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Charles Esten on the Story Behind New Song, ‘One Good Move’: ‘I Was Just a Bad Decision Machine’

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Charles Esten knew his new song “One Good Move,” written about marrying his wife, was a winner when he played it for Patty, his spouse of 31 years. 

“There’s many great things about my wife. One of them is she can be polite,” Esten says over lunch in Los Angeles, with his wife by his side. “If she doesn’t like it, she’ll say, ‘That’s great.’ But if she starts bopping, if she starts moving to it and does what I call the ‘Patty Dance,’ that is a good sign. And I will just say the Patty Dance happened. The eyes got a little misty.”

Written with Sam Bacicoff, Zarni deVette, and Elise Hayes, the deeply personal power ballad is the first taste of Esten’s debut album, which he will release later this year. 

The song, which premieres below, came together quickly at a songwriters camp, where Esten, 57, was surrounded by younger songwriters. “During a lunch break, I was talking about how when I was their age, I was just a bad decision machine,” he says. The exception, he said, was holding on to his wife, whom he met when they were college students at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., through all his self-destructive ways. “I said she was my one good move at that time,” he says. When they returned to writing, one of his co-writers suggested a song based on his story. 

“I feel like I matured slowly, and so it is amazing to me when I look back. Not hanging on to her would have been sort of catastrophic to this life I’ve built,” he says. “She was the blessing from which all others derive, [that] kind of thing. Not just my children, but the acting life I’ve had. This was a woman that was always right there.”

Though “One Good Move” will technically be on his debut album, Esten’s fans are well acquainted with his singing from Esten’s starring role as troubled singer/songwriter Deacon Claybourne on the television country melodrama Nashville, which aired from 2012-2018.  

Long before he moved to Nashville from Los Angeles for the role, Esten was a country music fan, introduced to the music by his father when he was a boy. The pair would take long car rides together with Esten riding shotgun. At a truck stop, they fortuitously picked up cassettes of Lee Cash Presents 50 Golden Years of Country Music, an eight-part series that delved into the history of country music — placing each song, such as pioneer Jimmie Rodgers’ 1927 hit “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas),” in context with what was happening in the world the year of the song’s release.

“This is where I learned about Hank Williams,” Esten says. “I’m 12 years old listening to this tape in a car driving through the night, listening to it 100 times.” The cassettes, long out of circulation, hold such a revered place in Esten’s musical education that he had them digitized and keeps them on his phone for easy access. 

The tapes included the tale of Williams’ historic Grand Ole Opry debut in 1949, when he was called back for six encores at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Esten recalled that story when he stepped onto the iconic circle of wood from the original Grand Ole Opry, filled with awe, for the first time in 2012. 

When asked if it’s a lifelong dream to be asked to join the Grand Ole Opry, he demurs. “It feels very presumptuous to me [to answer that],” he says. “It would be like if you were dating somebody for a long time, and I said, ‘Is it your lifelong dream for him to ask you to marry you?’” Though he adds, “I can barely believe I’ve been on the stage once, let alone 157 times.”

His Opry gigs and his role as Deacon helped Esten prepare for the new album, as well as a feat that led to him setting a world’s record. In 2017, unable to tour because of taping Nashville, he began releasing a new song online every Friday. He put out 54 tunes in 54 weeks, earning a 2018 Guinness World Records title for “most consecutive weeks to release an original digital single by a music act.”

“I was co-writer on all of those,” he says. “I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t want to leave any meat on the bone. I never want to look back and go, ‘I didn’t make the most of that.’ I’ve always felt like I was behind other people, especially other people my age, so in a real sense those 54 songs were putting in my 10,000 hours.” 

Charles Esten

None of those songs appear on the new album, but the discipline prepared him for co-writing the tunes. Esten also waited until now to put out a full set. so there was a good separation between him and Deacon. (He’s now playing conflicted villain Ward Cameron, a non-musical role, on Netflix’s Outer Banks).

“If I had [released an album] right out of the gate [after Nashville], I still would have been wearing [that character’s] metaphorical clothes,” he says. “There’s not much of this music that was truly influenced by Deacon Claybourne in terms of the countryness of it, but I had to be influenced by this guy whose boots I walked in for six years. And more than that by the people that it’s led me to meet.”

For example, Tim Lauer, who was the executive music producer for Nashville, plays keyboards on the album. He was brought in by producer Marshall Altman, who recorded the album at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, which just happened to be the studio where Esten recorded as Deacon. “So, it felt like I was coming home,” he says.

Esten is self-releasing the album, and will hire independent label services to handle radio promotion and marketing. “I’m blessed. I have a day job. I don’t need the advance [from a label] and all the other things that come with it,” he says. “I don’t need the carrots; I don’t need the sticks. I live in a world now more than ever where you can just release your music.” 

Esten is reluctant to talk more about the album until he and Altman finish mixing, but says Eric Pasley guests on one track and, like “One Good Move,” there are “some confessional songs on here. The through line of it is that life is hard, but music heals. I promise you there’s a journey.”

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