For the past year, in addition to his role as Deacon Claybourne on CMT’s Nashville, Charles Esten has been quite the busy recording artist. In July of 2016, Esten began releasing a single each week on iTunes, and billing the weekly event as Every Single Friday. Now, one year later, Esten will be releasing song number 52, titled “Long Haul.” He admitted to Billboard that he had no idea this once-a-week promotion would be as well-received as it has been.
“I had a whole bunch of music, and was trying to figure out what the album or EP was going to be,” he recalls. As he continued, he began to think a little more outside the box. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was hesitating because it wasn’t the path I should take. Suddenly, it occurred to me that there was no real reason we had to do it in a conventional way. You could just put music out. I’ve been able to write so much music with so many talented people in town, and produce it with so many great players – I thought, ‘What if I committed to putting out one song a week.’ At the time, I really didn’t think I would be doing it for a year, but it sort of caught fire, and I enjoyed the process of songwriting so much – and recording, as well,” he says, adding that committing to such an endeavor really spurred his creative side on.
“I’m one of those guys that having a deadline is something very helpful, because if you don’t give me one, I’ll just keep thinking about it and thinking about it. This gave me a push to get the music out. I have enjoyed every single day of it. There have been some days where it was hard to get the music or the artwork out, but in the end, this has been everything I have wanted and more.”
Make no mistake – though he’s done it without a label, it’s not a DIY project by any means.
“First of all, my wife has very much been a part of this. I could not have done it without her,” he stresses. “She is not just my wife, but she’s like my boss, CEO, and assistant through all this. She makes so much of this run on time. Then, Steve Mandile, and all the guys from Sixwire. Steve has been my producer and co-writer on so many of these, as well as other producers, I also had a lot of help from people with artwork, so it’s been a team. The cool thing about it is for a guy who is on a television show, and has been an actor for so long, all the moments where somebody else would make the decision, I get to make it. That’s one of the things I love most about it. It’s very collaborative, but in the end it comes down to the choices I want to make, and that comes from the songs, and how I want to have them sound. Having that kind of independence and freedom has been a thrill, and that’s due to all those people who have been helping me along the way.”
Though playing Deacon opened many musical doors for Esten, he’s quick to point out the music was a part of his life first.
“That started off a long time ago, pre-high school. I was growing up trying to write songs. We had a piano in the house, and my mom gave me some lessons. But, I was rarely learning what I was supposed to. I was mostly trying to figure out the songs on the radio, and write my own songs. Eventually I was in college, and in a band, and I wrote songs for the band. At that point, I had to decide if it was going to be music or acting, and I wound up going to L.A., hoping that I would get to do both. The first job I had allowed me to do both, when I played Buddy Holly in the West End in London. I was up there playing his music, and acting out his life.”
All of these years later, he’s back in a similar situation. “That might also be a part of the reasoning behind Every Single Friday. I’m an older guy. I’ve been doing this a long time, and finally I’m in Nashville. I didn’t want to waste any time. In some sense, I felt like I was playing catch-up to people who had been here for a while. I didn’t in any way feel hindered by just putting the music out. I was anxious to do that.”
Some of the songs from Every Single Friday were at least loosely based on his television alter-ego, including the emotional “I Climb The Walls,” which also illustrates just how much Esten has become a part of the Nashville music community – even in his “off” time.
“‘I Climb The Walls’ is one that comes from walking in the boots of Deacon Claybourne. I wrote that one with a guy I met at the Bluebird actually, Kendell Marvel, and another friend of ours. He was playing, and I was in the back, trying to stay hidden. He starts to introduce his song, and says ‘How many people are here because of Nashville? They applaud, and he says ‘Well, I’m sorry to tell you that Deacon Claybourne ain’t here tonight.’ I couldn’t help but yell ‘Yes, he is,'” Esten recalled with a laugh.
“His head just spun around. Everybody thought it was a set-up, but it was totally random. He was an incredible writer and artist, and I asked him about writing together. I’m glad we did. The song touches on some of the harder things where you get to that dark place where you feel extremely alone, and you end up climbing the walls. I’ve had it for a while. It holds a special place in my heart.”
Nashville continues to do well in the series’ second life on CMT, enjoying a popularity that stretches across the pond. During this interview, Esten was actually abroad, taking the music of Nashville on the road.
“I’m sitting in a hotel room in Glasgow, Scotland. We have a day off, so I’ve been able to walk around a little bit. We recently had three shows at Royal Albert Hall, and were at Birmingham, and at Nottingham, Brighton, and we’re going to be in Manchester. It’s kind of amazing to be over here, because we almost forget when we’re over on that sound stage in Nashville shooting the shows, and recording the songs, that it has an impact across the seas. We were reminded that from social media – they let you know from all over, but there’s nothing like standing on these stages and hearing the songs from the show sung back to you by the audience. They have found a place in their hearts, and their headphones. That’s amazing to us. It’s further amazing to me that because of Every Single Friday, my songs have found a similar place. We all play some of our own music, as well as from our characters. I look out there, and they are singing along. That would not have happened were it not for this project that lets the music gets out there. That makes it successful. I wanted it to get out, but I never imagined how far it would get out or what a broad range it would have in releasing singles nowadays, but they are listening. As any country artist will tell you, the U.K. and Ireland are rabid new country fans. They go to that next level – and they find out not just your hits, which I have none – but your second-level songs, and they know all your lyrics. Because it’s not the air they breathe, they have to do a little more research. They have to dig a little deeper, and I’ll tell you what….they do.”
Of the song that Esten releases today, he says, “It’s a funky little promise of fidelity and faithfulness. The title definitely seemed fitting for the one-year anniversary of the #EverySingleFriday project because, while I’ve enjoyed every single second of this big endeavor, it has definitely been a LONG HAUL. It took a huge amount of work – not just on my part – but by so many people that helped to make the seemingly impossible happen. I guess I’d have to admit that it occurs to me that all of this, in some sense, has been a kind of declaration that music is a priority to me. Now that I’ve been blessed to get all the incredible opportunities that Nashville – the show and the city – have provided, I honestly can’t conceive of a future that doesn’t somehow include writing, recording, and performing my music as a central part of my life. You might say that I am in it for the long haul.”
So, having held firm to his goal of a song a week for the past year, what’s next?
“I’m not exactly sure,” he stresses. “It might be fifty-two. But, it might be fifty-four. I have some compilation CDs that I bring on the road, with nine songs each, and we’ve made them available at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in downtown Nashville. “I might go to fifty-four, so I can have nine songs on each. Who knows, maybe I’ll take a break and do it again. In the same way that I didn’t know where this would lead, I don’t know where taking a break will lead either. I have loved getting to share this music that has been in my head and my heart with the world. It means the world to me.”