Connie Britton Connie Britton

Nashville, the city, and Nashville, the country music industry, are expecting big things from Nashville, the new fall drama from ABC. The serialized drama, which stars Connie Britton as an country singer juggling her home life and struggling to remain a relevant artist, might not have made it on the air a few years ago.

But just as country music is moving toward the mainstream, the mainstream is gravitating toward country music — and TV execs, hungry for audiences, are eager to tap into country's loyal fan base. "We know from our proprietary research that about 96 million Americans qualify as country music fans, based on their listening habits and purchase behavior," says Country Music Association marketing director Cory Chapman. "That leads to a big opportunity for a network to go after that audience."

Country music last experienced a surge in mainstream popularity in the early 1980s, thanks to the movie Urban Cowboy. But this time around, it's TV leading the charge. Several of American Idol's biggest success stories — like Carrie Underwood and Scotty McCreery — are scorching up the country charts. Singer Blake Shelton has become a household name among non-country fans via his job as a coach on The Voice. (Additionally, Shelton's wife, singer Miranda Lambert, is developing a drama at NBC.) This summer, ABC cast Sugarland member Jennifer Nettles as a judge on Duets, and next up Idol is close to signing country singer Keith Urban as a new judge for 2013. "For country stars, there's a wonderful opportunity to broaden your fan base through this type of exposure," Nettles says.

Plus, there seems to be a country music awards show virtually every other month. Fox got into the game in 2010 with its American Country Awards, a rival to the CMA Awards (ABC), the Academy of Country Music Awards (CBS) and the CMT Music Awards (CMT). "It's a very passionate audience," says CMT programming strategy senior vice president Mary Beth Cunin. "Country music artists are so approachable and real that it leads to that very intimate connection with the fans."

ABC swiped the CMA Awards from CBS in 2006, and it's proven to be such a good fit for the network's female-skewing, adult 18-49 audience that ABC recently renewed its deal with the organization for 10 more years. Besides the awards, ABC will also showcase the CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock on Sept. 17, as well as a Christmas special. Chapman adds that the network's relationship with the industry goes beyond those three events and includes an across-the-board embrace of country music.

"They've been very committed to integrating country across their full breadth of programming," including Good Morning America, Live! With Kelly and Michael and Jimmy Kimmel Live, he says. "Even in primetime, they weave country music through the soundtracks of shows like Grey's Anatomy," he adds. "And you see a lot of country presence on shows like Dancing With the Stars. It's not just the musical guests, but they've had contestants from the format too, like Sara Evans and Billy Ray Cyrus."

In exchange, ABC has the support of CMA's marketing team to help promote its fare. That will come in handy this fall, as the network launches both Nashville and Malibu Country, a new sitcom starring Reba McEntire.

In fact, it's the CMA that helped make Nashville happen. The show came out of a desire by former CMA board and Grand Ole Opry Group president Steve Buchanan to get into the scripted TV business. He met with an ABC specials exec, who told him he needed a writer and fully fleshed out TV show pitch. Buchanan eventually was introduced to screenwriter Callie Khouri and filmmaker R.J. Cutler, and they in turn they connected with Lionsgate TV, which brought a pitch back to ABC. (Grand Ole Opry parent Gaylord Entertainment remains a producer on the show.)

In greenlighting Nashville, Channing Dungey, ABC's senior vice president of drama development, notes that the show is first and foremost a character-driven relationship drama with a Nashville backdrop. But beyond that, Dungey says ABC's audience is tuned into country music's crossover appeal.

"One of the top songs on the Billboard Hot 100 is by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, two artists who are traditionally straight country, but their song is reaching audiences across the board," Dungey notes. "This new type of country I think is much more accessible and relatable." Chapman is cheered by the crossover popularity of country music: "To me country music is very mainstream," he says. "When you look at formats like Idol it's all about fan voting. And when you see the large volume of talent in our format borne out of that, that speaks to the popularity of country music in the mainstream."

ABC and Lionsgate are taking the music on Nashville seriously. Producers are looking into making original songs performed by the cast (including Britton and Hayden Panettiere) available for download, and artists like John Paul White and Joy Williams of The Civil Wars — which has hit it big in alternative music with a country-tinged sound — have contributed songs to the show. And in a big coup, Khouri's husband, legendary record producer T-Bone Burnett (who won a best original song Oscar for the feature Crazy Heart), has signed on as an executive music producer to oversee Nashville's sound.

"There have been other pilots made about Nashville, but nothing has gone forward as of yet on the scripted side, and I think part of the reason is it's kind of hard to figure out how to access that world in a real way," Dungey says. Khouri has lived in Nashville while fellow executive producer Cutler has a background in documentaries. The two bring "a real sense of authenticity to this world," she says.

Nettles says she'll cautiously tune in to see how Nashville tackles her industry. "I couldn't go see Country Strong because I was afraid to see how country music would be portrayed," she says of the 2010 Gwyneth Paltrow movie. "I get very hesitant and anxious about how a genre is going to be made into a caricature or not. I'm going to be interested to see it." ABC is betting she's not the only one.

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