original, one from the show, and one cover. And that’s how I like to roll.

For The Country Record: Since the debut of Nashville you’ve been very popular with the ladies. How does your wife feel about that? (laughter)

Charles: First of all, it has everything to do with the relationship you have. My wife and I have been married for 24 years, we’re coming up on 25. On January 25th we realised we’ve been together for 30 years. So there’s a whole lot of building of a foundation, and more than any of that – you’re right about Nashville had a lot to do with that. There was no sex symbol attached to when I was on Whose Line Is It Anyway! (laughs) Or even in Buddy. There’s something about playing a role like that, that accrues to you. I’ve been walking about this planet a long time and there’s something about playing Deacon that changes perceptions. So I totally get that. She totally gets that. She’s the one who thought I was hot a long, long time ago, when I can assure you I was not on any level! She enjoys it because it’s a level of people enjoying the show, and dialling into the characters. She’s been there for the good, the bad and the ugly of my career and I think that’s probably the best thing for me. Today we left our hotel and we walked over to the Victoria Palace Theatre where I played Buddy for almost two years, and then walked over to the apartment we had in Paddington, just to have that shared experience instead of being here by myself. Like “Remember that? Remember that too?” That’s the best, and she has a good time with it. My kids think it’s weird! But she loves it.

Think Country: You’ve spent such a long time with acting being your main career. How does it feel now to be singing your songs, to be playing yourself rather than playing a character all the time, and you’re singing Charles Esten songs?

Charles: That’s probably the main story of all of this, for me and for my life, is that music was my first love, and in college that’s what I did. What I got good at was standing on stage playing guitar, with a band behind me. When it came time to graduate it was gonna be music or acting, and number one – I knew that I had my girlfriend then, who became my wife, that the road is brutal for those new relationships. I thought if I settled down and acted in a town, we can make a life. And also you can play music while you act with other people. It’s hard to act while you’re playing music cause you can’t act on your own. So I haven’t stopped writing, I haven’t stopped making music, but I did step away from the performing. Now Buddy as I said was the first real job I ever had, and the role of Buddy – I was doing what I knew, which was playing music, while I was supporting what I was learning, which was acting. That was like my acting school, getting to be on stage every night, and learning the intricacies and the ins and outs of bringing across a role. After that I went into Whose Line Is It Anyway – something I got while I was here as well. And for that I got to do some music, but that involved making up songs in 15 seconds off the ridiculous titles that came from Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie. And then for a long time it went away, and I never stopped playing, I never stopped loving music. I probably gave up on this aspect of getting to perform. I wanted to be a songwriter, I focused hard on being a songwriter in LA, even with a Nashville friends. Once or twice I was set to go perform at the Bluebird with her, both times I had to cancel because I got acting work, and I literally said to my wife, “When am I ever gonna get to go to Nashville?” It wasn’t much longer after that I got this script, this script opened up every door. I mean, this opened the doors to the Grand Ole Opry, to the Ryman, and to the O2 Arena for me. So to get to come back, and to do this? All I know now is that it’s a first love that I’ve been reunited with, and I don’t plan on saying goodbye to again. Whatever I do, it’s gonna involve music in the future.

2Country Radio: The show Nashville has superfans – they’re crazy about the show. But it’s also bringing new people into country music that are seeing country as cool all of a sudden. How does it feel to know you’re bringing a whole new audience into the genre?

Charles: That’s really thrilling because you don’t know the ripple effects. If you think about, you honestly can’t know. I felt the same way about Buddy. Buddy was the kind of show that it was a lot of people’s first theatre experience. A lot of kids. And if they went and there was dancing in the aisles – not only did they learn about Buddy and maybe become a Buddy fan and put on some old classic rock ‘n’ roll, but they wanted to go to the theatre again. I’ve heard over the years the same thing about improv – a lot of people got their first taste of improv with Whose Line and so they’ve told me that that’s what started them in it and that’s what got them into acting. To think that I would be part of a show that could draw anybody into country music, which I love so much, I have such a heart for the way it tells stories, I think so much of that goes back to Callie Khouri, our creator. And to the writers, that have set up these situations and these characters, and of course the songwriters. The songwriters in Nashville aren’t just – it’s not just some group we have in a room writing songs. They are the songwriters of Nashville. You just spoke with Ashley Monroe; she’s written one of my favourite songs of all on the show, called ‘A Life That’s Good’. So when you get that kind of quality. I’m not surprised; sometimes we get preconceived notions about different things, whether it’s country or anything you don’t know, you look at it from the outside and maybe don’t understand it. So if it helps that there’s a little window into it, you can get a more personal version in, I’m all for that. I love that.

