Chip Esten and 'Nashville' showrunner Marshall Herskovitz share 5 things to know about the final season

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Maisy Stella, Charles Esten, Lennon Stella, and Clare Bowen in Nashville. (Photo: CMT)

First things first, fellow Nashies: Showrunner Marshall Herskovitz would like it to be known that he didn’t intend for Season 6 to be Nashville‘s final bow. “Definitely not my choice, nope,” he emphatically told Yahoo Entertainment when we caught up with him before the show’s Jan. 4 return on CMT. “I’ve come to love these characters and actors, and I’m going to be sad to leave. We’re caught up in a change of strategy on the part of the network, and that’s fine — I understand that business is business. But I feel like we’re disappointing our audience.”

Certainly, the show’s devoted fanbase has been singing the blues since CMT sprang the cancelation news on them in November. That’s why Herskovitz and his creative partner, Ed Zwick — along with Nashville creator Callie Khouri — will be doing their very best to ensure that the season’s 16-episode set list sends the series out on a high note, with satisfying resolutions to all of the characters’ individual journeys over the past six years. Yes, even the perpetually put-upon Deacon Claybourne — whose tragedy-filled life will provide him with songs for decades to come — will arrive at some kind of peace. “I’m proud of Deacon,” says the singer’s alter ego, Charles Esten, who hastens to add he doesn’t know the specifics of the series finale… yet. “He’s a full creation, not just between Callie and myself, but of so many others that have helped in a bunch of different ways in terms of writing and songwriting. I’m going to miss getting to be that guy.”

Let’s not allow this duet to become a dirge, though! Here are the five things Herskovitz and Esten are excited for fans to see in Season 6, from the introduction of some new players into the show’s already packed band of musicians to Deacon’s reintroduction to romance following the tragic death of the love of his life, Rayna Jaymes.

New to Nashville
“The only problem is mass,” Herskovitz says of the challenges presented by adding new characters to a town that’s already heavily populated. “If you have 42 minutes and a lot of characters, how the hell are you going to tell everyone’s story?” Not that that’s stopped him and Zwick from bringing new faces and personalities into the Nashville city limits. Last season, for example, they introduced label owner Brad Maitland (Jeff Nordling), gospel star-in-the-making Hallie Jordan (Rhiannon Giddens), and ex-singer Jessie Caine (Kaitlin Doubleday) into continuity. And this season, they’ve added two additional newcomers: Sean (Jake Etheridge), a PTSD-afflicted veteran, and Alannah (Rainee Lyleson), a backup singer eager to move into the spotlight.

Herskovitz had been particularly eager to bring Etheridge — no relation to Melissa Etheridge — into the fold after the singer/songwriter had previously collaborated on such Nashville tunes as “Burn to Dark” and “My Favorite Hurricane.” “When you see him, he’s fantastically handsome and the sweetest guy. We’ve used his songs for other characters, so it’s exciting that he’ll be able to use them for his own character,” Herskovitz says. Meanwhile, Lyleson is the second Aussie to join the cast, after ensemble mainstay Clare Bowen. “She’s an absolute gem,” Herskovitz raves. “Introducing two young and wonderful musical talents on the show was very exciting to us. The idea, frankly, was to propel the series into further seasons. So there’s some sadness in realizing that’s not going to happen.”

Love isn’t just a four-letter word anymore
In the immediate wake of Rayna’s tragic death last season, few wanted to see Deacon move on to new romances — least of all Esten. “That was always a concern; the pace of it is so important,” the actor says. That’s one of the reasons why the anticipated romance between Jessie and Deacon failed to launch last year. “There was clearly some spark between them, but he wasn’t ready and she had her own stuff to deal with,” Herskovitz says, alluding to Jessie’s ongoing relationship troubles with her vindictive ex. “There was a bittersweet moment at the end of last season where they said goodbye to each other. That scene has very few words in it, but originally they had a lot to say! In the editing room, we realized it was all on their faces, and so we turned a scene that had a lot of words into a scene that had very few because it was more moving that way.”

Flash forward to Season 6, and Deacon and Jessie may be getting on the same page romantically speaking, although Esten cautions that happily ever after is far from certain for these two. “Last season, they were in each other’s orbit and he helped her and then she helped him. That’s an ongoing theme of Nashville: that right person at the right moment,” he says. “When he gets reacquainted with Jessie this year, they don’t know what this is going to be, but they do know this other person is a friend, and that’s a start.”

Bowen and Sam Palladio in Nashville. (Photo: CMT)

On the other hand, Deacon’s niece, Scarlett (Bowen), isn’t currently friends or lovers with her on-again, off-again beau, Gunnar (Sam Palladio). The two seemingly split for good in the wake of her miscarriage last year. “What it came down to is that we had to make a decision about whether Gunnar and Scarlett were going to break up,” Herskovitz says. “For a lot of reasons we felt they had been in this holding pattern for too long, and we wanted to move into new territory and see what happens if they actually break up. Let me say this: When we come back, that’s still true. Beyond that, I can’t make any guarantees.”

