Swapping the Cornish countryside for Tennessee, Sam Palladio made his name starring in TV’s hit show Nashville, in Runner Runner alongside Justin Timberlake, and with Matt LeBlanc in Episodes – but his sights are also set on his own music. We chat to him about buying guitars in Music City, writing music on the set of Nashville, and having the Grand Ole Opry as a second home.
Just before the Nashville cast is recalled to Tennessee to start filming season three of the hit US musical show, one of the stars, Sam Palladio, is taking a couple of days out in the UK capital to make a rare appearance on stage at The Borderline with country duo (and Nashville songwriters) Striking Matches. Having played The Grand Ole Opry more often than some of country music’s biggest stars (12 times in total), Sam – who plays aspiring musician Gunnar in Nashville – is no stranger to the stage and admits that the last time he played London was to “about eight people in King’s Cross”.
The series features original songs by music heavyweights including T-Bone Burnett and gives Sam the chance to spotlight his talents in his role as a young musician trying to make a living in Music City. Before flying to Tennessee to film the pilot of the show, he’d never been to the US; the 27-year-old then became the first actor to be offered a role in the show to star alongside Hayden Panettiere, Connie Briton, and Charles Esten.
Walking into the Gibson Guitar HQ in Soho, London, with his guitar case in hand and dressed in a leather biker jacket, skinny jeans, and boots, he looks more rock star than soap star.
‘Whoa,’ Sam mutters, nodding his head in approval at the amount of guitars hanging around the studio. ‘I’ve never been in here before; it’s amazing,’ he says, unbuckling his guitar case. ‘I’m off to rehearse with Striking Matches this afternoon before our gig tonight, so I’ve got the Gibson I’ll be using.’
The Gibson he pulls out of his case is a CF-100E – a guitar some of you may have also spotted him using in the show, too, although this one is from his own collection. He’s also got a bit of history with Striking Matches as they also found their fame through Nashville, writing music for the show, including ‘When The Right Ones Comes Along’ sung by Sam and his costar Clare Bowen who plays Sam’s onscreen writing partner Scarlet O’Connor.
‘I met Striking Matches in Nashville a couple of years ago filming the show and getting to sing some of their fantastic songs. I was blown away by one of their live shows so we swapped numbers and we started to write music together about a year ago. That was my first taste of the Nashville co-writing thing; I always thought before living there that artists wrote their own songs – I soon realised that’s rare these days,’ he says.
In a way it’s a little ironic because that’s exactly what his character, Gunnar, portrays in the show – hooking up with artists and writing songs for other musicians. This draws some similarities between his life on screen and off – only when he writes, he’ll be keeping the songs.
’Yeah, exactly. It was very important from the beginning that we [the show] painted the right picture. The Nashville co-writing system is that you have artists signed to publishing deals and they throw you into three writing sessions a day and the songs get churned out and shipped off to artists looking for songs for new albums. Our process [with Striking Matches] wasn’t writing to get a big country hit – it was writing to get a flavour for how we work together. The whole vibe in Nashville is a very creative one and about having great friendships with musicians.’
Although convincing many US viewers of Nashville that he’s from their home turf with his southern twang, Sam wasn’t fazed by the idea of adopting a southern accent for a major US TV show. Although it’s something he’s asked by many fans and journalists alike, he laughs a little when I say no one has a clue he’s from the UK.
‘I went to Rose Bruford college for three years and my final project was the play Orpheus Descending [Tennessee Williams] which was set in the south of the US, and we had a great dialect coach for that. I spent two months of my final year working on a southern accent and getting all my notes down and doing the phonetics of it all. Time passed and then I graduated, had four years of working doing theatre, TV, and musicals, and so when the audition came through for Nashville I felt quite comfortable working in an American accent, but at the time they hadn’t specified where my character was from so I auditioned in a general American accent and then it wasn’t until two days before I flew out there when they said, “Oh, he’s from Texas.” I pulled out all my old notes from college and worked on my, er, twang,’ he says in a southern drawl. ‘I think it’s fantastic living in the city. I’m fortunate enough to have a musical ear – and I think accents are very musical. I can hear all these southerners around town in the bars and clubs and I have a lot of southern friends now – you just absorb it. I think my accent has gotten stronger since I started the show. I watch the first few episodes of season one and then I’ll watch the end of season two and think, “Ah, my accent is definitely better!”’
