Before Playing Dallas, Nashville's Jonathan Jackson Talks About His Band.
Jonathan Jackson isn't just a musician. He also plays one on TV.
For three seasons now, Jackson has starred as struggling singer-songwriter and rising superstar producer Avery Barkley on ABC's Nashville. It's a role he earned, though, because of his real-life chops as a guitarist. For more than a decade, the five-time Emmy winner has played a brand of cinematic indie rock with his brother, drummer and fellow actor Richard Lee Jackson, who you might recognize from his stint at Ryan Parker on Saved by the Bell: The New Class, and bassist Daniel Sweatt. Together, they perform under the name Enation.
Now, thanks to the popularity of Nashville, the trio's scored itself a record deal and found itself playing bigger and bigger stages. And, before Nashville begins filming its fourth season, Enation's summer tour brings that band to Dallas, where it'll make a stop at Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill on Thursday, June 25.
Ahead of that show, we caught up with Jackson over the phone to find out about Nashville's inner workings and why actors make the best songwriters.
First off, congrats on Nashville getting picked up for another season. That's definitely good news.
Yeah, we're very excited about that.
I guess that's a good jumping off point to ask whether you consider yourself to be more of an actor that plays music or a musician that acts?
Honestly, I really don't look at it with either one having more precedence. In terms of a career, acting has taken the forefront since I was 11-years-old when I started General Hospital. But in terms of my own passions towards acting and music, it's pretty much the same. In many ways, I think that music is probably a little bit closer to my heart. I try to put all of myself in whatever I'm doing, whether it's a scene that I'm performing or a song that I'm writing. I try to give it 100 percent regardless.
I know that you've been doing both for a long time, so it's cool that you finally found a role where you get to do both. Your character Avery Barkley on Nashville is a musician, and you get to play music and sing on the show.
It's amazing. For years, I was trying to figure out a way to do both, and I never thought that a show like this would come along where those two worlds really just came together in an incredible way. I love the character. I love the music that I get to do on the show. For me, it's a huge, huge blessing.
A lot of actors on the show actually play their own instruments. Does that add an extra layer to what you're doing — not only having to learn a scene, but having to learn how to play a song and going in and recording these songs?
Yeah, it does. The music aspect of it is really a huge addition to the regular filming schedule with the acting. We have to learn the songs and record them. And then, in terms of the instrumentation, what usually happens is they have incredible musicians from around town record the songs. We basically learn exactly what they recorded so that, when we're filming, what we're playing on the guitar or piano is authentic to what they did. But when we go out on tour with Nashville, then we're actually playing the instruments live. On the show, when we film it, it's more like a music video; it's already pre-recorded.
How much of yourself is in Avery? Do you, for instance, get to pick what guitars he plays or anything like that?
The guitar aspect of it, they did ask me early on if I had a preference and, for whatever reason, I chose the Gibson 335. That's been, sort of, Avery's main guitar, as well as another incredible acoustic guitar that's just so beautiful. When he's touring with Juliette, he's playing different guitars — beautiful Gretsch guitars, for instance. There's a little bit of collaboration. They really try to be authentic to what they used when they recorded a song. So, if they used a Gretsch when they recorded it, then they're going to try and make sure that I'm actually playing a Gretsch when we're filming it, because they want the tones of the guitars and the amps to match as closely as possible to whatever the recording was. They really do a pretty incredible job with the authenticity of all that.
Yeah, that's a level of detail I wouldn't have necessarily thought went into the show.
It's pretty amazing. Colin Linden, who is a brilliant guitar player, also oversees all of the bands and musicians from the organ player to the bass player to the drummer. All of the musicians, he oversees to make sure they're actually playing the same part, as close as possible to what was recorded, so that whenever they film it's completely synced up.
I've also heard that your dad was a country musician. Can you tell me a little about him and how his career played an influence on what you're doing?
Yeah. Music was a huge part of my family. My dad, in particular, was a country music songwriter and singer. He played guitar. He recorded an album in Nashville when we were kids, but we grew up in Washington state. He's a family practice physician, so that's his main job, but his love is music. He'd put on benefit concerts in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, all the time when we were growing up, so the first time I ever played music was onstage with him doing country music. I grew up listening to Vince Gill and Garth Brooks and Don Williams and all sorts of incredible country artists. A lot of Elvis' gospel music, as well. Coming to Nashville and performing at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman has sort of brought me back to my childhood a little bit, because that's when I listened to that music the most.
Did your dad write anything notable that I might have heard before?
No. I mean, one of the songs off his record was on the radio and on the charts, but he's a very committed family man. He would have had to not been around as much, so he decided to just keep music has his passion and do it locally. He's doing the family practice thing as a doctor, so that was just his past.
It sounds like a lot of that rubbed off on you, as far as prioritizing spending time with your kids and family even though you've got a band and a television show.
Yeah, absolutely. It's definitely had a big influence on me, just how committed our parents were in putting family above all else. It's meant a lot.
