“I’ve been surrounded by divas my whole life, and I’m probably the biggest of them all,” says top Nashville manager Jason Owen with a robust laugh, explaining why he was unqualified to serve as one of the executives manufacturers on Monarchthe deliciously soapy new Fox series, premiering Sunday (September 11), which chronicles the musical exploits and over-the-top misadventures of Country music’s fictional first family.
With Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins as Dottie and Albie Roman—the matriarch and patriarch of the multigenerational Roman family—the frothy melodrama often strains credulity. But there were some areas where Owen insisted that credibility prevailed.
“There has to be a real thru-line with some of the business decisions and how the characters tour. The way they work has to be authentic,” says Owen, whose management clients include Kacey Musgraves, Small big city and Dan + Shay. “There can be all this crazy s–t that might never exist in real life that makes it a great soap, but there has to be some reality — and that, along with the music, was really, really important to me.”
Monarch features some original songs, but 90% of the musical selections performed by the cast are covers, focusing on classic country songs from the 90s and 2000s. The show also sprinkles in country takes on contemporary hits like Lizzo‘s “Juice”, Harry Styles‘ “Watermelon Sugar” and Lady Gagais “Born This Way.” Think Gleebut for country fans.
The show — created by Melissa London Hilfers, who also serves as executive producer alongside Owens and noted TV/film producer Gail Berman, among others — shares another musical connection with “Glee” in Adam Anders as executive music producer. Anders started his career in Nashville, where he spent eight years in Music City as a musician, songwriter and producer. “This was really an opportunity to come home in a way for me,” he says. “People know me more from The Rock of Ages and Glee, but my roots are musically in Nashville,” he says.
In fact, he had a full-circle moment when he was in a Nashville recording studio tracking music for Monarch and hanging on the bathroom wall was a photo of him, circa 2001, playing bass with Shania Twainwho makes a cameo in the second episode.
Because Monarch focusing on three generations of Romans, Anders has a wide range of songs to choose from. “You have your matriarch and patriarch, and that’s kind of where I go more traditionally for the most part,” he says. “Then you have [middle generation] with Anna [Friel] and Beth [Ditto’s] characters which are more i Faith Hill the world in my head. Then you have the grandkids and you think Dan + Shay and the new generation of country music, modern country.”
In addition, the show features current pop songs in a rural setting to bring in a wider audience. “I want people to see the show who maybe don’t know country music either, [so] let’s give them an entry point,” Anders says. “The goal is that if you don’t know country music, hopefully by the end of this show, you’re in love with country music.”
Among the lessons learned by Anders Glee which he brings to Monarch every song choice “needs to land emotionally,” he says. “If it ties into the story, it’s going to work for the most part. And of course, for a new show and a musical, it’s helpful to have songs that people recognize. It’s always an easier entry. Then you kind of earn the right to make originals.”
Although they initially worked remotely due to the pandemic (the show was even delayed from its original launch in January due to difficulties caused by COVID-19), Anders worked closely with the scriptwriters to select the right songs for each episode. “For the most part, we were able to get the songs we were after,” he says. And for those he couldn’t, he doesn’t name names, and he holds no grudges. “I don’t actually hold against anyone who doesn’t want to license their song for a show,” he says. “It’s your baby, you do what you want with it. But if you let us use it, we’ll take care. We’ll try to do something great with it.”
The show takes place in Austin but is filmed in Atlanta. While the actors recorded their vocals in Atlanta, Anders recorded all the musical numbers in Nashville – unlike Glee, where he tracked in Los Angeles. He gives the work in Nashville a big thumbs up. “I love, love recording in Nashville,” he says. “I love getting musicians together in a studio, the creative process, you bounce ideas off each other. The more great, brilliant, creative musical minds, the better. In LA, if you’re making pop music, there’s more programming involved, it’s less live instruments. It’s a completely different process.”
The need for authenticity extends to the casting. “I felt like we had to make someone in this family someone who was really a true country singer,” Owen says. One of Owen’s associates suggested Adkins, as the country hitmaker has plenty of acting experience, including The Lincoln Lawyer and the mini-series, To Appomattox. “I thought 100% yes,” says Owen when he heard the name. (Ditto was also the former frontwoman of the rock band The Gossip).
The country star auditioned over Zoom while on his tour bus. “And 10 days later, I was ready,” Adkins says.
While the characters may find themselves in absurd situations and the script takes liberties by pretending that the Romans recorded some classic country tunes first, Adkins has served as a true north at times when it comes to ensuring the story is accurate. “I remember reading the script one day and [a character says]’Well, Johnny Cash wrote three No. 1s while in prison.’ I went to the director and I said, ‘We can’t say that. It’s not true.’ They were like, ‘Well, you know…’ and I said, ‘No, come on man. We can do all this other stuff and make country music look like we’re all crazy, but you can’t just take historical facts like that and make something up.’” The script was changed.
The show ticks plenty of boxes for Adkins, including Albie singing classics by some of his heroes that Adkins thought were too saintly to sing as himself. “I’m having so much fun recording songs that I would never have touched. Songs like ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’ by Hank Williams Jr. Or ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink’ by Merle Haggard. Something like that,” he says. “Those are standards. They are holy ground. I would never have stepped in there myself – but like Albie Roman, goddammit, they’re pretending these are his songs and he wrote them.”
Adkins calls acting “a horse of a completely different color” than singing, but what he enjoys most about music, which is surrounding himself with creative people to make something new, he has also found with the collaborative process of making a television show. “You’re just surrounded by these incredibly talented people — everyone from the key grip and the best boy to the cameraman and the other actors you’re working with — and you just get a kick out of it,” he says. “It’s just a stimulating environment. I like that feeling. It’s a great drug.”
Adkins will also pretend to be married to Sarandon, who plays his wife. Going toe-to-toe with the Oscar winner “frightened” him at first, he says, but she quickly put him at ease. “She was very, very gracious and just went out of her way to make me feel comfortable,” he says.
Real country royalty drops by to give the show a taste of authenticity: Twain, Martina McBrideLittle Big Town and Tanya Tucker all make cameos during the first season. “I wanted it to feel like the Romans existed in our world at the moment,” says Owen, who helped lure the guest stars. “So I thought that was important in the script and Melissa [London Hilfers] agree that we bring these real characters in as themselves and sometimes exaggerate themselves, as in the case of Shania.” He suggests that it should Monarch be renewed, Twain could reappear.
Like Gleethe new songs are presented weekly on Monarch will be available on digital service providers within hours of the episode ending through Arista/Monument. (Owen is co-president of Monument). A few songs have already been released to build anticipation, but Owen says some tunes may go to radio depending on the reaction. “Once these shows start airing, I think we’ll see some of the songs rise to the top naturally,” he says. “And then we will take advantage of that.”