Charles Esten has been in this place before. It was a scaled-down version of his current surroundings; the difference between a studio apartment in a trendy neighborhood versus a penthouse suite on the park. But he knows this feeling and he knows what to do with it.
Clare Bowen is new here. Life hasn’t cycled her through these parts before. She’s coming from a much tougher place, one where life nearly escaped her. But now that she’s here, Bowen too knows what to do: She wants to inspire.
Esten and Bowen, who star in the ABC musical drama “Nashville,” are taking their relatively newfound fame for a ride, one that will take them to the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts for a Saturday concert. That ride also includes the release this year of their own individual albums, an unexpected new home, and the chance to use the struggles of both their characters and themselves to inspire.
“It seems like a little bit of divine providence is always at hand,” said Esten, reflecting on the opportunities created by the show, which is now in its fourth season.
Esten: The show keeps on giving
On “Nashville,” Esten plays Deacon Claybourne, a dark-haired, slightly timeworn but handsome country guitarist whose world-class talent has been countered by a decades-long battle with alcoholism.
In real life, Esten, 50, is little like his character. And unlike Deacon, who struggles with relationships and learns on the show that he has a teenage daughter, Esten’s personal life has been stable with a long marriage and three kids. With his wife, Patty, he has two daughters, 20-year-old Taylor and 16-year-old Addie, and a son Chase, who is17.
But Deacon does beat Esten on stage. “Deacon is a much better guitar player than I am,” Esten teases crowds. But he’s actually not joking: Most of Deacon’s guitar parts are recorded by a top-notch Nashville musician, Colin Linden, who teaches them to Esten for the camera.
Still, Esten is a pretty sharp musician himself. It’s that talent – plus a willingness to work – that jump-started his career. A Pittsburgh native, Esten (real name: Charles Esten Puskar III) was in a band during his college years at William and Mary, which positioned him nicely to audition for the leading role of Buddy Holly in the London musical “Buddy.”
At the first audition, Esten noticed the producers liked his acting and loved his singing. “The guitar playing?” he recalled. “They weren’t so sure.” So he turned on the grit, spending the next week with his guitar hanging around his neck, constantly playing songs like “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.”
“I honestly didn’t take that guitar off,” Esten said. “I almost went to sleep with it.”
It worked. Esten’s first big role out of college was playing a rock legend. He moved to London with his wife and spent nearly two years there.
“I recall thinking very vividly, ‘I want to suck the marrow out of this,’ ” he said. “I want to look back and go, ‘You did everything you could. You just brought it every single time.’ And I can. I can look back at that and know I left nothing on the table. That’s where I am right now.”
For Esten, “Nashville” has brought his career full circle. After years of performing improv comedy (“Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) and playing smaller character roles, Esten is once again combining music and acting.
Compared to his Holly days, it’s a much grander scale. The success of “Nashville,” which is shot in the Music City, has transformed Esten’s life. His family moved from Los Angeles to Nashville after the show’s first season and lives there full time. Through the show he’s connected with top-notch Nashville musicians and songwriters: The band Sixwire, which has worked on the television show, is backing up both Esten and Bowen for their separate sets in Buffalo. Esten has been writing his own music, which will be the core of the playlist for his Buffalo show, and is releasing a CD this year.
At shows and appearances, Esten makes himself accessible to fans – he and Bowen have an open meet and greet in the lobby after their Buffalo show. People often approach him to talk about his character Deacon’s struggles: alcoholism, cancer, the need for a new liver.
“I’m constantly meeting people who are like, ‘Your show means a lot to me. My dad was in the program for many years, and I know what a battle it was for him to stay sober,’ ” he said. “Or they’ll say, ‘My sister needed a liver.’ People are going through hard times, tough times, and on the show we deal with that a lot.”
Deacon’s demons and those messages from fans have influenced Esten’s writing. “I’ve noticed a lot of the songs I’ve written are about trying to remind people that you’ll get through it, that you can make it,” said Esten.
Before hanging up the phone, he started reading the lyrics of a song he wrote called “Through the Blue”: “Sometimes days are dark, sometimes nights are long, sometimes all that you can do is keep holding on, staying strong, till the gray is gone. Everybody seen a little, been through a little bit of hell. Lord knows I’ve felt the flames myself.”
Esten is unfailingly upbeat when talking about his life, but he has felt those flames. When his youngest daughter Addie was 2½, she was diagnosed with leukemia.
“When I was a kid, leukemia was a virtual death sentence,” Esten said. “By the time my daughter was diagnosed, the number the doctor told me was 85 percent survival rate. Which I was glad to hear, but at the same time, 15 percent nonsurvival, that’s about the biggest 15 you’ll ever hear in your life.”
Today Addie is healthy, and the family works closely with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Her dad has plenty of reasons to be thankful – and plenty of credibility when he shares the key lyrics from his song: “You just do what you gotta do to get you through the blue.”
Bowen: A ‘stitched-up little creature’
Bowen, 31, calls herself a “stitched-up little creature.” Such a vivid description may seem the stuff of a songwriter, which Bowen is, but she’s not being completely metaphorical.
On “Nashville,” Bowen plays Scarlett O’Connor, Deacon’s niece and a rising, sometimes emotionally embattled writer and performer whose struggles span from relationships to stage fright to losing her mother.
But long before landing the role, Bowen was a little girl fighting for her life. At age 4 in her native Australia, Bowen was diagnosed with a form of cancer called end stage nephroblastoma. She was sent to a hospital with other children who, as she describes it on her Facebook page, were “tubed, taped, bandaged up and stitched back together. We were all missing parts, some obvious like eyes or legs, others more hidden, like lungs and kidneys.”
Bowen was among the latter group. “I’m missing most of the organs down the right side of my body,” she said in a recent phone interview with The News. “I have scarring that nobody ever sees. Lots of big scars.”
She let out a soft laugh.
“I am missing half of my diaphragm,” she said, “and the only reason I can breathe on my own is because I have really strong singing muscles.”
Bowen, who started her acting career in Australia, kept her cancer struggle private for years. But not speaking of it didn’t mean she buried it.
The experience defined her.
“I’ve spent my entire life not being like anybody else,” she said. “There is nobody left from the round of chemotherapy I had.”
Though Bowen grew up with a mom, dad and brother, she spent years searching for a home – a place where she felt comfortable enough to be open. That place turned out to be Nashville. Shortly after buying a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, she auditioned for the show, landed the role and relocated to Nashville. In the Music City she found not only a job and friends, but her future husband, musician Brandon Young, who plays with her on tour.
As with Esten and other stars of the show, her “Nashville”-found fame gave Bowen the opportunity to play live shows and tour. She began sharing her music, which she’s been writing since she was a little girl. “I just never showed anybody,” said Bowen, who’s releasing an album this year. “It’s a little bit like Scarlett.”
Bowen is also sharing the fight of her younger brother Timothy, a musician who, at 25, is battling blood cancer. She talks about him in interviews and posts updates on social media.
“I wouldn’t change having fought for my life,” Bowen said. “It’s made me who I am and this experience, this fight, is going to make him the man and the artist that he was always meant to be. I know that he’ll be OK.”
In essence, the woman who spent so long feeling alone has turned her city, her friends, and even her fans – the people who she hopes to inspire – into a large support system.
Not just for her, or her brother, but for each other.
“Finally I’ve found where I belong,” Bowen said, “and it’s the most beautiful feeling.”
Who: Charles Esten and Clare Bowen
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst
Cost: $37, $47
Story topics: Nashville