Entertainment Focus: Is it frustrating that every year ABC leave the renewal of Nashville to the very last minute?

Charles: Well you know, we love drama on our show. (laughter) So I think they know how much we love the drama. None of this is guaranteed to me at all, and I don’t ever think of it that way. Every single bit of this is a gift that I get to be a part of it. I don’t plan on it ending tomorrow, but if it did I could look back and say I did everything I could to get the most out of it and to do everything I could with it. I think and hope it’s gonna keep going, but no that doesn’t bother me at all. That’s the life that we’ve chosen. There’s a lot more security in other jobs; I didn’t choose those jobs.

Danse Floor Magazine: You wrote a song with Deana Carter, ‘I Know How To Love You Now’. Did you know Deana before, or you just met her for the song?

Charles: Well, I had bumped into Deana on a couple flights out of Nashville to Los Angeles. She does the same thing – she lives in Los Angeles, and goes back and forth – and when I first saw her she knew me because she has children, and I am the dad on Jessie. The Disney channel show Jessie, I play the father, so that’s how she knew me. I knew her because she was Deana Carter, and I was a fan of Strawberry Wine and so many other great songs. There’s a thing you do in Nashville when you’re a writer and you bump into somebody, most people just say “We have to get lunch or get coffee,” we say “We have to write!” That’s what we say. And we mean it! And sometimes it takes a while for it to happen. When that finally happened, it was pretty unbelievable. First of all she is so great as a songwriter and performer, but she came with something on her mind and on her heart unrelated to the show at all. I don’t sit there trying to write songs for the show. When you’re in the writer’s room you just write what you’re thinking of, what moves you. And we ended up writing this song that somehow fit perfectly for the situation, so much so that Callie Khouri asked if she could use the title in Deacon’s proposal. I told her I’d written a song called ‘I Know How To Love You Now’. And she said “Oh, can I use that?” And I said “What, the song?” And she said “No, the title!” And I was like “Uh… yeah.” So Deacon says those words to Rayna when he’s telling her – “I made a thousand mistakes. I know how to love you now.” And then that was at the end of the second season, the beginning of the third season they came to me and they said, “Now would you sing that song.” That was a bucket list moment, getting to sing a song I wrote with Deana Carter live on the show that I love so much.

RW Publicity: Is it true you were a Klingon in Star Trek?

Charles: That is absolutely true. I spent six hours in make-up and 30 seconds on screen. I could do my line for you, I think my line was “Noomcha Meblimerah.” (laughter) As you’ve said, music’s your first love, so with Nashville it seems to have opened a lot of bucket list moments. What would you say has been your highlight so far?

Charles: The highlights of this job are very difficult, because there’s just been so many. I’d have to say last night – honestly, was a highlight. Those are songwriting heroes of mine, and then Miranda Lambert comes out on stage as well. Tonight, this will be a highlight of mine. There’s been some others, I’ll just lay them out. Certainly the first time to step into the circle at the Grand Ole Opry. The first time to be on stage at the Ryman. Performing on New Year’s Eve in Nashville – 135,000 people were downtown on Broadway, and my buddy Butch Spyridon put me up there with my friend Colin Linden, who’s gonna be there tonight, and my buddy Steve Mandell. Another one is I got to turn on the lights at Graceland at Christmastime. Ceremonially, it was just a big candy cane that I went like that (gestures), I’m not sure it was actually electronically connected to the lights! Ceremonially I got to do that across the street and sing some Elvis songs, and I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that, so. I’m forgetting so many, but those are some that come to mind.

RW Publicity: Just to clarify, tonight it’s gonna be you with Colin Linden, the guitarist? He was in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’

Charles: Absolutely. I met him through T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone Burnett brought Colin on board. Colin Linden – let me be very specific about this. When you see Deacon singing, that is me singing. But when you hear Deacon playing guitar, that is Colin Linden’s studio guitar work. Colin Linden then takes me aside – first of all I’m there while he does it – he then takes me aside and we go through it some more and he teaches these sausages how to get as close to what he played as possible. And on the day I’m actually playing it. If we turned the track down, we have an amp there, you would hear me playing it. But I have no chance of getting to the skill, subtlety, technique that he has, so we like to say, Colin and I, that Deacon’s such a badass it takes two of us to play him! (laughs) Colin’s here and he will be on stage with me, because I’m not stupid. (laughs)

For The Country Record: Can you talk about the relationships you have with some of the other actors, especially Connie Britton?

