When you first hear that Charles Esten – perhaps better known to many as Deacon from the television program Nashville, or the current Hardee’s commercials where he portrays founder “Carl Sr.” – is headlining a national tour of talent from Nashville, you probably can’t help but think that he may be taking Method acting too far. Then you hear what he has spent the past year doing, and you decide, “Yes, this has definitely gone too far!”

“Every Single Friday” was a concept that Esten came up with when he was thinking of releasing some original music that he had created onto the Internet for fans to enjoy, as he contemplated a long hoped-for musical career. While folks around Nashville found themselves with the opportunity to see Esten perform several times a year, thanks to the production schedule of his hit show and the town being his main residence, but for many folks the closest that they would get to hearing the man was to replay their well-worn Nashville soundtracks. What started as a little freebie for those fans soon took on a life of its own, as Esten recently wrapped up his marathon of weekly releases at fifty four.

Fans will get the chance to hear some of those songs tonight, as well as those performed on the television program Nashville by his character Deacon, when the Nashville tour members take the stage at Red Hat Amphitheater tonight at 7:00 pm. I had a chance to speak to Esten of a moment this past week, while he wrapped up promotional interviews for both the tour and his Single project. We touch on his sanity after volunteering for such a musical undertaking; his preference between original or cover material onstage; and how important the Grand Ole Opry is to nearly every aspect of his current professional career.

Isaac Weeks: You just wrapped up your “Every Single Friday” project. Who forced you into doing this, because surely no one would willingly sign onto such an undertaking.

Charles Esten: What it was is that there was a guy who had been waiting his whole life to get into a musical situation like Nashville. He had been writing songs his whole life, and then comes to Nashville and stays for over four years. During that time he finds himself writing and playing with some of the best in the music business. I had built up this catalogue of songs that I had written over the years, just going out and playing on the road at my own small shows; my drummer said to me once, “You are the strangest performer I’ve met in the business. We go to these packed venues, and everyone is having a great time. You play these Deacon songs that they know from the show, and then you play these other songs as yourself, but if they love your actual music they can’t go out and buy them anywhere.” So I admit that it was an odd way to start a music career.

Then, when I was thinking of doing an EP or an album, it just didn’t feel like the right path for me. I started putting out singles, one a week, and I never set out to put out fifty-four straight singles. I just thought, “I’ll just put these songs out there until it’s stupid or makes sense,” which I guess a lot of folks might think I passed that line a long time ago. I don’t think so, because I’m proud of all of these songs. It never was a point where I ran out of songs but felt like I had to keep going; in fact, I still have a bunch, but I just feel like a year straight – fifty four songs – is a good place to stop. I sell them in compilations of nine songs per disc on tour, so this was a good way to end that sixth edition.

Whatever led me to going through with this, it was a huge boon to creativity, a real deadline machine. One of the things that I really loved about this was that it became a big collaborative effort. My wife is one of the reasons I was able to do it, with all of the work that she put into it, with all of her support. It was collaborative in a different way than acting. I’ve been an actor for over twenty five years, and its saying the words that someone else wrote you to say, someone else comes in and directs you how to say them, someone else edits and cuts it the way they want it cut; the producer is in charge of all of those decisions. I love every bit of that, but I have to admit to loving this aspect of “Every Single Friday,” that fact that it has that “the buck stops here” decision making to it. For better or for worse, it’s my music, exactly as it was in my – and my cowriters – heads.

IW: How many songs did you have ready to go when the project was announced?

CE: Ready to go, like if we were about to miss a deadline or something? I don’t think there were more than…I think there were less than ten. There were a bunch that were near to being ready, but they still hadn’t been recorded. Maybe it was ten to fifteen, at most, but I really don’t think I had that many. The songs weren’t even all written at the time, I wrote a bunch during the past year, but there were also a couple that came from before I had ever moved to Nashville. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, as any song could jump to the front of the line, or fall back if we felt it needed more time to make happen. It took living in Music City to make this really happen.

IW: With the Nashville tour, when you are performing, which brings you the most enjoyment: performing the songs from the show that everyone in the audience is familiar with, or playing your original songs from this project?

CE: I’m not avoiding answering this because it’s a hard question. It’s almost an impossible question, because it’s sort of like it depends on the moment. We’ve been opening up the shows with an original of mine called “Buckle Up”, and the reason is just to come out with something that tells everyone that they are in for a party. Then there is a moment in the show where I play a song called “Sanctuary,” which Deacon sang on the show with Maddie and Daphne on one of the episodes after Rayna died, and it’s just a very special and tender song that I would rather sing in that moment than one of mine. If I’m singing it, it’s because it’s the one I want to sign right then. I wouldn’t want to do these shows without singing any Deacon songs, because there are so many great songs I was able to perform on the tv show, but I wouldn’t want to do it without singing my own as well. I think they complement each other. There’s a whole lot of Deacon in my music, and there’s a whole lot of me in his.

IW: You are a frequent guest and performer on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and the Opry is listed as a producer on the Nashville show. What’s it like to tour the country as basically a new artist with the strength of the Opry behind you?

CE: The real power of the Grand Ole Opry in my life is having been allowed, many times now, to stand on that stage and perform. That’s a show that didn’t get famous because of country music; that’s a show that made country music famous, the Grand Ole Opry. I don’t have a whole lot of words to use, because I run out when I try to express what being on that show means to me. None of this is lost on me; I’m a giant fan of what the institution means both to me and to the country music genre. They do things right; they don’t do things in a way that just services the music and forgets the heart of it. They take real care, and that’s a wonderful thing to have on the road.