Connie Britton spend as much as five hours a day practicing singing in preparation… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
For Connie Britton, 2011 was a banner year. She had sex with some being in a black rubber S&M suit and managed to give birth to the antichrist as Vivien Harmon in her one-season stint on FX's "American Horror Story." The sort of deeds that would lend support to the 45-year-old actress' understated assertion: "I like to throw people for a loop."
After five years of befriending a loyal following of viewers as Tami Taylor, the genial and supportive wife and mother on cult favorite "Friday Night Lights," Britton quickly transitioned from a weekly overdose of nurturing y'alls to ear-piercing screams on the cable drama, a role that earned her an Emmy nomination this year for lead actress in a miniseries. This fall sees the gears shift once more … to singing.
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In ABC's "Nashville," Britton plays chart-topping country crooner Rayna, whose career is slumping just as her younger rival's is flourishing. Zoom out further and the picture of a complex family drama is painted against the country music scene, making use of original songs — think Fox's "Glee," which explores the plucky singers of glee clubs, and NBC's "Smash," which delves into the Broadway world.
The series, co-created by "Thelma & Louise" Oscar-winning scribe Callie Khouri, is the heir to ABC's 10 p.m. Wednesday slot formerly occupied by its well-performing soap "Revenge" (now on Sundays).
Britton, though, needed some persuasion to take the part. Having wrapped her run on "American Horror Story," she was looking to keep a low profile in front of the camera, focusing on developing three shows, including one for FX. The thought of committing to a network show — with longer seasons — was "out of the question" for the new mother (she recently adopted an Ethiopian boy).
TIMELINE: Fall TV premieres and trailers
Getting up to fetch cold glasses of water inside a deserted bar at a Hollywood hotel near her home, Britton's lightly freckled face blushed as she turned to tease what led her to this forthcoming dubious character: "I was lured by the lights and the rhinestones."
It's early July and she is just days from moving more than 2,000 miles to the Music City to begin production, but she already speaks about her character as if they were childhood friends: "Rayna is self-made, she's soulful ... she is really established and really empowered and being shaken up by the world around her. I'm really rooting for her."
Yeah, but what about the singing?
"That was the magic word in a weird way," she said, tucking her strawberry blond locks behind her ears. "The thought terrified me. And that's how you sort of know."
Khouri, a fan of Britton's work on "Friday Night Lights," was adamant Britton was the only one who could bring life to the resolute character. "Everybody kept saying she's not going to do network television again," Khouri said. "I was just not hearing it. Then reality set and I was like, 'I wonder if she can sing.... God, please let her be able to sing.'"
"I was like … 'uh, I have sung,'" Britton recalled of her eventual meeting with Khouri. "That was the moment of no return, when I said that. I sang years ago when I first started out and was doing theater. But off, off, off, off, off Broadway."
An intensive vocal boot camp ensued. "I thought, 'I'm going to have six months to just work with T Bone Burnett [Khouri's husband and an executive music producer on the show] and become this amazing singer who could eventually release an amazing album and give people whiplash again.' And it wasn't like that at all."
Britton, who admits she's more of a rock 'n' roll kind of girl, had two weeks before she had to record two songs. And she worked with a choreographer to develop the ease of someone who has been performing on stage for years. Lessons continued before the show got picked up, and she spent as much as five hours a day practicing.
"Just the other day, I was working with my vocal coach on some Bonnie Raitt song and I burst into tears because I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm never going to sound as good as Bonnie Raitt,'" she said. "I definitely have had people offer me shots of whiskey when I'm recording and when I sit down to hear the playback. But it's also a great satisfaction of discovering what my voice is...."
Others are eager to discover her vocal prowess too. "I didn't know she could sing," said friend, and longtime on-screen husband, Kyle Chandler. "This is going to be a lot of fun for me to sit on the bleachers of this one. I'm going to be there an hour early for this game. I'm going to be tailgating this one for days ahead of time."
But "Nashville" is not just a musical show, Britton insists. And it's not a prime-time soap — a label the network has used to describe it — either, she adds. "I don't think of it as being a soap with over the top elements. I think of it as storytelling."