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Charles Esten Talks Country Music, Acting, & ‘Outer Banks’

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Versatile Entertainer Bringing  Solo Show To The Windjammer, Singing Anthem at Riverdogs

By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer

With his past success on the popular CMT television series ‘Nashville’ (originally on ABC), veteran actor Charles Esten became formally introduced to audiences around the country, as well as the world. At 55 Esten has been busy at this trade for over 30 years, but came into his own when he took on the role of Deacon Claybourne, the often troubled country artist trying to navigate relationships and family life in Music City. ‘Nashville ran from 2012 – 2018.

According to Esten the show was a breath of fresh air. “It’s one of the single best roles I’ve ever had. There were so many facets to Deacon, which made playing him so rewarding. He’s was multi-dimensional, and I have to give the writers credit because they really developed the character during the six seasons. I’ve been acting almost half my life but ‘Nashville’ became that singular moment in time for me.”

As an actor Esten admits he craves the regularity of a role. “If it’s well written and character develops over time, than you welcome playing the part. Prior to ‘Nashville’ I had always had smaller parts or guest roles on television. There you’re more one dimensional, because they aren’t writing the character for more than just an episode.”

More recent TV buffs may be more familiar with Esten on ‘Outer Banks’, the popular Netflix series about to head into its second season later this month. For those not acquainted with the show, ‘Outer Banks’ is set on the coast of North Carolina and follows a group of young teenagers called the ‘Pogues’ determined to find out what happened to the missing father of John B, the group’s ringleader. The ‘Pogues’ often butt heads with the ‘Kooks’ who are the local elite.  Much  of  the  show  is  filmed  in  Charleston.

Esten plays Ward Cameron, a well to do business man, the father of Sarah who walks a fine line between the upper and lower class, and is John B’s love interest. While many might surmise ‘Outer Banks’ is a series geared towards a younger audience, Esten disagrees. ‘Surprisingly, I think its a show that attracts fans of all ages. There is a lot of different story lines in the show. In many ways it’s a classic love story, although it centers around a vicarious treasure hunt.”

Esten’s character is a departure from Deacon, a good guy with flaws, whereas Ward may be more flawed but for different reasons. “There are those who see Ward as a bad guy, but I see him as a man who has made more bad decisions, rather than being outright bad. In my role, I play a loving father, and there’s not much Ward wouldn’t do for his daughter Sarah, who is played by a wonderful young actress named Madelyn Cline. I totally enjoy playing Ward.”

While much of the show is shot in Charleston and in North Carolina, Esten jokingly says the cast had to suffer filming at an exotic location for season two. “It was tough, but we had to spend six weeks in Barbados. We were quarantined for several days, and had to stay in extended pods.”

Adding, “The producers set several protocols in place. We had a lot of testing. On the set there were red, yellow, and green zones. There were places we could go and places we couldn’t. When we weren’t shooting we had to wear masks, and when the cameras were on the masks came off. Fortunately for me, I got to bring my wife along.”

Although Barbados may have been a nice getaway, and a short term diversion from the pandemic, the Holy City holds a special place in his heart. “The short version, my wife and I are huge fans of Charleston. I could see coming back there in the future. We’ve been struck by the warmth and the hospitality of the people in Charleston.”

Esten and his wife made the low country their home while filming ‘Outer Banks’. “When we were shooting in Charleston, we stayed on Sullivan’s Island and a good bit in Mount Pleasant. Some of our favorites places to drop in to  were Coastal Crust  and Vintage Coffee, as well as Acme Lowcountry Kitchen on the Isle of Palms, where we became friends with the owners.  When Esten found some serious downtime he favored another popular Charleston destination. “Loved to have a steak and a good bourbon at Hall’s Chophouse. Just a really cool place to hang out.”

Aside from the occasional television and movie role Esten was a semi-regular member on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ an improvisational comedy show first developed in the UK before gaining attention in the United States with Drew Carey as its host. “A lot of my fans don’t recognize I was on the show with Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady.” Esten first appeared on the UK version in 1994, joining the American version in 1999, making guest appearances several times thereafter.

Esten admits he’s equally comfortable doing comedy or drama. “I’m an actor. I want to be able to do both. A good drama has elements of comedy and vice versa. I think drama without a bit of humor doesn’t depict the human element.” His skills, as a vocalist and musician helped secure his role on ‘Whose Line’. “It didn’t hurt that I could sing and play guitar. That came in very useful on the show.”

