Six seasons, two networks and one leading lady’s sudden death later, the complicated crooners of CMT’s Nashville took their final curtain call.
Thursday night’s series finale concluded with Deacon (Charles Esten) performing his ballad about the simple things, “A Life That’s Good,” with his father. The rest of the drama’s musicians like Juliette (Hayden Panettiere), Scarlett (Clare Bowen), Avery (Jonathan Jackson) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio) gradually join him on stage. The camera pulls back, breaking the fourth wall to reveal the entire set. Their characters melt away, and suddenly they’re themselves, actors relishing one last jam session. The crew comes, out, too, and Connie Britton — who played country queen Rayna James until 2017 and returned in a tender finale flashback — takes her rightful place center-stage.
And 52-year-old Esten — who’s now on tour singing songs from Nashville — opened up to PEOPLE about his thoughts on the finale, Britton’s return and what’s next.
Describe filming that final scene.
We’ve always walked that line between scenes and songs, between a dramatic performance and a musical performance, so in one sense between a show and a long concert. And what happens at the end of a long concert that you have a lot of acts in? What happens is everybody comes out and they do one last song together. And I thought, that’s kind of a neat, beautiful, fitting way to end.
And when you put on top of that that the final “concert” is in the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. … Personally and emotionally being on that stage with all those wonderful all friends that had contributed so much, surrounded by that crew that had worked so hard, with an audience full of the best background actors in the world and so many of them are actual deep fans. A lot of them had been there for a long time too or made the trip to be there, so that was a whole lot of love and nostalgia, a real familial feel about it all in that beautiful place. So, personally, selfishly, it was a wonderful place to end.
How did it feel having Connie back on set?
It wouldn’t have been the same; it wouldn’t have felt like closure, it wouldn’t felt like good-bye. She is everything to that show, and her character in a sense [drove] every episode, even for a year and a half, a season and a half after she was gone.
In terms of what Rayna means to the show, and also in terms of what Connie means to the show, and also in terms of [her] as a friend and as somebody who was there from the very, very beginning, it was fantastic and gave a sense of closure.
What was it like watching Lennon and Maisy Stella grow up on-set?
Oh, that’s the part that I think makes me the most emotional. It’s funny because so much of what you see on screen is not fully acting; there’s moments where I’m watching one of them perform, and I’m not fully acting there. I’m like the surrogate dad that is sitting there watching them. So all that that you see in Deacon’s eyes, the lines share that as mine as well. And I’m just very, very proud of them.
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What’s next in your acting career?
I’ve been very fortunate already; I’ve already started working on Tell Me Your Secrets, the TNT show. I’ll be recurring on that I think basically about seven out of the 10 episodes on this first season. And I wasn’t necessarily going to start something rather this quickly, I was going to take a little minute, do some tours, play some music, but they were very, very kind and moved around the existing dates I already had.
It’s definitely a departure for me and for Nashville fans — they might want to be warned that it’s a little bit more of a thriller, it can get a lot darker. Deacon had his darkness things but ultimately it was always heartwarming, and there’s always certainly a ton of emotion and warmth in that show, but it is a thriller that can go to some dark places.
What is your favorite song that Deacon’s ever performed?
It’s always been “The Life That’s Good.” When I saw that we were finishing with that — there might’ve been talk of something else — and I was like no, there’s nothing else it could be.
It started off as Deacon’s song that Maddie found on an old CD, and when Deacon wrote that and performed it all those years ago, that was a far-off dream to have those things. Everybody on that show is looking for and fighting for all that Music City can offer in terms of fames, record sales, wealth and all those things. If you watch the show, we’re all doing that, but again and again on the show, real life leads us to understand that maybe that’s not the most important thing, maybe if you’re going to list the important things it’s just a handful of those things. The chorus says “Two arms around me, heaven to ground me, a family that always calls me home, four wheels to get there, enough love to share, and a sweet, sweet song.”
It’s a cool way to end, so there we are, getting back to how we started. If the whole show’s a concert, oddly that’s the final song we end up singing.
What happened when you learned Nashville was ending?
We happened to be shooting in the Bluebird that day, and right as we were about to go to lunch, they literally said, ‘Everybody from every department come meet in the Bluebird set.’ So everybody jams into this place that’s so important to us. And we’re just packed, elbow to elbow, person to person, and [creator Callie Khouri] shared that we’d just found out — and by the way this was a much better way to find out, not that we had finished our season, but that we were going to be finished after one season, we had one more year, that was a great gift from CMT to have us wrap it up that way — but it was just very silent, and to hear her say it and to see the emotion in her voice and in her eyes as she shared that this was it for all of us.
We were just sitting there, the cast and crew, all our arms wrapped around each other, and I was very glad that they did that, that she did that in such a graceful, caring way, that we were all sort of there for each other. Everybody put their arms around each other and said, all right, let’s finish strong, let’s have a great last season, let’s have a great goodbye. And I think in the end that’s what happened.