It's hard to imagine any other actor playing the part of Nashville's Deacon Claybourne. The role was made for Charles Esten.
And it has forever changed his life and the lives of his immediate family. After six years of filming the drama in the Tennessee capital, Esten has decided to make the city of Nashville his forever home.
"When I first got to Nashville it was like coming home to a place I'd never been before," Esten tells CMT.com. "And it really felt like that immediately. I think a lot of it is growing up in Virginia and Pennsylvania -- the green and the rolling hills -- it felt very familiar to me. Then there are the people. They just welcomed us immediately. We knew more people on our street here in a day a half than we did in 15 years in L.A. And that's just the nature of Nashville."
The part of Deacon was one of the last roles cast for the series, and it was originally offered to another actor, who is also a longtime friend of Esten's.
"He decided to pass on it," Esten tells CMT.com. "It just wasn't a good time for him to be in it. And he didn't even know I was in the running. He was really happy that it worked out for me. By the way, that's only one story out of so many. It could have gone so many other ways before I finally landed this role that's meant so much to me and my family.
"After I shot the pilot, they don't have a Hallmark card to say, 'Thank you,' for such a thing."
Playing Deacon was a dream opportunity for the veteran actor and musician, whose previous roles include playing Buddy Holly in the London musical The Buddy Holly Story and Whose Line Is It Anyway. But regarding time and history, music came first before acting for Esten. Growing up, the Alexandria, Virginia native was always singing, playing piano and guitar and writing songs. While Esten was in college at William & Mary, he played in a regionally popular band called N'est Pas, which reunited this week to open for night one of his sold-out, two-night stand at the Birchmere in Alexandria.
During his time in Los Angeles, Esten continued to write music with Nashville-based songwriter Jane Bach, and over time the two became friends. Before auditioning for the part of Deacon, he almost came to Nashville to play at the Bluebird, but other acting work kept him from making the trip.
"It was a strange imbalance in that I loved [music] more than I was getting to do it," Esten says. "It ended up taking a backseat for so long that it's a thrill that it gets to be right up front now and always will.
"I'm never going to step back from music anymore. As we wrap up the show here, I don't have any idea what I'll do in terms of acting. That relies on other people, what projects they might want me for and what I might be able to land as a role. It's going to have to be something good.
"I've been spoiled with this guy that's been loved, hurt and grown so much. That's all you can ask for in a character. There probably won't be anything similar. But while I'm waiting for something that moves me, I get to make music, and that is no consolation prize. That is everything to me."
It's hard to imagine the city of Nashville without Esten, as well. When the show first started, he immediately entrenched himself in the community by becoming involved with various local causes and charities. He's also a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, and he is coming up on his 90th Opry performance. Leading up to the fifth season of Nashville on CMT, he launched his ambitious Every Single Friday campaign, which had him releasing a new song weekly for an entire year. In June, he hosted the 2017 CMT Music Awards.
"With my love of music and making music, Nashville is the place to be," Esten says. "Events that we get to go to and get to be part of -- the songwriting community, the recording industry and all the people -- how can you imagine living anywhere else? It's hard to say where acting will take me. Sometimes you've got to go to shoots, but in the end, this will always be home. And I'm real happy to say that. It means a lot to me."
After shooting for Nashville's farewell season finale ends, Esten says he looks forward to staying creative. Among his goals are focusing on songwriting, and he wouldn't be opposed to signing a publishing deal or a recording contract if the right offer came along. And now that he and his wife Patty's youngest child is heading off to college, he will have an opportunity to tour more.
"I'd like to think I might get out on the road and do a lot more of that whether it's with myself or with somebody else from Nashville like Clare Bowen. I have gone out and done a lot of gigs. I have so many artist friends here that I'd love to hop on a bus with and play music with them. That would be great. I'm wide open to that.
"That would be a goal to get to write every day. I love being in a writer's room with great minds. Songwriters tend to be some of the funniest people and some of the most emotionally intelligent people I know. It would be a thrill to get a cut some day."
Nashville's farewell season finale returns on Jan. 4. A six-show farewell tour in the U.K. will launch on April 14 in Birmingham, England.