Producers and Stars Discuss – Billboard
Written by GRB on 09/09/2022
“I’ve been surrounded by divas my entire life and I’m probably the biggest one of them all,” says top Nashville manager Jason Owen with a robust laugh, explaining why he was beyond qualified to serve as one of the executive producers on Monarch, the deliciously soapy new Fox series premiering Sunday (Sept. 11) that chronicles the musical exploits and over-the-top misadventures of country music’s fictional first family.
Starring Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins as Dottie and Albie Roman – the matriarch and patriarch of the multi-generational Roman family – the frothy melodrama often strains credulity. But there were some areas where Owen insisted that credibility reign.
“There has to be a real thru-line with some of the business decisions and how the characters tour. The manner in which they work has to be authentic,” says Owen, whose management clients include Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town and Dan + Shay. “There can be all the crazy s–t that may never exist in real life which makes for a great soap, but there has to be some realness — and that, coupled with the music was really, really important to me.”
Monarch features some original songs but 90% of the musical selections performed by the cast are covers, focusing on classic country songs from the ‘90s and 2000s. The show also sprinkles in country takes on contemporary hits like Lizzo’s “Juice,” Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Think Glee, but for country fans.
The show–created by Melissa London Hilfers, who also serves as executive producer along with Owens and noted TV/movie producer Gail Berman, among others– shares another musical connection with “Glee” in Adam Anders as executive music producer. Anders started his career in Nashville, spending eight years in Music City as a musician, songwriter and producer. “This was really an opportunity to came back home in a way for me,” he says. “People know me more from Rock of Ages and Glee, but my roots are in Nashville musically,” he says.
In fact, he had a full circle moment when he was in a Nashville recording studio tracking music for Monarch and hanging on the bathroom wall was a photo of him, circa 2001, playing bass with Shania Twain, who makes a cameo in the second episode.
Because Monarch focuses on three generations of Romans, Anders has a wide array of songs to choose from. “You have your matriarch and patriarch, and that’s kind of where I go more traditional for the most part,” he says. “Then you have [middle generation] with Anna [Friel] and Beth [Ditto’s] characters, who are more in the Faith Hill world in my head. Then you have the grandkids and you think Dan + Shay and the new generation of country music, modern country.”
Plus, the show features the current pop songs in a country setting to bring in a wider audience. “I want people to watch the show who maybe also don’t know country music, [so] let’s give them an entry point,” Anders says. “The goal is if you don’t know country music, hopefully by the end of this show, you’re in love country music.”
Among the lessons Anders learned from Glee that he brings to Monarch is any song choice “needs to land emotionally,” he says. “If it connects with the story, it’s going to work for the most part. And, obviously, it’s helpful for a new show and a musical to have songs people recognize. That’s always an easier entry point. Then you kind of earn the right to do originals.”
Though they were initially working remotely because of the pandemic (the show was even delayed from its original January launch because of difficulties caused by COVID-19), Anders worked closely with the scriptwriters to pick the right songs for each episode. “For the most part, we were able to get the songs we went after,” he says. And for those he couldn’t, he’s not naming names and he holds no grudges. “I actually don’t hold it against anyone that doesn’t want to license their song to a show,” he says. “It’s your baby, you do what you want with it. But if you do let us use it, we’re going to take care. We’re going to try to do something great with it.”
The show takes place in Austin, but tapes in Atlanta. While the actors recorded their vocals in Atlanta, Anders recorded all the music tracks in Nashville — unlike with Glee, where he tracked in Los Angeles. He gives working in Nashville a big thumbs up. “I love, love recording in Nashville,” he says. “I love getting musicians together in a studio, the creative process, you’re bouncing ideas off each other. The more great, brilliant, creative musical minds, the better. In L.A., if you’re doing pop music, there’s more programming involved, it’s less live instruments. It’s a different process entirely.”
The need for authenticity extended to the casting. “I felt like we had to make one person in this family someone that was really a true country singer,” Owen says. One of Owen’s staffers suggested Adkins, since the country hitmaker has plenty of acting experience, including The Lincoln Lawyer and the mini-series, To Appomattox. “I thought 100% yes,” Owen says upon hearing the name. (Ditto was also formerly the frontwoman of rock band The Gossip).
The country star auditioned over Zoom while sitting on his tour bus. “And 10 days later, I was all set,” Adkins says.
While the characters may find themselves in absurd situations, and the script takes liberties by pretending the Romans recorded some classic country tunes first, Adkins has served as a true north at times when it comes to making sure the history is accurate. “I remember one day I was reading the script and [a character says], ‘Well, Johnny Cash wrote three No. 1s while he’s in prison.’ I went to the director, and I said, ‘We can’t say that. That’s not true.’ They were like, ‘Well, you know…’ and I said, ‘No, c’mon man. We can do all this other stuff and make country music look like we’re all crazy, but you can’t just take historical facts like that and make stuff up.’” The script got changed.
The show is ticking off lots of boxes for Adkins, including Albie singing classics by some of his heroes that Adkins felt were too hallowed to sing as himself. “I’m having so much fun recording songs that I never would have touched. Songs like ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’ by Hank Williams Jr. Or ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink’ by Merle Haggard. Stuff like that,” he says. “These are standards. They’re sacred ground. I never would have tread there myself — but as Albie Roman, hell, they’re pretending like these are his songs and he wrote them.”
Adkins calls acting “a horse of a completely different color” from singing, but what he enjoys the most about music, which is surrounding himself with creative people to make something new, he has also found with the collaborative process of making a television show. “You’re just surrounded by these incredibly talented people – everybody from the key grip and the best boy to the camera guy and the other actors that you work – and you just get a kick out of it,” he says. “It’s just a stimulating environment. I like that feeling. It’s a great drug.”
Adkins also gets to pretend to be married to Sarandon, who plays his wife. Going toe to toe with the Oscar winner initially “terrified” him, he says, but she quickly put him at ease. “She was very, very gracious and just went out of her way to make me feel comfortable,” he says.
Real country royalty drops by the series to give the show a taste of authenticity: Twain, Martina McBride, Little Big Town and Tanya Tucker all make cameos during the first season. “I wanted it to feel like the Romans existed in our world currently,” says Owen, who helped lure the guest stars. “So I thought it was important in the script and Melissa [London Hilfers] agreed that we bring in these real characters as themselves, and sometimes over exaggerate themselves, as in the case of Shania.” He hints that should Monarch be renewed, Twain could make a return appearance.
Like Glee, the new songs featured weekly on Monarch will be available on digital service providers within hours of the episode ending through Arista/Monument. (Owen is co-president of Monument). A few songs have already been released to build anticipation, but Owen says some tunes may go to radio depending upon reaction. “Once these shows start airing, I think we’ll see some of the songs rising to the top naturally,” he says. “And then we’ll take advantage of it.”