Charles: Well, starting out with Connie, I have to say like everybody else – I was a fan. I was a huge fan of Friday Night Lights, my wife and I had watched it, had binge-watched it. And I used to drive her nuts, I would hit pause and say “Why can’t I just have some scenes with that? With that kind of real acting, and that kind of writing.” So when I finally got to meet her, I was shameless, I said, “There’s a million reasons I am excited to do this show and you are a couple hundred of ‘em.” It’s never ceased to be true. She’s so gifted, she’s intelligent, she’s hilarious, and the biggest thing I can say besides just being a friend is – she has a real truthometer. I’ll make up a word there. And it’s sort of a thing that rings true or false in her – she can’t… false moments, they don’t come out of her. They just don’t. So when you’re acting with her, and you start to find yourself getting a little bit big or a little bit dramatic… you start to act, it feels phony across from truth. So it sort of makes you go to that more truthful place. One time I was in a scene, and it was a difficult scene, and I was doing pretty well at it I thought but I wanted that next thing, so I said to her “Gimme something, come on just gimme something.” She said “Just talk to me.” And I was like “Aw, damnit!” That’s so perfect, that’s so obvious, but it’s just who she is. And I did that take and I just talked to her. It always makes it better. I had no idea if there would be any chemistry, believe me going I was nervous. Because she was Mrs. Coach. And what she and Kyle Chandler set down, to me that’s still one of the best portrayals of a marriage I’ve ever seen in TV or movies. Just authentic, the way they fight but don’t break-up, sort of bang on each other but love. I was also lucky there that I also knew I wasn’t playing her husband. Eric Close, who has been a friend of mine for over 25 years, he was playing her husband, I was the other guy, so it took two of us to really replace Kyle. The first time when we were in Nashville, he would introduce me to somebody and he goes, “This is Chip, he plays my wife’s boyfriend.” (laughs) I guess that’s true. By the way – the amount of talent in the other actors on our show, that they all sing and perform like that, and more than anything that they’re so kind. We get along in a way that would sicken most of you. So it’s a lot of fun.

Sounds Like Nashville: I’ve covered festivals all over the US, but it’s amazing to come here and see this. Can you talk about what the popularity of country music here means for the city of Nashville and country as a whole?

Charles: I have to say I’m not surprised. I’ve been blessed by British audiences before, whether it was in Buddy or Whose Line, and I know they’re as enthusiastic as they are intelligent. Last night’s audience was country smart. It wasn’t just a bunch of people who came along. They knew what they were there to see, they knew the players. The other thing I will say about British audiences is that sometimes the things that are more American, more Heartland – and Buddy himself, I have to say the response to Buddy Holly historically in London, even when he came here, was greater than in many places in the United States. You have excellent taste in music here. And they just got Buddy, and then they got Buddy the show itself. There’s still passionate Buddy fans here, more percentage per capita I would say here than back in the States. It exists there, but per capita, more here. And I think there’s something true of all country music here and even some of the older stuff as well. People in this room tonight, in this arena, they didn’t just come along. They have a hunger and a desire and a passion for something that they’re getting right now somewhere else. So when it comes here you can feel that excitement and I think it’s exciting to everybody I’ve met here.

2Country Radio: What’s it like as an artist when you step into that [Opry] circle for the very first time?

Charles: Early in my career I had a moment where – really the first acting job I ever had was strangely on the last season of Cheers. I’m maybe dating myself a little bit! When I was in Cheers, my role in that was to walk through that door, the Cheers door. So I got to see the bar, the Cheers bar that I have watched for so long, from the back side of it. It was like through the looking glass, literally like Alice, coming in the other side and seeing that bar. And I had to just calm myself in that moment, because you wanna be present when you’re an actor or any performer, you wanna be there. But there’s a part of yourself you have to go “Shh, don’t think about that, be there in the character.” It was like that with that Opry stage, and even more so, because none of it’s lost on me. That circle, I know the wood in that circle that they literally cut out of the stage in the Ryman and brought to the new Opry House in the 70s. I know the people that have stood on those boards, and I know the songs they sang. So I knew why I was there. I still have no illusions – I was there because I played Deacon Claybourne. And that was my side-door in. In that position, all I can do is all I can do. Just try to do my very very best. I have to sort of let some things go in a way, but to be right there in that circle, I had to just let it go, do my best. I said “I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to do something like this.” That’s the singular highlight, and always will be. Every time you step in it. You can talk to the biggest country star there is, and nobody just walks over there and says “Hey, good to be back.” Everybody feels what that means. That’s still the stuff of dreams, even though it’s real.

About Vickye

I run this joint. Country music blogger extraordinaire, fangirl, coffee drinker, Twitterer, bunny lover and rather too opinionated for her own good. Feminist and equal rights advocate. Has a laugh that you can hear for miles.
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