The man the crowd knows as Deacon from the popular television show Nashville takes the stage at the Grand Ole Opry to screams of recognition. He starts with a sensitive ballad, and women of all ages stream past the lip of the stage and take his photo before being urged by ushers to make way for the next in line. Charles Esten looks to be having the time of his life. Is he a country music star, an actor playing a country music star or something in between?
Who knows, and really, why would it matter? Everybody is having a good time. Esten segues into a drinking song. “Pour, pour, pour some more,” he sings, “just like the four you poured before.” The crowd eats it up.
Off to the side of the stage, a low-key, conservatively dressed man looks on. The man is Steve Buchanan, BS’80, MBA’85, president of Opry Entertainment and co-creator and executive producer of ABC’s nighttime TV drama, Nashville.
At Ryman Hospitality Properties, Buchanan is also a music business executive, a type represented on Nashville as the heartless and manipulative character Marshall Evans, head of fictional Edgehill Records. But Evans, Deacon, Rayna, Juliette and the rest of the television Nashville world exist only because of the vision of this real-life executive with a heart for the music and a business sensibility forged at Vanderbilt University and Owen Graduate School of Management.
Raised in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the son of a nuclear engineer and a chemist, Buchanan first enrolled in Vanderbilt as an undergraduate in the engineering school, intending to become an environmental engineer.
“I loved music and I very quickly got involved in the concert committee as a freshman,” Buchanan says. “In fact, that and the fact that engineering school was very challenging contributed to less than stellar academic performance for me.”
Buchanan and his cohorts brought many memorable shows to campus. Some of his favorites include Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Muddy Waters, Pat Metheny, Lester Flatt, David Bromberg, George Thorogood and Karla Bonoff.
“We were freshman hallmates in 1975 at Vanderbilt and immediately became best friends,” remembers Ken Levitan, now an artist manager whose clients include Kings of Leon and Emmylou Harris. “We were both involved on the concert committee and Steve was unbelievably hardworking at everything he did.”
“Steve brought Bob Marley to town,” Levitan says, still sounding astounded decades later that the reggae legend played Vanderbilt. Buchanan shakes his head, calling the Marley concert “an amazing experience.”
Buchanan says a course with Vanderbilt’s legendary cultural sociologist Richard “Pete” Peterson led him to transfer to the College of Arts and Science and major in sociology and psychology.
But it was really his extracurricular activities promoting music shows that allowed Buchanan to discover his vocation. “It was enlightening for me because despite my complete love for music, I had never necessarily thought of it as being a business,” Buchanan says.
First Job on Music Row
Upon graduation, Buchanan rejected suggestions that he move to Atlanta or New York, where he was told he could probably find work at a promoter or record label. Instead, he placed his bets again on Nashville. Levitan had already graduated and gone to work at Buddy Lee Attractions, a booking agency on Music Row.
“I helped Steve get a job at Buddy Lee,” Levitan says. “At that time there were still a lot of independent booking agencies in Nashville and you could make a mark there.”
At Buddy Lee, Buchanan was in a position to meet music industry people in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles.
“Two of the agents I worked with had played with Hank Williams (Sr.),” he recalls. The two, Jerry Rivers and Don Helms, still worked weekends as the Drifting Cowboys. “So I was both learning the business and learning the history of the business.”
Still, Buchanan had a nagging feeling that there was too much he didn’t know. He questioned if he even wanted a career in the music industry.
Once Again, Vanderbilt is the Answer
“I made the decision to quit my job and go back to school full time because I wanted to do a specific concentration and immerse myself,” he says.
Buchanan entered the MBA program at the Owen Graduate School of Management, focusing on marketing and gaining a strong foundation in the fundamentals of management.
Like his undergraduate career, getting started was rough.
“It was a rocky start, because it’s very difficult to just disconnect yourself when you’re still in the same playground that you were in before,” he says. “You’re still in your mid-20s and you still like to go out and listen to music, and your friends are still around and you’re supposed to be totally bathed in academics. It finally kicked in second semester.”
At Owen, Buchanan learned to be disciplined in his approach to business. “It really made me focus,” he says. “I learned to be methodical and strategic about things.”
Coming out of Owen, Buchanan faced a crossroads between a managerial training program at Northern Telecom and becoming the first marketing manager in the history of the Grand Ole Opry.
“Coming out of Owen, Buchanan faced a crossroads between a managerial training program at Northern Telecom and becoming the first marketing manager in the history of the Grand Ole Opry.
