Chip Esten: Backstage on Nashville in Concert Tour

That’s what told me Friday (April 25) at the very first show of the Nashville in Concert tour at Joe’s Bar in Chicago.

“I knew what I wanted Nashville to be,” he said in a backstage interview before the show. “And I knew what it could be. But in terms of the quality in the scenes I’m in and the actors I’m surrounded with and the music I get to do, I have to say that every part of this show has outstripped my dreams.”

It turns out that Esten’s role as Deacon Claybourne — the singer-songwriter who used to be Rayna’s lover — isn’t just a character he plays. He said he always knew that show business would be where he’d land.

“I was always a bit of a showoff growing up. I was class clown. I’d get voted wittiest. You do what you can,” he laughed.

Still Esten went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia and graduated with a degree in economics.

“College was just me checking the safety box,” he admitted. “I wasn’t going to major in Going Onto TV. I wasn’t that guy. I was the guy always hedging my bets. I knew I had this crazy thing I wanted to do, and I couldn’t even pinpoint exactly what it was. But I figured while I was at college, I’d go ahead and get an econ degree.”

He said what he really majored in was his college rock band that played a lot of ’80s music and a lot of R.E.M. Shortly after graduation, real life set in.

“The guys in my band were going on to be bankers and lawyers and doctors. I didn’t have too much up my sleeve. I mean, I wasn’t going to go be an economist. So after I played Buddy Holly onstage in London, I knew I wanted to keep the music and acting together,” Esten said of his lead role in the 1993 musical Buddy. “So this Nashville role is the perfect job for me. Quite literally.”

After watching the 20-song set from Esten and the show’s Chris Carmack (Will), Clare Bowen (Scarlett), Jonathan Jackson (Avery) and Sam Palladio (Gunnar), it’s was pretty obvious that his raspy country voice is no act. From “Whiskey Lips” and “Playing Tricks” early in the night to the show’s closer “A Life That’s Good,” Esten was everything his character has the potential to be.

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

Listen to a live stream of The Music of Nashville Original Soundtrack Season 2, Vol. 2.