Charles Esten
Emmy McCoury

'Nashville' and 'Outer Banks' Star Charles Esten Fulfills a Lifelong Dream With Debut Country Album 'Love Ain't Pretty'

Esten says moving to Nashville "opened this whole world back up for me."

Some may know him from his recurring role as Deacon Claybourne on CMT's hit show, "Nashville," or even as Ward Cameron from Netflix's "Outer Banks," but actor and singer-songwriter Charles Esten is proving to be as multifaceted as the character's he portrays on television.

Holding the Guinness world-record for "most consecutive singles released," (54 songs released in 54 weeks), numerous showcases on daytime shows like "The Kelly Clarkson Show," "Good Morning America" and more, paired with his lifelong passion for music, his debut album, Love Ain't Pretty, has been a longtime coming.

"It's this lifelong thing that I've had these song ideas in my head," Esten tells Wide Open Country. "For so long as an adult, being an actor in Los Angeles without a band or a producer... I just sort of wrote these songs and kept them to myself."

When Esten relocated from Los Angeles to Nashville, it proved to be a pivotal moment for his career transition from actor to singer-songwriter.

"It opened this whole world back up for me," Esten says. "Not only was I surrounded by the greatest songwriters, musicians and producers, I was inspired by their work as well."

The record stands as a "fruition" of a lifelong passion for music that has fueled Esten both personally and professionally, including during his time portraying Deacon Claybourne.

"Playing [him] on a show meant that people would reach out to me with their hardships, because Deacon had been through so many," he says. "When people start to do that, you begin to understand that this fictional character and the music he was a part of in the show was a part of them. He lifted them, inspired them. [The experience] then brings about a different way of thinking about your own music and the things you want to address."

As an actor, Esten sought out characters that had many facets and were set up to go through hard times.

"That was Deacon to a tee for sure, but even Ward Cameron on 'Outer Banks' wasn't just one thing. He was primarily a very bad guy, but underneath there, there was also love for his family. That's what made him human. [With] the album, we're taking on a big topic- love."

Love Ain't Pretty is meant to explore the depths and complexities of love - from despair to hope and from darkness to illumination.

"I'm trying to show the range of deeply, deeply felt emotions and places you can go in a relationship," Esten says. "From feeling hopeless, to feeling full of hope, from feeling like you're in the dark to bringing light to somebody else, too. 'Pretty' is sort of a weak word, compared to what [love] really is... beauty, beautiful. Beauty has depth. Beauty is just a stronger, all encompassing word that even encompasses suffering, suffering noblely, suffering in service of something or someone and blessing someone else on their suffering."

Along with the inspiration taken from his fictional television characters, Esten emphasized the impact of the co-write.

"I love the inspiration of 'the other,'" he says. "I love that they are bringing a life lived. The entirety of their life [and] where their heart is, where their mind is that day."

Charles Esten

Emma McCoury

Esten has written with longtime friend and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jon Nite (Lee Brice, Gabby Barret), Gary Burr (Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire), Jeffery East (Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts) and more during his journey in music.

"Sometimes it's with a friend you've known for a while, and sometimes it's somebody you haven't really done anything with before. There's a million different ways that can happen," he says. "To me, it's just pure magic that two or three people walk into the room and when they leave, there's this thing now in existence, this song that is in some way an amalgamation of each of their hearts and it's come together in that way."

Having different perspectives highly influenced the overall sound and delivery of each song on the record.

"I wanted these songs to have a portion of not just my vocal voice in it, but my artistic voice and the writing," Esten says. "Each song has its distinctiveness and takes you to another place. That's the beauty of the co-write. I love getting to be on each of them."

One song that stands out is last on the tracklist titled, 'Somewhere In The Sunshine.'

"I had been in a place with a friend of mine who had been nearing the end of his long battle with cancer," he says. "We had been sharing conversations that were very personal, very deep [and] meaningful about what comes next. I was honored to have those discussions with him, talking about his faith and his fears. Ultimately, I know, that's what he and I both believed... is that there was going to be a whole lot of light where we were going in the sunshine, as it were. So when Jon Nite said, 'Here's the title,' and he'd been thinking of a very upbeat song with a Jimmy Buffett kind of vibe, I was in that other place. We [ended up] creat[ing] a song that I think is the most appropriate way to end the album."

Despite entering the music scene later in life, Esten expresses pride in the album and values the connections it's forming with listeners.

"For me to come at this so late in life... to get to put out my debut album, at my age, and to get to do it at such a high level with such great players, a great producer, I feel more than content," Esten says. "My first question is, 'is it affecting people? Are people making connections to the songs in this album?' I'm finding already the answer is a resounding 'yes' to that. You have to know that when you come to this Music City as an actor, you sort of always feel like an outsider. You always feel like a pretender, the cliche of 'the actor that wants to be the musician.' [To be well received] means something to me, I've been very grateful."


READ MORE: Lizzie No on New Album 'Halfsies,' Toni Morrison and Fostering Empathy Through Music