Charles ‘Chip’ Esten hadn’t set foot in Nashville before landing a leading role in the TV drama of the same name. This despite a passion for music that stretched back to his college days - fronting rock band N'est Pas, making his stage debut in the title role of a Buddy Holly musical, improvising whole songs on the fly on Whose Line Is It Anyway… All the while sliding between comedy and drama in an eclectic acting career that seems in retrospect like the perfect preparation for his two current roles roles – soulful alcoholic guitar legend Deacon Claybourne and prolific open-hearted singer-songwriter Charles Esten.
“I have to admit it was never really planned. My wife often says that if I'd ever written a list of everything I wanted out of a show, I would have left off about more than half of what I get out of Nashville”.
For Esten, it was just a great script and character he could sink his teeth into, as well as an opportunity to pop open the guitar case and flex his musical muscles again. Thoughts of recording and releasing his own original music were far from his mind.
“I was mostly focused on trying to be the best Deacon Claybourne I could be. We were shooting the pilot and there I am finding myself at the Grand Ole Opry.
All these gentlemen behind us playing the band I figured they were extras that maybe knew how to play a little bit. I turned out to be very wrong. These were all absolutely legit bona fide top notch touring musicians. They were actually a band called Sixwire and we just got along so well all day hanging out backstage waiting to shoot. We were playing songs for each other and after one I played, Steve [Mandile, lead guitarist] said ‘Have you recorded that?’ and I said no. He said ’Come on over tomorrow’.”
Chip and the band cut the song the next day and thus begun a musical relationship which has helped drive all his original music since. Mandile became a co-writer and Chip’s ongoing producer.
While Deacon’s music in Nashville and Chip’s originals are by no means interchangeable, he does admit to calling on the character for songwriting inspiration.
“I'm very blessed. I have just a wonderful family - wonderful wife, beautiful kids. I clearly have a good job. You can write great songs from that place, but it doesn't hurt to have this alter ego that who has been through so much and continues to go through so much. He walks this harder path and I walk in those boots all day long sometimes.”
While Chip was deriving immense satisfaction from writing and recording, he was finding it difficult to fit the songs into a traditional release model.
“I just didn't know what that album was. I didn't know what that E.P. was. My music is very eclectic. If you were to go right down the list of the 29 and nearing 30 songs that I have, you'd see that their styles are all over the place.
I also didn’t have a record label insisting I go down the well-worn path. What I did have was a whole bunch of material. I also have, strictly because of Nashville, this fanbase of people that are on social media whether it's Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.
They were used to watching me once a week. I wondered if they'd be interested in hearing me once a week. I think the mere fact that it was 2016 when it started in the music industry itself encouraged me. I just came up with the idea of calling it Every Single Friday and every single Friday putting out a brand new single.
Apple have been really helpful, there’s a page for it on iTunes, Spotify have put me on some great playlists, and that first song got over five million streams. That is without any label or anybody pushing it.”
The release strategy not only puts the focus on each individual song and allows them to stand on their own, it almost harkens back to the 50s and early 60s, when artists like Johnny Cash, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly made their careers from recording and releasing new singles every couple of months, instead of one new album every couple of years.
Another advantage of Every Single Friday is that it keeps Chip focused on writing and recording new songs, which could easily fall by the wayside as it competes with his acting, touring, promotional work with the show and… um… Australian country music festivals.
“It's a deadline machine. It creates a brand new deadline every week and I find that to be very inspirational. It helps me creatively, it keeps me focused and sharpened and moving forward. I knew it would be hard, but there's some weeks it's very difficult, especially on top of doing the show. But I also have to admit I've enjoyed it more than I maybe even could have imagined, just getting all the songs out there and seeing the response.”
While his tours with fellow Nashville cast members (including our own Clare Bowen aka Scarlett, and last year’s visitor to CMC Rocks Sam Palladio aka Gunnar) have taken him around America and to the UK, Chip will be bringing his music to Australia for the first time at CMC Rocks this year. He’s not taking anything for granted, but is optimistic about his reception.
“I know that Nashville has fans there – Sam told me he couldn’t have been more graciously received at CMC Rocks. People really seem to enjoy the show.
When I went over to England, I got to play Deacon’s songs as well as my own, which is what I’ll be doing in Australia. It was very special to me that they took to my songs as well as the ones they knew from the show. It’s still going to blow my mind, to think that there’s people on the other side of the world that the songs I’ve written might mean anything to. That’s what it’s all about, that’s thrilling.
Nashville is the gift that keeps giving to me – and going to Australia is one of the biggest gifts I’ve received”.