Was your father's influence part of why you auditioned for the show in the first place? What was the audition process like?
It's interesting, because a few years before Nashville happened, my dad told me, “You should think about developing a show about a musician, like a struggling singer-songwriter, so you can kind of combine the acting and the music.” I guess that was slightly prophetic, because, y'know, I just happened to get on Nashville and play a singer-songwriter, which is really wild. But the audition process was, basically, they said to bring a guitar and sing a song or two, and also prepare a couple scenes. That was fun, because I usually don't get to bring a guitar to auditions. That was cool. I think I auditioned on a Friday, and had a callback on Monday with screen testing by Tuesday or Wednesday. It was a very quick process. I sang a couple U2 songs, I think: “Desire” and “One.” I think we found out within a few days that I had gotten the role, which was very exciting.
It's interesting that you did the U2 songs, because that's a lot closer to what your band Enation sounds like than the Nashville stuff.
Yeah, I didn't feel like trying to do a country thing, because that's not really what I do. I just wanted to play something that connects, musically, from my own world. I think it's really amazing that they took Avery in a different direction, musically. He's never really done country music on the show — it's been more Americana, rock 'n' roll and some ballads on the piano. It's certainly closer to what I do in Enation.
And you had a song at the end of Season 1 that you wrote?
Yes, “The Morning of the Rain.” That was really fun.
You've been doing the Enation thing a long time before the show, but do you credit Nashville at all for your record deal or helping get more people out to the shows?
Oh yeah. The exposure from the show is a huge blessing. In this day and age, there's so much content and media out there, it's not an easy thing to be able to get visibility and exposure. That's been great with the show. But I'm really grateful for all of the years that we've been playing music independently because we're very close as a band. It's had a lot of years of recording and playing live to sharpen what we do and learn and grow and everything. It just feels like it's been a journey, and now we're in a new phase. The intent is still the same as it's always been. Music is a very powerful medium, and it can inspire and change people's lives. That's what we love about it.
I'm sure doing it on your own for so long that you have more appreciation for it than if you had just thrown a band together in order to capitalize on the show's popularity.
Exactly. It really doesn't feel [any different]. For us in the band, we're just still doing what we do. It's the same thing for us, we just have a different opportunity now in terms of the exposure. It's an amazing thing. Richard [Jackson], the drummer, is my brother, and we've been playing music together for a long time. Daniel Sweatt, who plays bass, has been in the band for over 10 years. So it's the same three guys playing music together since we were teenagers, basically. It's a beautiful thing that we really try to hold on to, even though we've moved states and it's been difficult at times to keep it together. We're still pushing forward.
Tell me about your songwriting in Enation. Do you think coming from an acting background helps as far as getting into the headspace of a character whose point of view you might write a song from, or to write about things you haven't necessarily experienced firsthand?
It certainly influences it a lot. Over the years, it's interesting, I've played a lot of intense characters, whether it was a heroin addict, a serial killer or someone who is struggling with suicide — lots of different kinds of roles. I've been writing songs that whole time, and there's been a lot of different songs that came out of that. As an actor, like you said, you get into the skin of a character and understand some of their fears and hopes and dreams, the struggles and trials of another human being. It sort of creates an instinct towards empathy and compassion. That's definitely worked its way into the songwriting. Some of the songwriters I love the most, Michael Stipe, for instance, said that he rarely writes songs that are autobiographical. I like writing songs that are autobiographical, but it becomes a little bit narcissistic at some point, because you get tired of thinking about your own emotions. Being able to think about stories or a character or even a friend that's struggling with something, and being able to create something that is less self-focused and more pointed outward oftentimes creates better results — at least for me.
By that same token, do you think that influences the cinematic nature of so many of your songs or how your most recent album kind of works together as one piece?
Yeah, absolutely. The title, [Radio Cinematic] was very purposeful on our end. For us, music is completely connected to visuals and storytelling. In the same way, filmmaking is not the same without the incredible music that people put into their stories. Oftentimes, I've seen films where the first shot of the movie I'm completely drawn in, just because of the music that's being played. Because Richard and I have been in acting and storytelling and music since we were really young, those two worlds are connected. When approached the record, we used terms like, “What's the story arc?” or “What is this character going through?” So, we put themes throughout the record that kind of connect to itself. And we know that, in this day and age, most people just download songs and that the art of making an album has disappeared in many ways. But we didn't really care. We wanted to make something that felt like an album from the beginning to the end. That's just part of the fun of making records.
Lastly, on something of a more silly note, I've got a question about how, on the show,. Avery often goes on tour as the sideman for a lot famous country musicians. If you were going to go out on tour as somebody's guitarist, who would you most enjoy playing with?
Oh, wow. I don't know, maybe somebody like Leonard Cohen would be amazing. That's probably the first person I'd think of, somebody like him. There's so many different styles and very European melodies that it would be fun to learn some of that stuff.
Enation performs on Thursday, June 25, at Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill.