As the sexy and sensitive, talented and troubled musician Deacon Claybourne on the hit TV show Nashville, Charles Esten has struck a chord with audiences everywhere.

Long before he was crooning tunes and waxing romantic as country music artist Deacon Claybourne on TV’s Nashville and even longer before he actually took the stage and scored a real-life success with audiences at the Grand Ole Opry — Charles Esten relied on his musical prowess to impress a very special lady.

It was back in the 1980s, during his days as an economics major at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, when his extracurricular activities included performing as lead vocalist with a band called N’est Pas.

“I looked out in the crowd one night,” Esten recalls en route to one of his favorite Nashville eateries. “And that’s when I saw her. I’d seen her before on campus, but I’d never met her. And I’d always seen her with this guy. But he wasn’t with her that night. As soon as I spotted her, I told the other guys in the band that we were not gonna sing what we usually did at that point. Instead, we did Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ — and I sang it right to her.”

Patty Hanson, the lady Esten serenaded, took notice. One thing led to another, and the couple eventually married in 1991. Now they’re with their three children — daughters Taylor and Addie and son Chase — in Nashville, where Esten has been gainfully employed since 2012 on the ABC television series about love and life in Music City.

“And here’s the funny thing,” Esten says as we near our destination, a popular delicatessen whimsically named Noshville. “I only recently found out — I can’t believe I never knew this — that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at that moment was her favorite song. I’d been a big fan of Dire Straits like so many people, but that particular song ... ” His voice trails off into soft laughter. Then he adds: “I just pulled a card out of the deck and it happened to be her card, which was amazing.”

Patty has been Esten’s muse and partner throughout his more than two decades in show business, providing inspiration and encouragement during the hardscrabble years prior to his breakthrough gig: Buddy, a well-received jukebox musical in which he starred as the legendary Buddy Holly for more than two years, first in London’s West End and later on tour in the United States. (At various points, he performed for the British Royal Family, and, later, at the White House for George and Barbara Bush.) As the journey continued, Esten accumulated such diverse credits as improvisation on both British and American versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and with The Groundlings comedy troupe, as well as one-shot and continuing roles in TV comedies and dramas (he’s particularly proud of a brief run on The Office and guesting on two Star Trek series, Next Generation and Voyager). Along the way, he even landed on the quiz show Sale of the Century as a contestant; winning about $34,000 in cash and prizes helped him endure a discouraging dry stretch early on in L.A.

Esten also gained invaluable experience while playing small roles in several movies: The Postman, Thirteen Days, and Swing Vote, starring Kevin Costner, for whom Patty worked for almost five years as an assistant.

“Kevin’s been a real friend,” Esten says. “To me, and to my family. But I have to say that, at one point, well, when you’re working around someone like that when you’re young, you might think, Hey, I can do this — I can be at this level. The future’s wide enough open that anything can happen. But then years go by and you get some wins and you get some losses. And you start to reassess.”

Esten recalls the pain he felt after auditioning several times with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and then not getting a meaty role in the award-winning Band of Brothers miniseries. But he also recalls how Patty helped him endure the loss and forge ahead.

“I don’t know how people go through this business, A, without a faith of some kind and, B, without that significant other beside them who loves them unconditionally, whether they get that role or not, and thinks no matter what that Steven Spielberg was wrong, and Tom Hanks was wrong. I remember Patty wrote me a letter saying, ‘I know how much this hurts, but this is just a step [toward what you want] and you’re going to find it. You’re going to be great.’

“When we were packing to move to Nashville, I showed her that note. And I told her: ‘I wouldn’t be as good at this without that.’ You know what I mean? It sort of all goes into making you who you are. Especially for this character, Deacon Claybourne, who’s been through it all.”

Charles Esten — or Chip, as he’s known to longtime friends and instantly impressed journalists — took me on a journey through Nashville, the city, that included stops at locations seen on Nashville, the TV series: Southern Ground recording studio, where he worked with Nashville executive music producer Buddy Miller on a song destined for both iTunes and the season four premiere episode; socialite and philanthropist Sylvia Roberts’ palatial Belle Meade home, which doubles as the home of Nashville character Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) in the series and served as the scene of our C&I photo shoot; Noshville, where the pastrami was as delicious as Esten was entertaining; and, finally, the Grand Ole Opry, where he elicited roars of audience approval as the final performer on the Wednesday night bill.