Family man
Remember the days when Deacon was one of Nashville‘s most eligible — and unattached — single guys? Neither does he, most likely. Because even though he’s lost Rayna, he’s still devoted to their daughters, Maddie (Lennon Stella) and Daphne (Maisy Stella). “He was certainly thrown in the deep end last year,” Esten says. “That’s why he’s using every ounce of himself to try and be there for them and be strong, but he doesn’t quite know how to do this. That’s an interesting thing to explore as an actor, and I have to say that Lennon and Maisy are just so astonishing to me. We get to find some of the nuances of these relationships, and there are cycles to it; there are times when there’s sort of an equilibrium and times when there’s not.”

The girls’ career aspirations are one reason for upsetting any hard-won equilibrium. In the wake of Juliette’s song-stealing scandal from last year — a stigma that she still hasn’t managed to escape — Maddie’s star has gone supernova, putting her into the upper echelons of the music industry inhabited by such famous folks as Jonah Ford (Nic Luken), a Justin Bieber-esque pop singer. Tired of being eclipsed, Daphne embarks on coming up with her own sound. “Wait’ll you see what happens with Daphne,” Herskovitz teases. “We love those girls; it’s like the stories just come tumbling out about what to do with them. Honestly, there were times last year where we worked Lennon too hard because we love her character so much.”

Herskovitz also expresses a lot of love for Maddie’s mentor-turned-nemesis who has certainly been on an emotional roller coaster the past couple of seasons. “Juliette’s a person who is a victim of terrible trauma in her childhood, and her whole life has been a response to that,” he says. “That’s something that interests me personally, and I think it’s a big part of our society right now. We’re coming to terms with trauma in different ways.”

Tuning up
Herskovitz declines to specify a musical highlight from Season 6, although he does mention that the new trio formed by Gunnar, Avery (Jonathan Jackson), and Will (Chris Carmack) is making beautiful music together: “They’re killing themselves to do it! It’s 10 times harder to get three people together, but they’re having so much fun and we’re having so much fun.” Meanwhile, Esten happily shares a song he’s proud to have sung. “There’s a song called ‘Looking for the Light,'” he says. “I wrote it with Charlie Worsham and Dennis Matkosky. It really does tell Deacon’s past, present, and hopes for the future. Deacon’s always battled darkness from the very beginning, because he grew up in a very dark place. And they say that in this song: ‘I grew up in darkness, I’m still looking for the light.’ Later, he talks about how he ‘poured the hurt into his music and the bourbon down his throat’ and it ‘left me broken like the bottles and bended like the notes.’ That is Deacon’s story right there, as concisely as we could put it. Does he now have the strength to go on and do what Rayna would want him to do, which is to keep on looking for the light and bringing the light to his girls and his own life in whatever way that can work?”

Don’t be surprised if you hear Esten incorporating “Looking for the Light” into his own set list as he ramps up for a post-Nashville musical career. “One of the incredible things about the show is that it’s brought music back to the forefront of my life where it started. And I would say that she’s not going anywhere again! Last year, I recorded 64 singles in 54 weeks. Now that it’s coming to an end, I’ll always have those Deacon songs that I’ll play in my shows and continue to do my own music, whether it’s an album or more singles.” Or maybe even live shows? Esten says that he and his wife will be empty-nesters this coming fall when their daughter goes off to college, leaving plenty of time for hitting the road. “Maybe I’ll open for somebody or just do my own tour in theaters and honky-tonks,” he says.

Hayden Panettiere in Nashville. (Photo: CMT)

Parting is such sweet sorrow
Allow us to grieve Nashville‘s imminent departure one last time. After all, Esten says that the cast had lots of time to process those bittersweet emotions. “We were shooting an episode, I believe it might have been Episode 5,” Esten remembers about how they heard the news. “Callie pulled the troops together at the enormous complex where we shoot. She told us in the place that’s probably the best place to have the family come together to share this news: it was in the Bluebird — not the actual Bluebird, but our set. The place was packed with people as she sat there on the stage, right beside a camera, and let us know that this was going to be the last season. It was definitely emotional, for so many reasons.”

Herskovitz, obviously, had learned the news prior to the cast. “We found out a week before it was announced. We were roughly two-thirds of the way through breaking the stories for the season, so it didn’t cause too much disruption,” he says. “But it certainly told us what we had to do in the final episodes! I appreciate that we got the heads-up and could create a finale for the series that will be satisfying for the audience. It won’t be like everyone’s life story will be wrapped up in a pretty bow, but we can address the central concerns of each character and give some sense of where they might be heading — for good or ill.”

Nashville Season 6 premieres Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. on CMT.