Nashville in Concert: Chris Carmack

Nobody told me Chris Carmack would be even better as a concert performer than his is as his character Will Lexington on Nashville.

I know it now because I saw him perform at the first show of the Nashville in Concert tour Friday (April 25) at Joe’s Bar in Chicago.

And while Carmack opened the show with a spirited “What If I Was Willing” — the song his character Will debuted with on the show — it was what he did about halfway through the 20-song set that demonstrated his country worthiness to the sold-out crowd.

“There are a lot of great songwriters that contribute to this music, and one of them, Jesse Winchester, just passed away. So we’d like to do this one for Jesse,” Carmack said before he played the singer-songwriter’s “A Showman’s Life.” Winchester died on April 11 at age 69.

The song about the wear and tear on an old honky-tonker’s heart has been covered — and covered well — by other country artists. Gary Allan sings it with Willie Nelson on his 2003 See If I Care album, and George Strait recorded as a duet with Faith Hill for his 2011 album Here for a Good Time.

Those were some big shoes to fill, but Carmack filled them comfortably. Maybe because he’s been doing his country music homework.

Before he took the stage, Carmack told me about how he’s been studying for the role of Will since he was cast in Nashville’s first season. Part of that is listening to a legendary Nashville radio station.

“More often than not, I’m listening to 650 AM. That’s WSM, the station that broadcasts the Opry live and plays classic country hits,” he told me of immersing himself in the music. “I don’t have to work too hard to hear what’s on the radio right now. They play it in all the honky-tonks and everywhere around town. So when I’m in the car, I veer away from pop country stations and more towards the old stuff.”

Carmack also talked about the overlap between Nashville, the city, and Nashville, the show.

“You know how they say art imitates life? Well, sometimes, life imitates art as well,” he explained. “So what you get doing the show Nashville — in Nashville, about Nashville — is this:

“Have you ever been between two mirrors? If you stand between them, you just see this long hallway, and it just keeps reflecting itself. This is a lot like that. We’re reflecting each other in a lot of ways. Nashville is the heart and the character of the show, so it bleeds into every episode.”

Carmack says the transition from playing a character who is a singer to actually becoming a singer who’s performing live for an audience of real people was a natural one.

“It just so happens that playing music live for people is something I’ve always done and something I’ve always enjoyed, and now Nashville has given me opportunity to do that on a bigger scale,” he said. “It’s a transition I might never have made on my own.

“Before I got this part, a friend of mine asked what my ideal job would be. I think I told her, ’A cool guest star on The Walking Dead.’ But when I got this job, I told her this is even better than what I came up with for my dream job. I couldn’t have imagined something so right for me.”

When I asked if he’d ever abandon one stage for another, he said he’s going to stick with playing the part of a singer and then doing some more singing on the side.

“I’m glad to follow this muse as far as it will take me,” he said.

The Chicago concert also featured Charles “Chip” Esten, Clare Bowen, Jonathan Jackson and Sam Palladio. After the club show, Carmack, Esten, Bowen and Palladio returned to Nashville to perform at a larger venue — Bridgestone Arena — with Nashville’s Lennon and Maisy Stella and Charley Rose during a concert that capped the 15th annual St. Jude Country Music Marathon & Half Marathon.

The tour continues this weekend with shows in Washington, D.C. on May 4 and New York City on May 6.