Charles Esten Releases a Single a Week – For an Entire Year

Is it even possible for one artist to release an original single every week for an entire year? Charles Esten sure didn’t think so – that is, until he did it.

Back in July 2016, when he announced, via Facebook, that he was planning to release a single a week, “I was thinking I might make 22 songs, which would be [the equivalent of] two albums,” says the 51-year-old actor who plays the smoldering and all-suffering singer/songwriter Deacon Claybourne on CMT’s Nashville.

But Esten, a real-life singer/songwriter long before acting took over, was still rolling out singles six months into the project – and as he refreshed his song supply with new material, it dawned on him that he could do what no artist had ever done before.

Of course, it isn’t like anyone has ever tried.

Christie Goodwin

When he undertook what he has dubbed #EverySingleFriday, Esten grasped that his TV fame had put him in a unique position: a sizable fan base following his career, a library of music he’d amassed through years of writing and co-writing, and none of the constraints that would have been placed on him by record companies (that, granted, are far more preoccupied with younger artists).

“I wanted to get my music out, so it suddenly occurred to me – put your music out,” he tells PEOPLE. “Don’t wait for somebody. Don’t wait for permission.”

How he’d get it out soon fell into place. Based in Nashville, Esten recorded most of the songs at the home studio of a frequent musical collaborator, and he had access to the city’s immense stable of studio musicians. Apple Music gave the singles a public space (where they can be found at bit.ly/EverySingleFriday). And his wife, Patty, with years of organizational experience as Kevin Costner’s former assistant, rode herd on scheduling and other details.

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Still, Esten had to cram the project into an already busy life – that was only getting busier. Just in recent months, Esten unexpectedly lost his TV wife, Rayna James, when Connie Britton departed the show, leaving him with an increased “emotional load” – not to mention an extra on-set workload. He also took on playing “Carl Sr.” in a series of Carl’s Jr. commercials, and in June, he shouldered hosting duties for the CMT Music Awards.

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Through all the competing priorities, he says, the songs never became “the side thing” in his life. “And if I’m going to be honest,” he adds, “there were many times [in the studio] … where I’d look at my watch and go, ‘Aw, jeez, I gotta go to work’ – like I was heading toward some coal mine! So I think that might speak to the place [the project] has in my heart and my life.”

Esten’s output is an astonishing array of musical styles, sounds and themes, all with a country vibe. Songs range from heartbreaking (“Dancing All Around It”) to frivolous (“I Love You, Beer”), from soulful (“Everything to Me”) to rockabilly (“I Love You (But I Don’t Like You)”), and from naughty (“A Lotta Shouldn’t Oughta”) to faith-filled (“Come to the Table”).

Christie Goodwin

And yeah, there’s some Deacon thrown in, too. “Absolutely,” says Esten, a solid family man with none of his alter-ego’s demons. “It sure doesn’t hurt to walk in the boots of a guy who goes through everything Deacon goes through … He is a country song.”

Esten’s 52nd song, “Long Haul,” dropped on July 7, and he celebrated his feat with a free concert on Wednesday in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater in Nashville. Just for good measure, he released No. 53, “I’m Coming Home,” on Friday, and he plans to cap the project with 54 this week.

After that, he hopes to build listenership on streaming services (one single, “Through the Blue,” already has 5.5 million Spotify streams), the occasional live performance and perhaps some music videos and a compilation album.

In the meantime, the project has allowed Esten to fully embrace his identity as a singer/songwriter.

“Acting had the strong hand for so long,” he says. “EverySingleFriday is just putting things things back in balance to say that I’m both.”

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