For most fans of TV’s Nashville
, the show’s main attraction is watching its stars like Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Jonathan Jackson and Charles Esten cannonball through a plotline that twists around romance, deception, drug addiction, political intrigue and other turns. But the eyes of guitar players are glued to the gorgeous parade of six-strings that make constant cameo appearances onscreen, including many acoustic and electric instruments provided by Gibson Brands.
On a mid-December Monday, Panettiere, Jackson and guest star Brad Paisley are on stage at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, which was built as a religious tabernacle in 1892 and has since become a shrine to the creation of live music. The Nashville cast members and crew are filming a scene where Panettiere’s bad girl character Juliette Barnes is inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, using the actual Opry’s stage set, since the Opry returns to the Ryman — where it was produced from 1943 to 1974 — every December.
This is a pain-staking process that requires patience and enthusiasm from the extras, who are serving as the audience for the faux induction. Every move on stage needs to be shot several times from different angles, and the actors sometimes flub their lines. Once, Panettiere accidentally drops the f-bomb in frustration, then apologizes to the extras, explaining that in New York, where’s she from, such verbal slips have the same impact as “ifs, ands and buts.”
The scene culminates in a song performance, and Jackson’s Avery Barkley counts off the tune by strumming the day’s star guitar — a gorgeous Blue Mist finished Gibson Jeff Tweedy Signature SG with a tremolo arm that exudes a charisma all its own.
As Jackson plays, a tall guitar tech dressed in black with a stocking cap pulled tightly over his head stands offstage to the left. That’s Danny Rowe.
Although Rowe appears frequently in the show’s live performance sequences, he isn’t merely an actor playing a guitar tech. He’s also Nashville’s instrument wrangler, tasked with the job of locating the perfect guitars for each scene. And he’s developed an open channel with Gibson that has yielded some of the show’s coolest six-stringed performers.
Rowe began his career as a musician, most notably playing bass for ’80s hit-makers the Motels, who, coincidentally, were also the first band he saw in concert as a kid. As fate also had it, he was unintentionally drawn into the film and TV world in 1994, while visiting a friend who was working on the set of the Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld.
“I was standing in the background off the set when somebody pointed at me and said, ‘Hey, who’s that guy?’ They thought I had a great face to be a dead guy, so I ended up in the movie,” Rowe quips. Instead of going on to play a succession of dead guys, Rowe found his way into the production side of the business and became a props master, sourcing all kinds of objects that help make a film look believable. Today he has a long resume that includes the television shows Chuck and The Shield, and the Marvel Comics movie franchise’s Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films.
“We musicians are typically comic book fans, too, so all of that was a thrill,” Rowe says, sitting next to a double-stack of road-case-enclosed racks filled with guitars on the Ryman stage. While he doesn’t get to play his own basses — including his prized Gibson EB-0 — very often these days, a major component of his role as props master on Nashville includes selecting and handling all the musical gear that appears on the show.
“ All of the actors on the show whose characters play instruments are also musicians, so they have to learn how to play all of the songs performed on the show,” Rowe explains. “Often the songs are pre-recorded in the studio, but if you watch the show at home you can actually learn the chords to the songs because the actors are really playing along. So if a part goes long or there’s a solo somewhere, they have to be on top of it.
“My job is to match the right guitar and pedal board to the sounds being made and to the scene. So if the song was recorded with a Les Paul, an SG or an ES-335 the actor is going to have that model in his or her hands for the on-camera performance, and in some cases it’s the actual guitar that was used in the studio. And if the guitar track was cut using the front pickup, that’s where the toggle switch will be. It’s also my job to make sure that everything is properly set-up, ready-to-play and sounds good. I get the vibe right, and let the actors go to it.”
Rowe’s relationship with Gibson began when he was working on a TV show called The Wedding Band, and for Chuck, he made sure a Les Paul was in the main character’s bedroom. “There are a couple of Gibsons in the Iron Man films, too, but you have to look close,” Rowe says.
We asked for more details about the guitars on Nashville:
Are there specific Gibson instruments that have become regulars on the show?
Sam Palladio, who plays Gunnar Scott, has an LG-2. I had that guitar recreated It’s been in the Country Music Hall of Fame as a flagship for the show and now it’s on its way to Disney World. That guitar has stayed with his character and been a part of what he does. And Chip [Charles Esten] has played quite a few. His character Deacon Claybourne has an Advanced Jumbo that he plays in his living room or on his front porch. A character like his would own a whole bunch of guitars, so he’s also played L-00s, ES-125s, and an LG-2 with a pickup and a J-200. The J-200 is actually [Nashville music director] Buddy Miller’s. I think it’s a ’56 and it’s just beautiful.
When you get a list of guitars that have been used to pre-record a specific song in the studio, how do you source those instruments for the show?
I try to match the guitars. If it’s something specific to a sound, I will try to get my hands on that very instrument, but if its something close to what we have I’ll use one that’s in hand. I’ve got about 30 guitars from Gibson currently rotating through, and the reissues are helpful. In the scene we’re shooting today Jonathan is playing the SG Jeff Tweedy model. I love the color and it was time for him to have something new. The studio track was cut with a reissue, so that isn’t a far stretch from the Tweedy SG and it’s a great guitar. It also looks great on him. I also I always try to give everybody a little something in their amps if I can, but a lot of times dialog is being recorded, so we have approach that really delicately.
There is such a pool of talented people in this great city that there is no shortage of resources. A few of my baristas are great players with great collections of guitars. There are so many wonderful musicians and songwriter, and as you start to communicate with them you find out what guitars that have that you can kind of steal from when needed. And I get to put some money in their pockets. So it’s been great.
We do use vintage gear when we need to. If something’s been recorded we try to get that exact instrument as long as it makes sense in the storyline. It’s great to have something harmoniously happening both live and prerecorded.
Has there been any guitar that was particularly difficult to track down?
There was a scripted scene for a ’38 Martin last season. T-Bone had his eyes on one at Norm’s Rare Guitars in LA. They let us use it. The other fun hunt was finding a ’52 Gibson SJ. Of course we could always buy something new and age it up, and that may tell the tale, but in this case we did get an actual ’52.
How are the guitars stored and maintained after they get in your hands?
I have four different lock-ups that I keep them in. Most of the time they are in road cases, but they’re never in cases very long. Some of the musicians who’ve come in to cut tracks work their parts out with the actors, so they often use those guitars. I’ve got custom shelves built for about 80 guitars.
When guest stars come in do they use their own gear?
Last season Brad Paisley cut his guitar part and vocal track at his house and brought in the exact rig he used the very next day, and he set it up and played. So that’s another case of using the exact stuff, which is what I like to do. I always love to do it as true to form as we can.
What’s the biggest challenge in handling these guitars on loan from manufacturers and musicians?
It’s making sure everything is transported safely. So many people who work on Nashville are used to carrying gear around, but that’s my greatest concern — making sure everybody’s straps stay on and being sure people don’t walk by and knock a guitar off its stand. I’m always looking out for the guitars.
Watch Nashville Wednesdays at 10|9c on ABC.