Here are some conversation highlights from our Music City visit with Esten.

Photography by Allen Clark
Photography by Allen Clark

Cowboys & Indians: During the CMA Music Festival here in Nashville in June, it seemed like you were performing everywhere. And tonight you’re onstageagainat the Grand Ole Opry. I guess it’s safe to say you don’t just play a country music singer on TV...
Charles Esten:
Well, what are you going to do if they invite you? Say no? No, you’re going to respect it, honor it, do your very best. Besides, the expectations will probably be a little bit low tonight, so all you can do is try to outstrip their expectations.

C&I: The Grand Ole Opry wouldn’t invite you to perform multiple times if you weren’t any good. And you did have all that experience playing and singing Buddy Holly.
[Laughs.] By now, I do feel better about it. But I still always feel a bit like an interloper because of the way I got on versus the way others have gotten on. I’m not talking myself down. I’m just saying I’m not putting on airs or puffing out my chest and saying, “I deserve to be here.” It’s the opposite. It means so much to me, and I’m so blown away by it.

I remember the first time I was on, it was so clear to me the first song I was going to sing was Buck Owens’ version of “Act Naturally.” You know: “They’re going to put me in the movies. They’re going to make a big star out of me. Going to play a scene about a man that’s sad and lonely — and all I got to do is act naturally.” That sort of undercut any “Here’s my serious country song” stuff. The very first one says it all: I know why I’m here. What are we going to do? I might as well go for it.

C&I: I was fortunate to catch the 40th anniversary screening of Robert Altman’s Nashville at The Belcourt, the great art-house theater here, back in June. Before the movie, they showed archival TV news footage of the local 1975 premiere — and it was very clear that many people in this community, including some well-known country music artists, were not happy about the way Altman portrayed Nashville. Did you worry whether you might get a similarly negative reception for your TV series?
I did think about that. Although I have to say that I was so busy doing the work [in the pilot episode] that I wasn’t sitting back thinking about it that much. All I knew was that I got to hold a prewar Martin guitar, sit across from Pam Tillis, and be in the actual Bluebird Cafe singing a gorgeous song written by amazing local songwriters. Then I got to be in a scene with Hayden Panettiere, and then later I got to be with Connie Britton. I was trying to really focus on just the performance and the work.

After that was done, though, I will say I started to think about that. But the reason I did was, in some ways, the city of Nashville was more nervous than we were, inasmuch as they had been burned before. I’m not saying [Nashville] burned them, but there had been other things.

C&I: What sort of vibe did you pick up from the locals?
Basically, they were like, “Look, don’t make us look stupid.” And the thing is, that’s one reason I wasn’t nervous. I knew whatever else they could say, they couldn’t say we were making them look stupid. Especially with a character like Rayna Jaymes, an extremely savvy, empowered woman. And even Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette [Barnes] — whatever you can say about her, she’s no dummy. I didn’t see a single character in the whole thing that you could label as an unintelligent hick.

C&I: What was the response from folks in the music business? At the Grand Ole Opry?
We knew what we had up our sleeve in terms of the music and the other people that we were working with, so I wasn’t worried about that as much as you might think. In fact, I was extremely grateful when the opposite happened, when it turned out they really, really liked it and utterly embraced the show.

Talking about the Grand Ole Opry — people like Vince Gill made us feel welcome. “Little” Jimmy Dickens, God rest his soul, made us feel welcome. The great Jim Ed Brown, who just passed recently — God bless Jim Ed Brown — he made me feel welcome. When the people at the very top, who have been doing it for all those years and are the very best at it — when they say, yes, you’re welcome here, well, you don’t have to listen to anybody else.

As country crooner Deacon Claybourne on the hit TV show Nashville, Charles Esten has a number of roles, including performer, father, cancer patient, and soul mate to Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton). Photography: Mark Levine/Courtesy © ABC

C&I: What about you? Do you remember the moment when you felt totally comfortable as Deacon Claybourne?
There was a moment like that during my audition for the pilot, which is rare. It was like, I think I understand this guy. I get this guy. Auditioning as Deacon was almost easier for me because of all the things I knew I had to do, and what I had to look like. I had to look like I was a little weary, like I didn’t care one way or the other whether I got it. Life was going to kick me in the teeth somehow, no matter what, so let’s just do this and get it over with.

C&I: That’s how you felt at the time?
Well, I’ve been very blessed in my long acting career. But I never had that plum role — that bang-on lead, that Deacon role — in that same way Deacon never had that big breakthrough. I could sort of identify with that. And I’d reached that point in my career when I was old enough to play — and to be — that guy. I remember being there, sitting and thinking, Well, whatever else happens, I might get only one shot to play this guy, so I’m going to do it.

C&I: You’ve appeared in other pilots that were never picked up as series. Was there anything in the Nashville pilot that made you think you were on the ground floor of something special?
I remember feeling that a little bit during a scene with Deacon and Rayna. Rayna gets upset at her rehearsal and she says, “Do you got a minute?” Deacon says, “For you, yeah.” They take a walk on the [John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge] across the Cumberland [River]. Don’t get me wrong: The scene itself was actually very difficult, because it was a walk-and-talk on the bridge. The sun had to be right there, it was a long walk, and there was a whole bunch of different things going on.

But I’d been a Connie Britton fan for a long time. Both my wife and I are huge Friday Night Lights fans. There was something about her acting I always liked so much. And on the bridge that day, she seemed very real, like Rayna and Deacon were just talking. It’s fantastic dialogue from [series creator] Callie Khouri. And it was somewhere in the middle of that where I’m suddenly not judging it from the outside. I’m judging it from the inside. It just felt very natural to talk to her in that way, and I was like, This is what I’ve wanted to do for a while.

It was sort of extra special and meaningful that it was on the bridge, where you could see the Nashville skyline. It’s the quintessential Nashville scene. It’s the quintessential Deacon and Rayna scene. And it all takes place with the sun setting over Nashville. I think that was the moment where I went, Hmm, this could be something. This could be nice.

So I was very optimistic.

There’s a painting on the side of a brick wall on [12th Avenue South] here that says “I Believe in Nashville.” I rode by there on my bike one day, and I saw it, passed it. But then I stopped and turned and went back and just took a picture — and that became my screen saver. I figured no matter what else I do, whatever else happens to it, I believe in this. I believe this is quality, and it’s moving.

Photography by Allen Clark
Photography by Allen Clark

C&I: Deacon has gone through some wild mood swings during the past three seasons. He’s been up, he’s been down. He’s gone off the wagon, he’s crawled back onto it. We’ve seen him as the mature stud when he was first dealing with Juliette Barnes. And we’ve seen him trying to be a father for a daughter he didn’t know was his. This role must be a godsend for an actor. Even while you keep playing the same character, you get to go to extremes.
You’re absolutely onto something. That is, to me, the thrilling part of this character. Like, how many facets do you have? That’s a good measure of how good a character is, and how much fun you get to have playing him. As human beings we have these infinite facets, and I would say that’s what the writers have done with Deacon. There are so many facets, and I love how that comes across in the chemistry he develops with other characters. Stick him with Avery Barkley [Jonathan Jackson] and there’s the comedy thing that comes out. There’s that bang between old and young — “I know what I’m doing,” and “You’re not listening.” But then stick him with Maddie [Lennon Stella], and you see a whole ’nother side of this guy. Yeah, he was that guy you said was an older stud. But now he’s got a daughter he cares about, and there’s that softness that is organically, naturally going to come out when he’s in a scene with her.

It all comes down to the fact that Callie and our writing staff write a guy who is deeply human, and cares. He just cares. There’s no cynicism there. In fact, life might be a little easier for him if he didn’t care so much. That’s the lesson in life that you teach your children. Yeah, you could leather up a little bit and not care so much. That might be easier, but it’s not living.