Sam’s big break in Nashville wasn’t the product of an arduous line of auditions and script readings. After being turned down for a role in the Cohen Brothers’ film Inside Lewellyn Davis, and with another job offer on the table which would have taken him to Siberia, Sam went from filming a video in the bedroom of his flat to working with one of the world’s biggest TV production companies in less than a fortnight.
‘I’d just started working with my American manager at the very beginning of 2012 and the first script I was sent was Inside Lewellyn Davis by the Coen Brothers which I thought was amazing because I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan. I did some auditions for that and sent them a couple of videos of my playing guitar and singing some James Taylor tunes, and that didn’t go anywhere but this second job was ABC’s Nashville. I read the script, thought it was great – as well as an awesome way to combine my two passions – but it was a big US production company and I’d never even been to America, so I thought I’d not have a chance but I’d give it a try anyway. I put myself on tape in my bedroom with a webcam at about 4am in the morning. I thought I’d do the work, but I wasn’t going to kill myself over it because I thought it’d never happen – they were looking for a country singer, you know? So I sent this tape off and then three days later I got the call to say that ABC really liked the audition tape, but asked that I redo it because of the quality,’ he laughs. ‘So we reshot the scenes, included bits from the Cohen Brothers audition tapes of me playing James Taylor as a bit extra and then some bits from YouTube of me playing my own songs and then we sent this little package off. At the same time as this, I’d had another job offer, which was going to take me to Siberia, which I was really excited about but suddenly this offer came back for Nashville. I’d never been to the States, never met anyone from the show, didn’t have any phone conversations with casting directors or anything – I was just offered the job, and I was the first person to be cast in the show. I had this ridiculously fateful audition process and then they just flew me to Nashville but I felt like I had a lot to prove because they’d taken this chance on me.’
Although Sam claims he’s a little indecisive about which passion he feels he should focus on the most, he shuns the idea quickly and says that just about every job he’s had has involved some form of music and that music and acting will always go hand-in-hand for him. As well as writing his own music and filming Nashville, he’s been working on the new animated Disney picture – Primrose – voicing one of the characters for their next big musical film.
‘I’ve been working on it for about a year now, and it stars Alan Cumming and Rachel Evan Wood. It’ll be out at some point in 2015. I sing some Elvis songs that merge into a Beyoncé tune with the female lead; Frankie Vale merges into Kelly Clarkson – a load of mash-ups. I think I learned my stagecraft by playing in bands as a kid. I didn’t actually study theatre until I was at college – I wanted to be a marine biologist up until I was around 16 or 17! I loved music and was playing in bands from 13, so I was always learning how to work an audience from then.’
‘I’m also off to Memphis soon to film and present a BBC radio show and documentary about Elvis which is going to be amazing. I found out that the first time he was on the Opry they thought he was terrible and they paid him six bucks to leave because it wasn’t what the Opry wanted to see. To think that playing the Opry is something I’ve done is incredible. They’ll call me and tell me to look at the dates ahead and see if there are any I want to play. I saw Hunter [Hayes, Grammy nominated country star] was playing and I asked if I could play that date.’
A jack-of-all-trades muso having self taught himself every instrument he plays, Sam is a deft guitar player but also bass player and drummer – you’ll notice he plays the latter in Nashville, too. He’s also studying classical piano playing at Belmont School of Music in Nashville in his spare time.
‘I guess I’m still trying to do new things. It’d be great to get a bit more music theory going, too, which is why I’ve stated the piano lessons. They’re going very slowly because I’m learning to sight read at the same time. In Nashville, the musicianship is so strong that it does make you up your game. I can go to see a band every single night and they’ll pretty much be faultless shows and every show will be better than the next and you’ll be like, “Man, how do they do it?” so it does make me want to develop my playing all the time. I can play my guitar in a pub in London and strum some chords and get away with it if I’m a little out of time, but you really stand out if you do that in Nashville because you know the audience is probably going to be musicians.’
While the guitar voicings aren’t played by the actors on Nashville, despite the cast members also being musicians, they learn every song so that it’s an authentic representation of the chord patterns, picking patterns and shapes. Canadian record producer and guitar player Colin Linden voices all the guitar parts for Sam and teaches him the techniques for shooting the scenes each week.
‘Colin’s like the show’s guitar mentor. When we come to shoot the scenes we learn the songs because we are all musicians ourselves and we want to learn them exactly as they’re recorded. He plays with me out in the real world when I do shows, too. It means that each week or so we’re learning a new song and some new technique and fingerpicking pattern that I didn’t know the week before – it’s definitely improved my skills that way. The music team is always trying to find the best music they can for us to play.’
