By Megan Locke Simpson, Courier staffApril 4, 2014
The Fort Campbell community got a chance to see and participate in the making of an acclaimed television drama last week, when ABC's "Nashville" set up filming at Sabre Army Airfield and at McAuliffe Hall, the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division.
The episode, set to air May 7, will feature concert scenes, special guests and the appearances of many Soldiers and Family members as background extras. The show, based around the thriving country music industry in Music City, focuses on the lives of Rayna James (Connie Britton) -- a country legend -- and the up-and-coming, country-pop sensation Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere).
Now well into its second season, the show finds its characters performing for the troops at Fort Campbell -- a mere hour away from Nashville both in reality and on the television series. The interconnection between the series and the Army community is a necessity, said "Nashville" actor Melvin Kearney, while on set March 26. The former sergeant with the North Carolina National Guard plays Juliette Barnes' bodyguard, Bo.
"Like I've been saying from the beginning, we can't show the true Nashville without having 101st [Airborne Division] a part of it," said the Veteran, who deployed twice to Iraq.
Kearney did not originally set out to become an actor, but now that he has an audience, he continues to advocate for Wounded Warriors and military causes. He says the entire cast and crew are equally supportive of service members. This support was evident from the first time Kearney visited the ?"Nashville" set and met Panettiere.
"'You wore the uniform, so you're the real celebrity,'" he recalled Panettiere saying.
"The fact that she told me that, I mean, I still get the chills. That meant so much. Because this cast cares. They get it."
For Panettiere, who spent much of the week in shoots and reshoots of a major concert scene, service and duty to country are concepts her Family ingrained in her at an early age. The experience of interacting with Soldiers firsthand on an Army installation was "unbelievable," the actress said.
"It's an overwhelming feeling, and my dad was a lieutenant in the fire department in New York City, so I have a great respect for those who serve our country and protect it and just to be here and see it in person is surreal," she said.
Being able to use the show as a platform to spotlight Soldiers and the sacrifices of military Families is what Panettiere appreciates most.
"It's an incredibly exhilarating, overwhelming, no words to describe it feeling," she said. "We have these choppers coming in and out in the middle of our performing, and our American flag going up and our Soldiers around us and cast and crew … you just feel a great sense of unity."
"… They're really commendable people and it's amazing to put faces to those who are our heroes and protectors."
The experience was also valuable for the Soldiers and Family members in attendance, who got the behind-the-scenes experience of what it takes to film a one-hour network television episode. Specialist Michael Carroll, 326th Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, enjoyed his experience as an extra.
"It's a lot of background work," he explained. "But it's cool to be on a set and have a different kind of experience from what you see on TV."
Whether interacting one-on-one with cast and crew or simply blending into the concert crowd, Carroll said he really appreciates the chance to represent Fort Campbell Soldiers.
"If anyone else has an opportunity to do something like this, it's pretty cool to do," he said.
Abby Torres, an Army spouse, watches "Nashville" each week. When her Family moved recently from Germany to Fort Campbell, much of her excitement came from realizing how close she would be to the country music capital.
"I love country music," she said. "I love music in general."
Torres stayed on the Sabre Army Airfield set for the majority of the day, March 26, where she interacted with many of the show's leads, including Charles Esten, who portrays guitarist Deacon Claybourne. Panettiere even held 3-year-old KaiLani, Torres' daughter, by the end of filming.
"They're just like right there in your face," she said of the actors. "You're like, 'wow, I see you on TV every day.'
"It's a good opportunity to show people that the Army Soldiers are here and … Nashville supports us. It's a great opportunity for everybody."