An interview with NASHVILLE star Chris Carmack
From its very first season, ABC's Nashville included among its storylines the trials and tribulations of then-closeted gay country star Will Lexington, played by Chris Carmack. Melodrama aside, the pressures Lexington’s character faces in the show are real and well known to closeted or low-profile LGBT people in the industry.
On October 10, 2012, ABC premiered its new show, Nashville, to critical and popular acclaim. Created by Academy Award winner Connie Khouri, Nashville brought our beloved city and its music industry in front of Americans in a way not unlike the show Dallas did for that city beginning in the late 1970s.
Khouri had lived in Nashville for a few years (1978–82), and she told the New York Times that she wanted to “represent it in a way that everybody who lives here would find completely realistic.” This may be a stretch for an evening soap opera, but there are unfortunate facets of life in Nashville that have been brought to light by the show.
From its very first season, Nashville included among its storylines the trials and tribulations of then-closeted gay country star Will Lexington, played by Chris Carmack. Melodrama aside, the pressures Lexington’s character faces in the show are real and well known to closeted or low-profile LGBT people in the industry. From keeping his “indiscreet” liaisons quiet and denying his loves to living in constant fear of blackmail and exposure, Lexington’s struggles are struggles potentially facing LGBT musicians in what remains a conservative, homophobic music culture.
That storyline struck a chord with fans. Lexington appeared in only six episodes of the first season, and by the second the character was a regular. Now in its fourth season, Lexington’s story is a major arc within the show.
Carmack is in some ways an unlikely Will Lexington. A straight man, Carmack is the gay star of the show, and due to the show’s popularity he has become the face of gay country music across the country. But that doesn’t put him off at all—he just hopes a little good comes from it.
Nashville wasn’t Carmack’s first exposure to music. He is a talented musician in his own right, with an amazing singing voice and a background that includes jazz (he plays the saxophone, as well as the guitar). While most viewers have no doubt been impressed by his performances on the show, we all know that editing can do wonders.
However, Carmack has continued to play music outside the show, despite his busy schedule, and those shows demonstrate his versatility. Playing a set at the CMA Music Festival, Carmack earned accolades for his performance: Vince Gill called him a “wicked good guitar player” and *Billboard* wrote that he “showed a musical command and conviction in his set that outstrips what he has been able to transmit through the TV show and its soundtracks. There’s a built-in prejudice against actors jumping into music, but he deserves to be taken seriously.”
Carmack is also currently preparing for the December release of his own EP Pieces of You, which will consist of five tracks written solely by him. The soulful music reflects influences from the jazz and blues he grew up playing, to rock, pop and country.
In advance of this release Carmack offered O&AN readers the opportunity to some insight into the man behind Will Lexington. While on a photo shoot with O&AN at BB King’s Blues Club in Nashville, Carmack proved that the fame hasn’t gone to his head. He accepted an invitation to perform with the scheduled act, offering a stunning unprepared-for rendition of one of King’s own songs for an audience of about thirty early lunch patrons. You’d have thought he practiced all morning. This is a man you’re going to want to meet!
When you were originally cast, did you realize the extent of the LGBT portrayal of Will Lexington?
Actually, no. When I first auditioned, it was not in the breakdown. It was not mentioned that he was going to be a gay character. But when they were going to offer me the part, Callie Khouri called me and sort of pitched the arc of the role and asked me what I thought of that. Of course, my response was “That sounds awesome! Let’s do it!” But I think there is always a certain element of that when they are doing auditions: they want to keep story lines out of the public knowledge, so they do tend to keep those things tied up.
The story line has grown so much, and has become such a major part of the show, especially this season. Why do you think that Lexington’s storyline resonates so much with people, not just LGBT people?
I mean, I think it’s an impactful story line. You know, in many ways it’s a universal theme, somebody having to set aside their personal happiness and personal exploration and understanding of themselves in order to achieve a ‘dream’. I think so many people pursue their dreams at the cost of their personal happiness, so I think that speaks to people.
Have you encountered many gay musicians because of the role?
Well, I mean, of course the biggest example of a gay musician I’ve been in contact with was Ty Herndon, who went out of his way to make my acquaintance and to invite me to participate in his event that was during the CMA Fest [the “Concert for Love and Acceptance”], and so I’ve gotten to know him a little bit.
I’ve also had a few gay musicians come and thank me along the way for portraying Will Lexington on the show—of course that thanks should really be extended to the writers and the storylines they are creating as well. I don’t want to take the credit for the story of Will Lexington. I’m giving him flesh but it’s the writers who steer the ship!
What about advice? Have you gotten any advice on the role from gay musicians, or has the role just developed as you’ve played it?
Like any role on a television series, the role sort of develops week in and week out. I try to look at the story line and digest it and try to figure out what it means and what part of Will’s journey it focuses on. I won’t say that I’ve gotten a whole lot of advice along the way, but I have had gay musicians reach out. A number have told me that they really love watching the role and that they thought I was nailing it, so that’s positive reinforcement!
Have you had any encounters with LGBT fans who felt some connection with Will Lexington and wanted to express that to you?