So when you’re out in Nashville, you must get people coming up to you handing you CDs with the hope you’ll get their songs on the show? ‘Yeah, a bit. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about that. I take some CDs and listen to them, but I don’t have any say over what they use or not – and I’m trying to get my own songs onto the show,’ he laughs. ‘There are a load of songs I’ve written with Striking Matches that are close to being used on the show.’
Before chatting to Sam, I had quite an idealistic view of what happens on the set of Nashville. I wanted to think that all the cast members sat around together waiting to shoot scenes writing music together, going out and drinking beers on Music Row… Turns out they do just that. Although, in another TV-show-cum-real-life parallel, Sam’s character Gunnar co-writes a song with Jay DeMarcus from huge country crooners Rascal Flatts in one of the show’s episodes. Obviously, this then turned into Sam doing the exact same thing in real life.
‘Yeah, so the scene happened and then in the downtime while we were sitting around after filming, and having a bunch of guitars around, I started playing a riff to one of my really old songs and he [DeMarcus] turns to me and says, “Hey, that’s really cool and catchy” so I said, “If you’re interested, do you want to tear it apart, use it, and write a song?” We ended up having a writing session where we turned this song of mine called ‘Water Colours’ into a song called ‘Black and White’ which we’ll hopefully demo with a chance of it getting cut.’
Strangely, when he was growing up, Sam wasn’t a fan of country music at all, favouring and taking inspiration from famed folk singers. ‘I’m still in love with 1970s era music – CSNY, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, but I guess because of the show I needed to, and wanted to, be educated on country music. What a cool piece of homework to have to do, though, right?’
Although Sam owns an enviable selection of acoustic guitars (including the Gibson CF-100E), he doesn’t use his own in the show. The main acoustic Sam’s character, Gunnar, is seen with is the Gibson LG-2. It’s no surprise that for gear lovers, Nashville is pretty much guitar porn – they even dedicated a whole episode to a pre-war Martin.
‘They kind of established that we wouldn’t use our own guitars way back in the beginning. Gunnar’s prized possession is that Gibson LG-2, but we don’t get much of a say of what gear goes onto the show. I really enjoy playing Taylor guitars and I think they’re slowly introducing Taylors at the moment, but for all the gear-heads it’s great. Danny Rowe is the props master and he deals with all of the guitar companies. When we film a big music scene all the amps and guitars are live; the band you see in the shots are all amazing session musicians. All the details are really precise – we use a local Nashville company for things like cables. Guitar-wise, it’s funny – I used to be happy with one guitar but now I’ve got about six. For travelling around the country I’ve got a Taylor GS Mini and a Baby Taylor, which you can put in the overhead compartment of a plane. I’ve just started to play a Gretsch Country Gentleman now, too, which is beautiful with some flat wound strings on it for that Americana buzz. I’ve got a Gibson LG-2 American Eagle [the LG-2 he uses in the show is a sunburst finish, his own is a natural finish], and one of the coolest guitars I’ve got is an old 40s parlour B&J Serenader. I found it in a vintage guitar store in East Nashville and it’s really old, but I just had a pickup put in it because I want to play it live. It sounds really twangy, but so great. There is a ridiculous selection of guitars in Nashville and you will find some bargains, but you’d still have to pay a fair whack for a vintage Martin or something. Gruhn’s Guitars is amazing; I also buy a lot of gear from this place called Corner Music. They have a big poster that goes around the whole room of artists who’ve bought gear there and I turned up one day and they had put me up there – right next to Billy Ray Cyrus,’ he laughs.
‘All of the songs are together now,’ he says of releasing his own album. ‘I had a lot of offers to make albums and make EPs in the first year of being on the show, but I think for me it’s so important that I get the music and the songs right and I don’t mind taking my time on that. I’m in the place right now where I could easily have a six-track EP and then an album, but I’m at the point where I’m making decisions on who might produce an EP or album, who the label will be, and I’m glad I’ve taken my time because I think it’s given me a great selection of songs. People are really eager to see what they’re going to get, so it’s an exciting period. I would love to get my album out while season three of Nashville is airing, as there’s a great platform there – but slow and steady wins the race. It’s exciting being pulled in so many directions and having the time to record is tough to come by, but that’s not such a bad problem to have.’
Sam Palladio stars in ABC’s Nashville. To keep up-to-date with Sam and his music, follow him on Twitter @SamPalladio
Words: Guy Little Images: Richard Ecclestone