Esten has stretched the boundaries when it comes to performing. While ‘Nashville’ may have re-ignited his desire for singing, his journey into entertaining began in the mid 1980’s. “Actually music is where I got my start. I was the lead singer in a band in college. After graduation I was cast as the lead in a play about Buddy Holly. I guess I’ve always wanted to be a performer.” He adds, “The six seasons I was on ‘Nashville’ sort of brought it all together. Being where I’m at now, it all comes back to ‘Nashville’.”

Having acted on stage, the big screen, and television, as well as performed comedy and singing, would Esten say he’s well rounded as an entertainer. “In the words of Lee Brice, ‘I Don’t Dance’. I can do a lot of things, and I’ve done a lot of things, but I don’t dance. That’s one arrow that’s not in my quiver.”

Balancing acting and a singing career keep Esten busy. He admits one is more scheduled than the other. “When I’m acting, I’m reading the lines someone wrote for me, taking direction, and being fitted for wardrobe. I just have to remember my lines and hit my mark. There is a whole lot going on around me when I’m acting, and there are several people involved. But that’s the nature of acting.”

It’s a little bit different on the singing front. “Music is more self driven. When I’m on stage performing it’s definitely more personal, because it’s coming directly from me. I have more control over that side of my entertaining. Obviously when I’m recording a demo or writing, more people may be involved but I still have a lot of input.”

Does Esten have new music coming out. “Not right yet, but I’m always working on it.” Has he found time to write songs. “For the longest time I didn’t because I was focused on the acting. During the pandemic I did find time to write. And, I can’t write without an idea. I’m usually waiting for the muse to show up.”

Regarding songwriting, he finds it easier to collaborate. “I find more inspiration in songwriting circles. For me, I’m always taking notes, collecting lyrics.” He finds a bit of humor in the get togethers. “You have all these craftsmen showing up, and we’re all searching to write the next great song. Very often you’ll see hands going up to their cellphones to write down lyrics before they forget them. We all do it. Ultimately the songwriting sessions are similar to quilting bees. We have all these scraps that turn into a collective patchwork, that just might be a hit song.”

The success of ‘Nashville’ did elevate his touring schedule. “I’ve had the good fortune to have played in Europe, places like Amsterdam and Belfast Ireland.” After a solid run overseas, Esten recalls even a bigger thrill. “I was blessed to have performed my solo show at the Royal Albert Hall. To be on the same stage that some of the greatest artists of our time have played, is just very humbling.”

The Royal Albert Hall has hosted Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper, Janet Jackson, Adele, and just about every who’s who of rock n’ roll. “It was definitely a thrill and one of the highlights of my career so far.” In between road tours Esten has been racking up quite a few nights on the Grand Ole Opry stage. “My dad raised me to respect the Opry, saying it was sacred. I am honored every time they ask me to play.”

How does Esten rate himself as a musician. “I can hold my own, and I play just enough to get me through. I play a little piano, a little harmonica, and just enough guitar to service what I need. But when it comes to musicians, I’ll never be one of those guys.”

Esten returns to the low country, taking the stage at the iconic Windjammer on Thursday July 29th. What can fans expect during one of his live shows. “There are songs some might recognize from Nashville. There are a few new songs. I like to add in a couple of cover songs.” But his sets are not always straight country. “I like to throw a curve ball on occasion. I might play a song from Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen. I’m a country music lover, but I’m not held back by any particular genre. I don’t like to give any show away, but it could go any way when I’m on stage.”

Charles Esten admits his life and career are on a positive path forward. “It’s definitely on an upswing. Right after I play the Windjammer on the 29th, later that night, after midnight when the 30th kicks in, the second season of ‘Outer Banks’ becomes available on Netflix. And when I return to Nashville that weekend, I make my 141st appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. Life is pretty sweet right now.”

For more on Charles Esten, or to check out a wide variety of his solo or collaborative songs, visit his website at https://www.charlesesten.com/
Among his current releases are ‘A Road And A Radio’, and a timely seasonal song ‘Sweet Summer Saturday Night’.  While Esten is no stranger to ballads, among the more than four dozen songs for purchase on his site are several up tempo tracks such as ‘A Lotta Shouldn’t Oughta’, Pour Four More Por Favor’, ‘Long Haul’, and ‘He Ain’t Me’.

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