Today, sitting in his office dominated by a picture-window view of the Cumberland River, Buchanan explains what made him choose the Opry. “You want to know what it was?” Buchanan says. “I just loved Bill Monroe.”
Monroe, for those who don’t know their bluegrass, is the legendary musician whose band, the Blue Grass Boys, put together the high lonesome elements that became bluegrass music in the 1940s. By the time Buchanan crossed paths with Monroe in the 1980s, the master was in his 70s.
“Buddy Lee booked Bill Monroe. I would come out to the Opry to see Bill and I developed a deep appreciation of what the Opry is,” says Buchanan, casual in jeans and blue sweater. “That was a passion that would only grow.”
“It ultimately wasn’t a hard decision to pass on the Northern Telecom job,” Buchanan says. “Yes, it was a better paying job and had a more defined career path. But I thought that the Opry job offered me the opportunity to be in a more traditional business environment while at the same time being engaged in the entertainment and music industry.
“It felt like it was the perfect fit, especially because Bill Monroe, who I’d grown to love booking at Buddy Lee, was a member of the Opry as well,” he says.
Marketing from Scratch
Buchanan found himself walking into a unique situation.
“The Opry had never had a marketing manager, meaning it had never had a marketing budget,” he says. “Most freshly minted MBAs don’t really want to go to work for a place where they don’t have a budget. That doesn’t fit in with the typical scenario.”
Hal Durham, then general manager of the Opry, put aside a modest amount for an advertising budget. Buchanan created a small, simple campaign, which started to address the identity problem his market research showed was holding the country music institution back.
First broadcast in 1925 as a radio show and for many years a national broadcasting powerhouse, the Opry was part of Gaylord Entertainment, today Ryman Hospitality Properties. By the 1980s, the Opry was overly dependent on Gaylord’s Opryland USA theme park and hotel for its audience. Both brought thousands of tourists to the area regularly, which translated into tickets sales for the Opry.
Buchanan’s efforts to revitalize and separate the image of the Opry from the theme park were successful business strategies, which was fortuitous as the park closed in 1997.
“We were also dealing with a much more competitive marketplace from a destinations perspective,” Buchanan says. “Branson, Missouri, became a major competitor. There was huge investment in the ’80s and ’90s in Orlando and then there was the proliferation of casinos around this country. That is still what we deal with today.”
The Ryman Auditorium
If there’s a proudest moment in Buchanan’s early Gaylord career, it would have to be the revitalization of the historic Ryman Auditorium. Along with much of downtown Nashville, the legendary building—former church and for years home of the Grand Ole Opry—had fallen into disrepair during the 1960s and ’70s. The Opry itself had left the building in 1974 for a new facility on the grounds of the Opryland theme park.
“I had never even been in the Ryman Auditorium, and suddenly it was part of my responsibility to market it,” Buchanan says. “This was way before it was fixed up. We charged a couple of bucks and people could tour through it. You could go stand on stage and there was a little gift shop in the back.”
Buchanan was captivated by the Ryman, even though it was in obvious physical distress. It had sat empty for almost 20 years and had been recommended for demolition several times. The building was rundown and the downtown area in which it sat was decidedly seedy.
In 1992, the centennial of the building’s construction, Buchanan was instrumental in arranging for the Ryman to be used for a series of concerts and a live album by Emmylou Harris, her landmark At The Ryman.
He also organized a one-man play with musical performances that included Bill Monroe performing “Working on a Building.”
“Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill went on just before Bill doing ‘Drifting Too Far from the Shore’ and did such a great job that I think Monroe wanted to one-up them,” Buchanan says. “He did. He was outstanding.”
The two events were fortuitously timed. Downtown Nashville was about to undergo urban renewal, and Gaylord and Buchanan had the vision to lead the way.
“It was life- and career-changing for me because I was appointed general manager of the Ryman and got to develop the first business plans to oversee the renovation of the Ryman Auditorium,” Buchanan says. “There was a companywide belief that it was a worthy investment regardless of what it took, that it would be a meaningful and impactful undertaking for the company and city.”
If there’s a proudest moment in Buchanan’s early Gaylord career, it would have to be the revitalization of the historic Ryman Auditorium.
