How Growing Up With Country Music Made Me a Better Writer

I know there are plenty of music snobs out there who look down their noses at country music. And I will admit that some of what’s played on country radio these days isn’t any better than sugary, dance-mix pop or chip-on-the-shoulder rap.

But the country music that I love, and that I grew up on, is good stuff — some of the best music ever made in my opinion. I spent many a night drifting off to sleep to the sounds of my parents playing dominoes with friends or barbecuing a brisket on Sunday afternoons, while listening to folks like Willie Nelson, Gary Stewart, Charley Pride, Charlie Rich, Eddie Rabbit, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, George Strait, Moe Bandy, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline.

And you know what? I’m so thankful that my parents and grandparents raised me to love country music the way I do. I’m so glad my world was inundated with steel guitars and fiddles and the ability to two-step by the time I was 3 years old. Because I truly believe it has made me a better writer.

If the only song you think of when you think of Loretta Lynn is "Coal Miner's Daughter," you are missing out. Try "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'" and you'll hear perfection.

Why? Because country music is all about hard drinking, hard loving and hard living. It’s based on strong, get-you-in-the-gut storytelling. Except for the aforementioned crapola that somehow makes its way to radio these days, country can tell a heart-wrenching or heartwarming tale like no other genre of music. (Blues is a very close second. A blues guitar riff can give me goose bumps without a word ever being sung.)

Basically, country music has long explored humanity, in all its goodness and flaws. Wife left you for another man? Check. Lost your job and long to tell your boss to go to hell? Check. Drowning your sorrows in whiskey? Check. Cheating with your best friend’s husband? Check. White trash girl honing in on your S.O.? Check. Love your mama even though she’s in jail? Check.

Seriously, is there any better fodder for good, juicy fiction than these themes? Can anyone really listen to Willie’s Whiskey River (Take My Mind) without wanting a stiff drink? Is there any sexier a song than Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night? And who wouldn’t root for Dolly Parton as she pleads with a chick to back off her man in Jolene?

As a friend who does not love country music the way I do once joked to me: “My life is perfect right now and this stuff still makes me want to get drunk and cry my eyes out.”

Exactly.

The Hag and I even agree on political leanings, at least right now. See? There are SOME Democrats in country music.

And that’s why it’s good stuff. And why I should also really thank Mr. Merle Haggard in person for writing If We Make It Through December and Silver Wings, among other greats.

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DID YOU KNOW? There are tons of 1960s country music references in Blue Straggler. And my second novel, which will be out later this year and is titled A Good Kind of Knowing, includes music (a lot of it country) as a thread throughout the book. In fact, music has such prominence in the storyline that it’s nearly a character itself.

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DID YOU ALSO KNOW? Blue Straggler is a #1 bestselling novel now after hitting the top spot on Amazon in comic fiction earlier this month. It’s stayed in the top five now for four weeks. The novel is also on two other bestselling lists. It’s all so amazing! Thank you again to every single reader who took the time to check out my work. I appreciate you, and you’ve had a real impact on my life.

 


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What Being a Texas Woman Means

A friend recently sent me an article that was posted in Garden & Gun’s online magazine (I know! Worst magazine title ever, even if you are into squeezing a trigger) about what being a Southern woman means. It’s an excellent little piece.

Here’s one of my favorite insights: “It also means never leaving the house with wet hair. Not even in the case of fire. Because wet hair is low-rent. It shows you don’t care, and not caring is not something Southern women do …”

This. Is. Texas.

Mostly, though, the article got me thinking about what it really means to be a Texas woman. (Because when you’re from Texas, even if you move on like I have, you’re still a Texan. It’s not something you can ever leave behind. In fact, for me, Texas has only become more important as I’ve tried to make a life somewhere else. Texas is home. Texas is family. Texas is my heritage.)

I’ve been so lucky in my life to be surrounded by amazing Texas women from all walks of life: Women who grew up on farms and ended up running huge ranching operations on their own. Women who grew up in Houston and Dallas and Austin who go on to lead meaningful nonprofits and run international companies. Women who quietly make their own mark in small towns that are miles and miles from a metropolitan area. Women who drive 18-wheelers. Women who devote everything they have to their church or their art.

So, while I always fear over-generalization, I wanted to point out some commonalities I think exist in all of these different kinds of women — characteristics that, in combination, make Texas women truly unique. These are only my thoughts, of course — I’d love for others to add to the list (or argue with my perceptions). Here it goes:

Don't Mess With Texas Women.