Yeah! You know I’ve had quite a few moments out and about town in Nashville, and one strikes me as particularly interesting. I can’t recall his name, but a gentleman came up to me at a bar who was totally dressed the cowboy part. My thought to myself as he was walking up to me was, “Now that’s Will Lexington right there!” He was like a real life cowboy.
He came up to me and said, “I want to thank you for portraying this role. I feel like it’s me up there on screen.” It was at that point that I realized he was actually a gay man thanking me for my role, and I just thought, ‘That IS Will Lexington!’
I’ve had quite a few people actually come up to me, maybe people who are trying to country music or had once tried to do country music and tell me they felt like I was telling their story.
Have you had the experience of hearing from people whose views may have been changed by being exposed to the role?
Yeah, I’ve heard from people like that, but I’ve also had the experience in person as well. Sometimes I’ll enter a conversation with somebody who’s asking about the show and then wants to ask, “So what’s that like playing a gay guy?” or “When you have to kiss a man, what is that?”
You can tell that they are wanting me to roll my eyes and groan and be like, “Ah, I have to do it, it’s part of the job…” That’s what they’re kind of expecting or wanting me to say, but I take those opportunities to really dive into a deeper conversation about the whole thing and explain where Will Lexington is coming from, some of the personal struggles he has to deal with. I really try to paint a human face for Will in those conversations, a face I hope we do a good job of portraying in the show.
A lot of times, those people will get a pensive look and say, “Wow, I never really thought of it that way.” And I feel good coming away from those conversations because I think in some small way I have helped changed a few people’s minds, and I think Will Lexington in a big way is helping change a few minds. Really, though, it’s these in-person interactions where I get to see that change. I can only guess who’s watching the show in their living rooms and what it means to them.
But I have also gotten some tweets from people saying they were watching the show and during the course of my storyline their brother came out, or their cousin came out, and the story, the show, gave them a context for conversation in their family. You hear things like that, and you really are humbled by the idea that the work you’re doing on a television show might be meaning something important in people’s lives.
There are still precious few choice roles for LGBT people in movies or on television, and many people feel like they should be reserved for LGBT actors. Have you gotten any negative feedback along these lines for taking on such a high-profile LGBT role?
In some ways, I think what we’re trying to say about the character, or I think one of the messages we are trying to convey with Will Lexington, is that there is a level on which his sexuality doesn’t—or shouldn’t—matter. He’s a great country singer, and a great star, and should be viewed as such, regardless of his sexuality. So in some ways it makes sense that the role was cast regardless of my sexuality. But at the same time, I have to say, I’m a supporter in diversity of casting, and you know, I think that’s also an important argument to be made.
I know that since the show’s success, you’ve engaged in a lot of charity work on behalf of causes important to the LGBT community. How has the opportunity to play Will Lexington impacted what that work means to you?
Any opportunity I have to participate in something like that is a meaningful one to me. I mean, I have always had a lot of gay friends, mentors, teachers in my life. I’ve always been part of a very supportive community. The uglier side of things is really foreign to me.
I’ve had to explore it a lot more though the character of Will than I ever had to in my own life experience. It has made me understand the need for a loud voice out there, and for the demand for personal liberties and rights immediately. I’ve never really had to look at it from that point of view in my personal life until recently, so participating in these events has become really meaningful to me.
The LGBT community has my absolute support. You’re beautiful! Keep doing what you’re doing.
I know that you are releasing some music of your own. Have you always been into music or has that developed as you performed with the show?
No, I’ve always been doing music. In fact, the songs that I’m releasing are songs that I wrote in Los Angeles before I was ever part of the show, and I decided to revisit them in the context of Nashville, and Nashville’s music scene.
Is the music being produced here locally, or back in Los Angeles?
No, it’s being produced here locally. Ben Fowler is a local producer, and I hired all local studio musicians to play on it. The recordings are completely out of Nashville!
Since you’ve basically lived in Nashville for four years now, what are some highlight moments from your time here?
It’s not hard to pick out highlights! You know, performing at the Grand Ole Opry—every time—is really special, and performing at the Ryman…. Just the fact that I used to play music in empty bars for damn near no one, and now people ask me to come perform before gigantic crowds, so that’s probably my biggest highlight. But you know also just being here in the city and getting to know the people who live here and getting to be a part of the whole environment, just as it’s blowing up. It’s an exciting time to live in Nashville!
How is it managing trying to develop your musical career while shooting this show, which has such a busy schedule?
It’s pretty hard, I’m into going to lie. It’s hard to carve out the time to write music, to learn music, to perform music, record, overdub, get artwork…. And I’m doing it myself; I’m like my own label at the moment, so it’s pretty daunting. In addition to all the music I’m doing for the show, I’m preparing stuff for CMA events, and things like that I won’t even get to focus on until a couple of days before! To be honest I’m not entirely sure how I’m pulling it off!
Pieces of You is set to release on December 11, 2015. For information on Carmack’s music and tour dates, as well as general information, visit facebook.com/chriscarmmackmusic and follow him on Twitter @RealCarmack.