Editor’s Note: Bummer alert for those of us who watch music-themed soaps (slowly raises hand), Nashville has been cancelled. The ABC show, which officially ends May 25, has launched many careers—from the young songwriters who pen the music to the actors who sing it. For Chris Carmack, landing the role of Will Lexington not only led to a great acting gig, but inspired him to start writing his own music. (Whitney Phaneuf)
By Bob Doerschuk
Back when Chris Carmack was a struggling actor living in Los Angeles—before he became a household name on the hit TV drama Nashville—he says deciding to audition for the ABC nighttime soap was a no brainer. “In the breakdown, it said, ‘Actor must be excellent guitar player and excellent singer. A lot of times in breakdowns, I’d seen ‘Must be proficient.’ When I saw that, I decided, well, let’s just say that sometimes I might be a little full of myself,” he admits, with an embarrassed laugh. “If you asked me then if I was a good guitar player, I would have said yes! But when I did get the part and moved to Nashville, after just a couple of weeks here, I started saying, ‘Yeah, I guess I know a few chords.’”
Carmack clearly knows his way around both acoustic and electric guitar, although he didn’t start playing seriously until high school, when he learned “Johnny B. Goode” for a talent show. He was inspired to pick up a guitar after hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan. But he got serious about it after a chance encounter, while jogging in Venice Beach, hearing someone play and sing the blues at a nearby club. He stopped and headed inside.
“There onstage was this guy Scotty Wilson, from Mississippi, wearing cowboy boots and strumming his guitar,” Carmack recalls. “With his big white beard, he looked like a black Santa Claus. He was picking some of the most authentic-sounding blues I’d ever heard. His performance was so vibrant and so alive. I sat there mesmerized and watched the whole show.”
He introduced himself to Wilson, who agreed to take him on as a student. Lessons continued for nearly a decade, as he dug deeper into the genre and became a close friend to his mentor. Shortly after being cast in the role of Will Lexington on Nashville, an initially closeted gay country singer, Carmack faced a moment of transition when Wilson died and he needed to start learning about a style of music he’d never paid much attention to before—country.
“It wasn’t that I’d never heard country music,” he says. “But I did have to take a crash course. When I came to Nashville, I started going to the Bluebird and hearing these great songwriters sing their songs. At that point, I realized that this wasn’t really country music—this is music that through the process of recording and performing gets all these layers put on top of it that makes it country. So many of these songs could exist in any genre.”
Soon Carmack was exploring current and traditional conventions of country while staying anchored to his own musical preferences. He began recording his debut EP Pieces Of You, released in December, and a compilation of tracks by Nashville cast members. As the show’s popularity ascended, he and his colleagues embarked on national and international tours.
Success gave Carmack access to a higher grade of acoustic guitars than he had previously played. While his favorite electric solid-body continues to be a hybrid that he designed and built himself, he’s performed both on TV and on his new EP with a Gibson Hummingbird. “I told Danny [Rowe], who is in charge of instruments on the show, ‘This is Will’s last performance in public before he comes out,” Carmack explains. “Who knows what’s going to happen to his career? So I felt a black Hummingbird was best for that pivotal moment.”
But Carmack’s true love is a guitar he’d wanted since he started playing: a Martin D-28. “I had been very reluctant to treat myself to something like this,” he says. “But not a day goes by that I don’t feel exceptionally good about going out on a limb and buying the guitar I’ve always loved and wanted. It’s a spruce top with an ebony fretboard, which is much harder than rosewood,” he continues. “I think that contributes to the brightness in its tone. To maintain the integrity of the guitar, I still haven’t drilled it, for amplification purposes I use an LR Baggs active pickup with the quarter-inch jack attached to my guitar strap. The cable goes around and down, but I don’t mind that—I think it looks kind of retro.”
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While writing, Carmack usually senses whether the song will be better served by acoustic or electric. “But sometimes it changes,” he adds. “On one of the songs from my EP, ‘Always Mine,’ I play acoustic. Then I tried playing it at a couple of gigs I did recently in Iowa with a five-piece band. Well, there’s a lot more than five pieces filling up the space on the EP, and it took two run-throughs on acoustic guitar to realize I needed to pull out the electric.”
And here Carmack flashes a sheepish grin. “Plus, I hate the sound of a strummed acoustic guitar! It takes a lot of concentration when you’re singing. And when the whole band is around you, you can’t hear it clearly. When I do solo acoustic things, I tend to mostly finger-pick.”
Reaching into his guitar case, he pulls out his Martin to demonstrate. It takes just a few seconds of “What If I Was Willing,” a song his character performed on Episode 203 of Nashville, to put a smile on his face.
There’s room for acoustic guitar in Chris Carmack’s world after all.