1. Texas women are fiercely loyal. We’re seriously like German Shepherds on crack. A Texas woman will stand up for her man, her family and her close friends, protect them and guard them with her life — if they have earned her trust. Once you make it into a Texas woman’s inner circle, she will do anything for you. We have each other’s backs, even if we don’t necessarily agree with your actions, or if we haven’t seen you in 10 years.

2. Texas women hold grudges. If we feel a wrong has been committed against us, or against those we love dearly, we will never forgive you for it. It’s just a fact. You can apologize, and we might accept the apology at face value, we might even say that we forgive you, but you’ll never be in our inner circle again. Never. And you’ll miss that, because our trust and loyalty are pretty awesome things to have.

3. We’re going to do what we want, so you probably should just go along with it. A friend of mine asked me one day if I thought Texas women were high maintenance. She was thinking of the Dallas (the city, not the old TV show) stereotypes out there. My response was no, not at all. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t Texas women who demand nice things in life (the mansion, the car, the jewelry). What it does mean is this: Texas women don’t stop until they get what they want. Maybe they’ll ask you for what they want. Maybe they won’t. But either way, they’ll push forward and find a way to make it happen with or without you. It’s not high maintenance, it’s perseverance. It’s “lead or get the hell out of the way so I can.”

Friday Night Football in Texas

4. We get football. We understand the game because we likely had fathers or brothers or college boyfriends or mothers or aunts who loved it. Or maybe we loved it, too. After all, football is big in Texas. BIG. It’s a huge part of the culture, whether you live in the city or a small rural town. Texas women grow up with the excitement of Friday night games and cheerleading and the marching band, and pep rallies. It’s just part of the fabric of Texas life. Some Texas women go on to love it their whole lives, and some don’t. But either way, they still get it.

5. Texas women know that when someone is grieving, sending over a brisket, a broccoli-cheese casserole and a pound of coffee is the best way to express how much you care. Period.

6. Texas women, if they are moms, are deeply involved in their kids’ lives. If her son is playing football, she will be at every game, no matter how far she has to drive. If her daughter wants to play softball, but the family can’t afford a team uniform and fees, she will work an extra job, or sell breakfast tacos at work, until she earns enough to make it happen.

7. We hold it together in tough times. We’re powered by a hardy history and kick-ass ancestors. Remember, Texas was a god-forsaken place back when it was first settled: Difficult to farm, little water, hard ground, harsh weather. I think those resilient women of yesteryear have stayed in our genes throughout time. You tragically lose a husband or a child? You curse, you howl in agony, and then you put yourself back together and make it through it. Your son goes to jail for an unspeakable crime? You hold your head up high and visit him weekly. A hurricane destroys your home? You rebuild it, stronger. And sure, Texas women cry. But then we wipe those tears and figure out how to go on.

8. We understand that you can draw more flies with honey than vinegar. We know how to use that strategy to, say, get out of speeding tickets, or get another desired result (see #3 above). But we have plenty of vinegar to share if you get on our bad side. Texas women love a good fight, and we know how to fight with words that’ll slap you harder than a happy hound dog’s tail.

9. Texas hospitality is unique, too. We don’t welcome just anybody into our homes. But when we do ask you to come in, you can expect a glass of cold, sweet iced tea, and an invitation to stay for dinner and pie. And if you’ve earned our trust (see #1 above), you can make yourself at home from then on out. Just grab what you want out of the refrigerator and be sure the back screen door is shut tight.

10. Finally, yes, Texas women like to look good. Appearances are important. It’s rare to find a Texas woman who will go to the grocery store without at least a little makeup on. I personally think it all comes back to the fact that we need a whole lot of self-confidence to fight our way through life, and by wearing those nice-fitting jeans and a sparkly belt (even after the age of 45) to buy toilet tissue, we give ourselves the edge we need to run our little (or big) worlds.

I miss my Texas gals. Every one of you, even if I don’t wear makeup to the grocery store in Colorado any more.

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BOOK NEWS! It’s been an unbelievable week so far for Blue Straggler. The novel hit the #1 best-selling position in both comic fiction and humor categories on Amazon, and on its first free promotion day, 7,000+ people downloaded it to their Kindles. Someone pinch me!


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What Happened When I Turned 30 … and 40

I just returned from my first-ever book tour in Texas, promoting Blue Straggler. The trip brought up lots of old feelings I hadn’t thought about in a while — mostly because I spent a lot of time on the tour talking about the main character, Bailey, who in the book is going through a period of time where she is trying to discover who she really is inside, and because I visited many of my old haunts in Texas, which were ripe with memories, good and bad.