Under Buchanan’s direction, the old building came back to life. Structural issues were addressed. High-tech sound, lighting and engineering were installed, along with the addition of a proscenium for the stage. Central heat and air were added to the now 102-year-old former church. A 14,000- square-foot support building was attached to house ticketing, offices, restrooms, concessions and a gift shop; proper dressing rooms were built (previously, a sole ladies’ room backstage had done double duty as a dressing room for the Opry’s female performers). The building’s original wooden pews were refinished and stenciled artwork on the balcony was faithfully recreated. The Ryman reopened in 1994 to public and performer acclaim, quickly earning a reputation as one of most prestigious performance halls in the world, esteemed for its astounding acoustics.
“We’re sitting here and that was basically 20 years ago and it’s great to be able to look back and see what a visionary decision that really was for (former Gaylord Entertainment CEO) Bud Wendell to make that $8.5 million commitment and investment,” Buchanan says. Gaylord also built the Wildhorse Saloon on Second Avenue in downtown Nashville during that era.
“Both of those investments were critical for the redevelopment of downtown Nashville,” Buchanan says.
What might be remembered as the opening of the second act of Buchanan’s career began with a meeting in late 2010 between the Gaylord executive and some West Coast talent executives. Buchanan was then president of the Grand Ole Opry and senior vice president of Gaylord Entertainment. Again, like in the 1980s, he faced the need to draw people to Nashville and the Opry.
“The first thought was film opportunities,” Buchanan says. “We were kicking around maybe a period piece that captured a moment in time of the Opry’s history and building something around the characters that made up the Opry.” That led to discussions about other film projects, television and theatrical ideas. Rejected concepts included a 30 Rock-like take on the Opry.
“In looking at shows like American Idol, where country artists were sometimes winning, and shows like Glee and Smash—there was an acceptance of performance within a scripted show,” Buchanan says. “It was my feeling that with country music, so many of the barriers had fallen by the wayside. Younger generations are not as identified by genre. They’re interested in artists and songs.
“It’s important to realize that you are creating a drama for network television … that means that things are exaggerated and a bit over the top.”
“And it just felt like Nashville was really being accepted and regarded as a cool place, a very strong creative community and a place where the popular music of the day is being created.”
After finding a production partner with Lion’s Gate and a writer in Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), they pitched Nashville to all three major networks and received offers from ABC and NBC. They chose ABC.
“I really didn’t fully understand about the Nashville vibe until later,” says Loucas George, a producer of Nashville, who says he had misgivings initially about filming the show in its namesake city—mostly because of the lack of film industry infrastructure. It took Buchanan in his role as one of the show’s executive producers to demonstrate how and why Nashville itself was an important character in the series.
“I didn’t understand about the (important songwriter’s showcase) Bluebird Cafe being in a strip mall. That didn’t make sense to me,” he says. “Steve took me to the Grand Ole Opry and all these other places and I started to realize that it was important to film here.
“When I first came here, I thought Steve was going to be a silent extra production partner. He’s been anything but. He’s been the salt of the earth. He is Nashville. He constantly reminds us of the niceness of the people here.”
Khouri says that Buchanan helps to keep it real.
“He is so well-versed in Nashville that we would be very unwise not to call on his knowledge,” she says. “Personally, Steve is an absolute joy. He’s thoughtful, famously low-key and soft-spoken but with a tremendous sense of fun. He’s a fantastic ally.”
Actor Charles Esten, who plays the show’s Deacon Claybourne, calls Buchanan “the face of connectivity and the face of kindness to all of us.”
“From the start, he made everyone involved in the production feel instantly welcome in Nashville. He handles what could be an extremely demanding and stressful job with ease and grace,” Esten says.
People in the fictional Nashville are not always so nice. “It’s not a documentary, after all,” Buchanan says. “It’s important to realize that you are creating a drama for network television. You have got to be able to do something that is compelling and captures people and the genre is that of a prime-time soap opera, so that means that things are exaggerated and a bit over the top.
“But it can still have heart, passion and emotion, and the city and music community don’t have to be disappointed in the portrayal from the perspective of the characters being stereotypes that are inaccurate or dated,” Buchanan says.
Putting the characters aside, almost everyone in Nashville agrees that the cinematography of Nashville represents the city beautifully. “One of the most common comments I hear from people is that they love the way the city looks,” Buchanan says.
That’s no accident. Millions of music fans, tourists and now television viewers have been influenced to see Nashville the way Buchanan sees it—as a deep musical wellspring, a must-visit destination, and now the hip town where the cast of Nashville spins webs of deceit and music each week.