Somehow, ABC has become the Nashville network

When it comes to sheer program quality, I put ABC and its program director, Paul Lee, at the top. Now Lee -- an Oxford man, no less -- presides over a busy stretch of country-music shows. Here's the story I sent to papers:


A funny thing has happened to ABC. At
times, it transforms into the country-music channel.

CBS – dominating small-town markets –
used to be the country place. It had Andy Griffith, “Beverly
Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” It had Charles Kuralt on the
road and Dan Rather being folksy.

And ABC? It was the first rock 'n' roll
network, Dick Clark's home base. It's had sophisticated dramas; its
leader (Paul Lee) is an Oxford guy with a Master's degree in modern

“I've loved American music, like most
of us Brits, since I was a kid,” Lee insisted. Now ABC has:

– Wednesdays: “Nashville”(10
p.m.) is off to a decent start in the ratings.

– Thursday: The Country Music
Association awards, once CBS turf, are 8-11 p.m. on Nov.1.

– Friday: “Malibu Country” debuts
at 8:31 p.m.. Reba McEntire plays the wife of a cheating country
star; with her mother and kids, she moves to California and tries to
re-start her own music career.

These interlock neatly. Kimberly
Williams-Paisley begins a multi-episode “Nashville” role on
Wednesday …the day before her husband (Brad Paisley) co-hosts the
CMA's with Carrie Underwood. McEntire performs that night … the day
before her own show debuts.

The timing seems ideal for a country
mini-surg, Lee said. “Country music's having its moment; there are
so many crossover artists.” Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum have
seen their country songs reach the No. 2 spot on Billboard's overall
chart; Swift's albums ump to No. 1 overall.

Now “Nashville”:viewers keep
comparing the lead characters (Juliette and Rayna) to Swift and
McEntire. The actresses who play them disagree:

– “She's much nicer than
(Juliette),” Hayden Panettiere said of Swift. Except for being
young and blonde, she said, they have little in common, “not even
height.” Panettiere, 23, is 5-foot-2; Swift, 22, is 5-foot-11.

– Connie Britton doesn't see Rayna as
McEntire. Still, Rayna – like the woman she played in “Friday
Night Lights” – has similar traits. “Strong Southern women are
also allowed to be soft and feminine and have a sense of humor,”
Britton said. “There's something that I really love about that.”

Rayna faces a familiar Nashville
roadblock: Older singers, especially women, disappear abruptly from
radio and the record labels.

“That is a problem,” said McEntire,
whose “Malibu Country” character also faces age bias. “It is
hard to stay on the radio. There are so many very talented, youthful
people coming up.”

One exception to the youth obsession is
McEntire, still strong at 57. On country charts, she had a No. 1
album in 2009 and a top-30 single in 2010 – 30 years after her
first top-10 single.

“How we do it is to keep as active as
we can and as modern as we can,” McEntire said. “Doing the
television show helps.”

Her shows – “Reba” and “Malibu
Country” – required moving to California, facing the sort of
culture shocks that the latter show is all about.

One night, McEntire said, her husband
Narvel Blackstock went to a school function with their son. “Narvel
had a couple of bologna sandwiches and a paper sack and went to the
country-club-looking school campus. And here comes everybody with
their ice coolers and caviar and tablecloths.”

Culture shocks work both ways; the
Boston-born Britton moved to Virginia at 7. “My mother thought that
she had gone to the middle of nowhere,” she said. “We would still
drive four hours for her to get her hair cut in Washington, D.C.”

Such shocks happen whenever regions
collide – or when a big-city network with an Oxford executive
discovers country music.


The Country Music Association awards
are back. Some details:

– When: 8-11 p.m. Thursday, ABC.

– Hosts: Carrie Underwood and Brad
Paisley; it's their fifth time.

– Ol' Willie: A Willie Nelson medley
will have Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill;
they'll also perform separately in the show. Nelson, 79, has a
“musical event” nomination for “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I
Die,” with Snoop Dogg, Kris Krstofferson and Jamey Johnson.

– Crossover appeal: Keith Urban,
Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson.

– More people performing: Kenny
Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Vince Gill, Dierks Bentley,
Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Hunter Hayes.

– More groups: Zac Brown Band, Eli
Young Band, The Band Perry, Little Big Town.

– Nomination leaders: Church has five
nods, three for “Springsteen,” which he co-wrote. Blake Shelton
and Miranda Lambert, who are husband and wife, have four each.

– Entertainer of the year nominees:
Swift and four guys – Paisley, Shelton, Chesney and Aldean.

– More nominees:

Female vocalist: Swift, Underwood,
Lambert, Clarkson, Martina McBride

Male: Shelton, Urban, Aldean, Bryan,

Group: Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band,
The Band Perry, Little Big Town, Eli Young Band.

Duo: Sugarland, Big & Rich, The
Civil War, Thompson Square, Love and Theft

New artist: Hays, Brantley Gilbert, Lee
Brice, Thompson Square, Love and Theft

Album: Lambert, Bentley, Bryan, Church,
Lady Antebellum

Single: “Springsteen,” Church; “God
Gave Me You,” Shelton; “Home,” Bentley; “Dirt Road Anthem,”
Aldean; “Pontoon,” Little Big Town.

Song (songwriters' award):
“Springsteen,” “Home” and “God Gave Me You,” plus
Lambert's “Over You”: and the Eli Young Band's “Even If It
Breaks Your Heart”

“Musical event”: “Feel Like a
Rock Star,” Chesney and McGraw; “Safe and Sound,” Swift and
Civil Wars; “Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band;
“Stuck on You,” Lional Richie and Darius Rucker.

Video: “Springsteen,” “Over You,”
“Pontoon”; plus Chesney's “Come Over,” Toby Keith's” Red
Solo Cup.”

Musician: Sam Bush, Paul Franklin, Dann
Huff, Brent Mason, Mac McAnally