Nathan goes to Nashville review: the only country singer who doesn’t suffer for his art

A city of constant professionalism, Nashville should suit the Irish country music star just fine

‘A surface politeness so unyielding it would send chills down a maître d’s spine’: Nashville, and Nathan Carter

‘A surface politeness so unyielding it would send chills down a maître d’s spine’: Nashville, and Nathan Carter

 

Nathan Carter, an immaculately presented, honey-voiced model of country music wholesomeness and unfailing humility, has long dreamed of visiting Nashville, Tennessee. In Nathan goes to Nashville (RTE One, Tues, 9.35pm) you can see why. A city of consummate professionalism, ingrained self-reverence and a surface politeness so unyielding it would send chills down a maître d’s spine, Music City should suit him just fine.

Invited along on his mecca, any viewers expecting dramatic friction during the voyage, an iota of tension, or even the merest acknowledgment of a seamy underbelly to the place, a tang of desperation, or at least corporate underpinnings, would do better to switch to the gritty realism of the Disney Channel.

Carter has come to pay his respects to Nashville, learned at the knee of his grandfather in Liverpool, and that is precisely what Nashville expects. “Nothing changes,” his gramps says of country music sentimentality. “Hearts get broken, tears get shed.” Then he hints that he’d quite like to come along. No chance, pops! In country music, grandpas are for honouring and sometimes quoting, never for hauling along.

Besides, Carter is mostly a tourist here and the programme is mostly a travel show. In Nashville, guitars seem to sprout up from the streets like an untameable overgrowth, while music stars abound in their natural habitat, waiting to be venerated.

Carter politely interviews country star Crystal Gayle, and later eats some immensely spicy chicken wings. “I know what I’ll be singing tomorrow,” he winces. “Ring of Fire, all the way.” Okay, it’s not exactly Wildean, but it’s a rare glimpse of a less varnished personality. When one firebrand radio DJ asks him for an opinion on the sitting US President, Carter is gutlessly diplomatic. “Whatever you like yourself,” he says. He adds a flavourless professional credo: “Stay away from football, politics and religion.” In country music, that really doesn’t leave much to sing about.

Nevertheless, we see Carter perform at the famous Bluebird Café, again in the famous Gruhn guitar shop, alone in Johnny Cash’s famous log cabin, and finally recording some songs with famous Nashville session musicians. But the visit hinges on his appearance at the Ryman Auditorium, invariably described as a hallowed space, which a nervous Carter considers a huge honour.

It’s intriguing, then, that we see so little of it: just a Ryman-sanctioned video-clip of Carter lending harmony to Larry Gatlin on Gatlin’s downbeat classic, All the Gold in California. Carter hardly seems put out – in deference to Music City, he’s happy to pay his dues. Yet his cheeriness seems at odds with such legends of Nashville, and far removed from the substance of the city’s more enduring hits.

To probe John Carter Cash on where his father was happiest, for instance, or the Man in Black’s affinity “for the Emerald Isle” seems to ignore all the magnificent darkness that made Cash so compelling.

Carter is interested in success, though, not suffering (a ring of fire notwithstanding). This may be why the strange pivot of his recent single seems closest to his signature: the verse is a catalogue of workaday woes, but the chorus’s antidote is: “Get up, get out, start living the dream.”

Whatever you like yourself.

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