ABC’s “Nashville” has been keeping actor and singer Chris Carmack busy
Chris Carmack portrays country star Will Lexington on TV’s “Nashville,” but his musical talents go beyond just lip-syncing and miming guitar licks.
2016 marks the third year that Carmack and select “Nashville” co-stars have taken to the road for the “Nashville in Concert” tour, which translates the tunes of ABC’s music-industry drama to the live setting. When Carmack played the original five-city tour in 2014, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect — but his very first show at a Chicago club set an exciting precedent.
“We encountered one of the rowdiest, most excited crowds we’ve ever performed for,” he says. “The place was packed out and they were screaming for every song we played. It was great.”
Carmack describes that first tour as “quick and a lot of fun,” and says that he and his co-stars “wished it had lasted longer.” Opry Entertainment, which produces the tour as well as Nashville’s legendary weekly Grand Ole Opry stage show, fulfilled that wish with the tour’s 2015 and 2016 schedules. The 2015 tour expanded to 10 dates and this year’s tour comprises 24 dates, including a European leg and a first-ever Detroit stop Sunday at the Fox Theatre. Co-stars Clare Bowen, Will Chase, Charles Esten and Aubrey Peeples will join Carmack onstage for the Detroit date.
When Carmack originally joined the “Nashville” cast in 2013, he already had considerable musical experience under his belt. He was fascinated with the saxophone from a young age and began playing the instrument in fourth grade. He picked up guitar in his teen years, began writing songs and stuck with the instrument while studying acting at New York University.
While pursuing his first acting gigs in Los Angeles early this decade, Carmack found a musical mentor in Mississippi blues guitarist Scotty Wilson. Carmack studied with the older musician, and the two formed a blues band together. But Wilson, who is now deceased, insisted that playing blues was not Carmack’s destiny.
“He always told me, ‘Son, I want you to play these blues, but I just want it to be a trick in your pocket. You need to play country music,’ ” Carmack says. “He told me that over and over again and I just never did it.”
Carmack found his true musical calling when he scored the “Nashville” role, a development he says Wilson was “so happy” about.
“He was right!” Carmack chuckles. “My voice is very suited to country music.”
However, Carmack was surprised by how much he still had to learn when he moved to Nashville to begin working on the show.
“I thought I was a pretty good guitar player and songwriter, then I came to school in Nashville,” he says. “I realized I was going to have to step up the game if I was to play this role with any sort of passable technical ability, so I’ve been practicing as hard as I ever have to get as good as I can get.”
He’s since put that hard work to use not just in his obligations to the TV show, but in his own burgeoning solo career. Last year, Carmack released his debut EP, “Pieces of You,” which skews toward a country sound while incorporating elements of rock and blues. Carmack wrote all five tunes on the EP himself. He incorporates some of them into the mix alongside “Nashville” songs at “Nashville in Concert” shows.
Carmack says he’s been gratified to find that audiences show the same enthusiasm for his original material as for the songs they already know from the show. He says he hasn’t had any problems drawing a line between his character on the show and his own musical persona.
“Sometimes I think people watch a character on television and they think that character is that person,” he says. “That always baffles me. It happens with every actor I know. I don’t consider it my problem.”
However, Carmack says he’s been troubled by some fans’ reactions to his character’s sexuality. As Will Lexington has journeyed from music-industry newcomer to country hitmaker on the TV show, the gay character has struggled to hide his sexuality under pressure from industry paymasters and a disapproving father.
“Because I’m a straight man, people come at me with the big wink: ‘Hey man, so what’s it like to have to kiss a dude?’ ” Carmack says. “They expect me to go, ‘Oh, it’s disgusting.’ But I take it as an opportunity to open a conversation with them and maybe change their mind about something.”
Carmack says he’s also been surprised by some fans who have scoffed at the amount of difficulty his character has had with coming out.
“I get a lot of remarks on Twitter — or at least I used to — from people saying, ‘Oh, come on! It’s 2016 already, or 2015 already. Like someone would really have this much trouble coming out!’ ” he says. “I think those people must live in downtown Manhattan or something, because a lot of this country is not as accepting.”
However, Carmack says most fans’ reactions to his character have been “by and large very warm.” He expresses deep gratitude for the role that’s created opportunities for him to express multiple passions: acting, writing music and performing it live.
“It really is a job that has allowed me to apply 100 percent of my talent and passion, and those are rare gems,” he says. “It’s a real blessing in my life.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
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