C&I: Do you find that the response you get from people in the real world is colored by whatever might be happening to Deacon at any point in a story linefacing a cancer diagnosis, for instance?
I have found that what I do can connect you to a whole lot of people. When I’m out and about, whether it’s doing shows or just out in the world, people will come up to you — and if we’ve touched on something that’s affected them, it means a lot to them. If they have a parent who was an addict, or if they were, or if they have a family member who had or has cancer or is looking for a transplant — that’s way more important than Nashville.

It’s when you touch on these story lines that you come to realize they’re not just story lines. These are people’s lives. That’s why I’m glad that we have writers that also care. I’ve had a number of people come up to me and say, “My dad was on the transplant list, and what you’re showing is how it was, and what it felt like for us. The ups and downs of when you got one and then, no, wait, you don’t” — that kind of thing. That means a lot to me.

C&I: People might not know this about you, but you’re quite a funny guy. Did you ever try stand-up?
I have done a lot of improv, but I never did stand-up comedy. At least, not professionally. But when I first got to Los Angeles, one of the few things that you can just get up and do is stand-up on open mic nights. You can’t just get up and go do a movie or TV show. So I went ahead and did that. And the first time I did, I was petrified.

C&I: How bad was it?
I was at The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. I remember that when I was onstage, it was almost a cartoon of what it is to be nervous. I mean literal knees shaking, knees knocking, mouth white and foamy.

When I got offstage, I went into the bathroom there and I was just furious at myself. I was thinking, This is what you want to do. Some version of this is what you want to do for a living. So how can you possibly get up there and let 200 strangers, half of whom have had a bunch of drinks and you’re never going to see them again, they’re not going to remember you ... How can you let them cripple you?

Once I thought of it that way, I went back a week later, for another open mic. I waited in line again, and from there on I wasn’t as afraid of them. That was primarily what I got out of that. I have a huge amount of respect for people who do that for a living.

C&I: Sounds like the old joke about the actor on his deathbed who says, “Dying is easybut comedy is hard.”
That’s really true. When I was over in England doing Buddy, one of my friends from The Groundlings told me they were having auditions for an improvisational comedy show called Whose Line Is It Anyway? At the time, it was a virtual cattle call. There were a whole bunch of people there. But I was completely relaxed, because, number one, I already had a job. I was playing Buddy Holly, and I was getting paid. Number two, I figured none of my friends back in the States were going to see this little British show. Anyway, I was able to get on the show, and had a great time, and did rather well early on.

C&I: And then?
When I got back to the States, I toured with Buddy for a while. But when that was over, I went back to England a couple of times to be on the show again. And whereas I wasn’t nervous in the beginning — well, now when you’re flying back from Los Angeles all the way to England and you don’t have another job and you really want to do well, because it will determine how many episodes you get to do ... I think I tightened up a little bit. I’m sure I did. I can remember thinking, Be funny, be funny. And that’s just death. There’s no muscle you can flex to be funny. And so I wound up not doing as many shows.

C&I: But now you get to be funny and tragic and everything in between as Deacon. Better still, you’re a genuine TV sex symbol. Do you rely on your wife and children to keep you grounded when you start reading about what a superstar heartthrob you are?
[Laughs.] Well, it’s funny, because I had a much smaller measure of fame for a while, when I was on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and on The Office. So they got a taste of what it’s like for people to recognize me on the street. But, of course, nothing like being able to play Deacon and live in Nashville.

I have to say they’re fantastic kids — they’re very even-keeled and levelheaded. Sometimes they’re proud. And sometimes, when it’s silly, they laugh at me. Mostly, they’re just very grateful. They watched me for a long time being a working actor. That supported my family. They’ve seen me get jobs that I’ve wanted. They’ve seen me not get jobs that I wanted real badly. I didn’t shield them from any of that. You always want your kids to understand that life has its ups and downs. Now that we’re getting this very good time, they’re very proud of me. They’re very happy for me, and I love them.

And as for my wife — she thought that I was a heartthrob long before anybody else did, I’ll tell you that.

Nashville’s season four premieres September 23 at 10 p.m. EST on ABC. Charles Esten’s first independent single, “Hot One,” released in July, is available on iTunes.

From the October 2015 issue.