You might recognize Charles “Chip” Esten as the alcoholic, brooding guitarist Deacon Claybourne on ABC’s hit series Nashville, but aside from a shared musical talent, Esten has very little in common with his onscreen alter ego. In real life, the actor and comedian is a refreshingly down-to-earth family man who can frequently be spotted around Music City with his wife and three kids in tow.
“I’m very different than Deacon in many, many ways, but there’s a lot of ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’” Esten explains. “He’s had it harder than I’ve probably had it, so it’s taken its toll, and he’s got his demons that he battles; and I guess everybody does, but I’m pretty different. I’m glad for it.”
Like his rough-hewn TV character, Esten is no stranger to hardship. Over a decade ago, Esten’s life was turned upside down when his then 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Addie, was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully Addie, now 14, survived, but Esten’s life outlook was forever altered. On May 7, the actor will be performing a free concert in Washington, D.C., as part of a three day event hosted by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), centered around a critical call-to-action: Leading the Way to a World without Blood Cancers. We chatted with the Southern heartthrob to learn more about his daughter’s battle with leukemia, working on the set of Nashville and more.
Spry Living: More than a decade ago, your daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2. Can you take us back to the moment when you first heard the news?
Chip Esten: I remember it quite distinctly: We were all sitting in the hospital room…my wife, Addie, and our other two other kids, [Chase and Taylor], who were 4 and 6 at the time. Addie was lying in the hospital bed, and [Chase and Taylor] were coloring in the bed with her. The doctor came in and summoned me out into the hallway. When she broke the news to me that Addie had leukemia, time stood still. I just stood there, trying to wrap my head around it, but it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around something like that.
The doctor kept on talking. She told me about the available treatments and the 85% survival rate and why we had every reason to believe that Addie was going to be fine. But to me, that 15% mortality rate seemed gigantic. I thought, “What if Addie is one of the 15%?”
After [the doctor] left, I went into the room and called my wife out into the hallway. I told her the news, and we immediately sort of collapsed into each other. We sat like that for what seemed like an eternity, but it was probably no more than a minute. We wiped our faces and gathered our emotions and walked back into the room, where we broke up a fight between the kids over magic markers. That was one of the blessings of having the other children throughout this experience. You’re still a parent; you still need to show up and give your kids the stability they need. It’s those normal things that are the odd little blessings, the things that keep you focused on the moment and keep you from totally sinking into despair.
SL: What kind of symptoms was Addie having?
CE: Looking back, I realize that she had been very pale and listless. She had what we now know was petechiae—little tiny dots on her body. We took her to Cedars-Sinai, and the doctor listed a few of the possible conditions it could be. Leukemia was on the list. Hearing that right off the bat gave us some time to mentally prepare for the worst, in a way.
SL: What was it like having a young child with cancer?
CE: A couple of weeks before Addie’s diagnosis, we had been sitting in a hospital waiting room for an unrelated health issue. There had been a group of pediatric chemo patients sitting in the waiting room with their parents. The children had that distinct chemo “look” about them: they had lost their hair; their faces were swollen. As an actor, what struck me most, however, was that it wasn’t all morose and dramatic. The children were playing with the waiting room toys and books; the parents were casually talking to one another. I was blown away by their strength. I remember thinking, “Wow—that’s a club that nobody wants to be in.” And then a couple of weeks later, of course, after Addie was diagnosed, we found ourselves in that same club. And it’s sort of like, you know, off you go. You’ve just got to put your head down and start walking, because that’s the only thing you can do.
SL: Tell us a little bit about the treatment process.
CE: We were really quite fortunate in terms of Addie’s cancer treatment. She went into remission fairly quickly. Her veins were so tiny that it was difficult to get the medicine inside of her. She had to have a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) inserted in her arm to inject her medicines, which were so toxic that they burned her skin. To this day, Addie has scars on the inside of her elbow from the medicine, but she doesn’t even think about them—they’re sort of her battle scars. The worst of it was when Addie ended up in the ICU for a PICC line infection that went to her heart.
But overall, it was unbelievable to witness her strength and energy all the way throughout. I often think that her age was a blessing. Being that young—two and a half to almost five—there was a certain amount that she didn’t have to think about. She lived in the moment, rather than worrying about what treatment she had going on the next day.
SL: How has this experience changed you as a father?
CE: I was surprised by all of the things that fell away so quickly. In other words, the things that I had thought were so important—those petty concerns—were suddenly meaningless in the face of my daughter’s illness.
I also learned how to pray. I always thought I knew how to pray, but I never really truly prayed until Addie got sick. I prayed that I’d be able to dance with Addie at her wedding.
Another one of the wonderful blessings that comes out of an experience like this is that you look at normal things completely differently. You’re so much more grateful for those everyday little moments. After Addie got better, I remember going outside in the backyard and watching her swinging on the swing set with a friend, and just the sheer joy I felt from watching that act of normalcy. Or, whenever she would get a soccer trophy in a soccer tournament, it seemed like the most beautiful trophy I’d ever seen! It’s not just this way with Addie—it’s the same with all of my kids, too. You appreciate those little moments more.
SL: You relocated your family from L.A. to Nashville. How do you like Music City so far?
CE: We love it! For the first year of the show, I was living in Nashville and my family was back in LA. As much as I love doing the show, it was really, really difficult having my wife and kids halfway across the country. But I instantly fell in love with the city and knew that I would bring my family to live here if ABC did a second season of Nashville. I told them, “You’re going to like it here.” And, lo and behold, they love it. We miss our L.A. friends, but we keep in touch with them.
SL: How would you say that you are similar to your onscreen character, Deacon?
CE: Well, he cares. He loves the people he loves deeply. He’s always battling between the man he wants to be and the man he turns out to be. I think most people can relate to that—to wanting to lift yourself up and be that better person. This season, Deacon finds out that he has a daughter, and this discovery inspires him to become a better man.
At one point on the show, Deacon sings a song that’s called, “A Life’s That Good.” The song goes: “Sitting here tonight, by the firelight, reminds me that I already have more than I should. I don’t need fame, no one to know my name. At the end of the day, Lord I pray, I have a life that’s good.” And then it goes on to say: “Two arms around me, heaven to ground me, and a family that always calls me home. Four wheels to get there, enough love to share, and a sweet, sweet song at the end of the day. Lord, I pray I have a life that’s good.”
The song’s message really resonated with me; before Addie’s diagnosis, my idea of the “good life” would have included a lot of petty things, but now I think I have a better perspective.