The new season of “Nashville” starts with traditional songs rooted in gospel and folk music rather than big production country songs.
Rayna, played by Connie Britton, has a revelation after hearing a blind man sing “Wayfaring Stranger,” an Appalachian tune that’s two centuries old. And Juliette, played by Hayden Panettiere, sees an angelic vision in white singing the hymn “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away.”
CMT rescued “Nashville” after it was canceled by ABC after four seasons. The new season begins Thursday, and it seeks to reflect more diversity in both the music and the cast. The new season also will be available on Hulu.
In recurring roles this season: Grammy-winning banjo player and singer Rhiannon Giddens and writer-actress-producer Jen Richards, the first out transgender actor on a CMT series.
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“I have spent so much of my life studying and playing music that has gone into country music: the banjo, the fiddle, the string band tunes,” said Giddens, the lead singer of the black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Fans of contemporary country music may recognize Giddens, who sings the hymn in the first episode, from her duet with Eric Church on the Country Music Association Awards show in November.
“It is time for the real history of country music to have more of a highlight, for people to know that there were lots of black people who played the banjo, that the string band itself came from plantation culture,” Giddens said.
The changes behind the scenes include new showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who created the show “Thirtysomething” and were executive producers on “My So-Called Life.”
“We wanted to explore the diversity of music that’s going on in Nashville,” Herskovitz said. “To bring in people of different ethnicities and from different backgrounds just felt important.”
Richards, who earned an Emmy nomination for her web series, “Her Story,” said word spread quickly within the transgender acting community that “Nashville” was casting, because there are so few television roles available to transgender actors.
“I only get called in for trans roles, and then I lose those parts to men because they think I look too much like a regular girl to play a trans part,” Richards said.
The casting of a recurring transgender role on a show set and shot in the South is timely. Last year, Tennessee lawmakers considered a “bathroom bill” that would require public school students to use the restrooms corresponding to their gender at birth. Viacom, the parent company of CMT, condemned the bill in Tennessee, which failed to pass.
However, when Richards goes to visit her family in North Carolina, it’s a different story. Lawmakers there failed to repeal a law that limits protections for LGBT people and includes a provision about which bathrooms transgender people can use. Lionsgate, which produces “Nashville,” pulled production out of North Carolina on another series because of the law.
“That law was only possible, people could only draft that and put it through and actually vote for it and support it, because they don’t know trans people,” Richards said. “It’s because we’re not on TV shows. We’re not in the movies.”
Herskovitz said the show will address Richards’ gender later in the season, but said many people likely will not even notice in the first episodes.
“I don’t think ‘Nashville’ is a political show and it’s not meant to be a political show, but I think it would be very hard to look at Jen and say, ‘Oh, that person should use a man’s bathroom,’” Herskovitz said.
Richards said being the first open transgender actor on CMT is significant to changing perceptions about the transgender community.
“Something like ‘Nashville,’ which is very popular in middle America and in the South, it’s going to reach people who might not have known anything about trans folks or ever seen one or met one or gotten to know their stories,” Richards said. “So this kind of thing can make a big difference.”
‘Nashville’ begins its fifth season at 9 p.m. Jan. 5 on CMT.