Me, at age 30, seemingly in need of a makeover of some kind.

The truth is, much like Blue Straggler’s Bailey, I had my first mid-life crisis when I turned 30. And while I wasn’t technically at mid-life if you look at actuary statistics, I had done a lot of livin’ by that point — some easy living, some hard living.

My 20s had been filled to the brim with highs and lows, board rooms and bar rooms, tons of joy and far too much pain, some of which was self-inflicted. I had some ugly scars, but they were healing. I was successful in my career — the youngest person on the executive management team for a major university system. I was dating both a NASA engineer and a doctor, neither too serious, at the same time. I lived in a sweet 1950s cottage-style house with original wood floors in a good neighborhood. I enjoyed amazing friends who had me over for deck therapy when I needed to laugh. I mowed my yard on Sundays, had a little garden in the back. I was coasting into a pretty good little life.

Then, I hit that 30 mark. And something clicked in my brain.

Restless does not even begin to describe how I felt. I literally felt a physical, guttural pull to change my life. As Soon As Possible.

It was like an overwhelming toothache when you know you need a root canal or a chicken-pox itch that no amount of Calamine lotion could remedy. I could not drink the longing away. (Some might say I gave it a good go, though. Thank you, Ketel One vodka and all makers of boxed wine.) I could not run far enough on my morning runs or swim fast enough at the pool to make it stop. Writing about it only made it even more real.

I Simply Wanted More. Right Then.

What did I want? Well, I wanted everything. I wanted less of some things, more of others. I wanted, wanted, wanted.

I wanted the kind of love that those damn romance novels and fairytales had promised me. I wanted to work in a job that I knew would make a difference in the big, bad world in some small way. I wanted to meet new people who were more like me, less like everyone else. I maybe wanted a child, or 50 more dogs. I wanted to ditch my old self like a snake sheds its skin. I wanted to feel and experience more. I wanted to make my mark on the world, to prove that I was here and alive and creative and oh-so-deep. (Still working on the last one, by the way.)

Now remember, I was on a pretty good trajectory before all this. But the trajectory wasn’t right, and I knew it inside. So, I sold most of my belongings, packed up my (two) dogs and the little furniture I had left, said adios to one of the best jobs in town, kissed two very nice men goodbye, apologized to my mother for leaving, and headed off to the Rocky Mountains, where I knew I could push myself and experience something completely different than my comfortable life back in Texas.

Me, before a hike my first year in Colorado

Did it work? Hell, yes! I highly recommend my approach. I bought a log cabin at the top of a mountain, challenged myself to 10-mile hikes alone on backcountry trails, learned to cross-country ski and snowshoe and how to chop firewood and survive during blizzards, married a handsome man who was unlike anyone I’d met before, adopted a baby, got some more dogs, and began to write and publish writing that mattered to me. Basically, I created the life that I wanted and needed.

And then … I hit the 40 mark. (These darn age milestones just wreak havoc on my psyche!)

Adopting Mac was the best decision ever.

Adopting Mac was the best decision ever, even if he does change my ability to pick up and leave on a moment's notice.

Once again, I’m feeling that same old itch. But everything is more complicated now, of course. I have a child and there’s this whole clothing and feeding and paying for karate thing. I have a husband with his own ideas of the future. I have a home that’s lost a whole lot of its value after the housing market crash. I have family who probably needs me to move back home. There are more layers to me now than there were back then (in more ways than one).

Just because every blog post should contain an image of chocolate.

But, I want new layers! (Anyone else craving a chocolate-layered cake right now? Sorry.)

Seriously, I don’t want to fall into what society thinks a mom should be, or a wife should be, or a writer should be. I want to again make my own way. And again, I know there is more out there that I need to experience, and I crave it like an adventure junkie.

So who knows what this mid-life crisis will bring? A move to a foreign country where I’m forced to learn a new language? A move to a new climate, even if it’s just city-life in Denver? Learning a new instrument? Going back to school? Opening my own business? Running a marathon? Taking my kid to live with wolves for a year? (That one’s a probable no.)

I suppose if it’s anything like the last one, it’ll be a good thing, right?

Check back with me when I’m 50, I guess. When the next crisis will no doubt be brewing like a strong pot of black coffee, waiting to be tasted.

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Have you seen the new book trailer of Blue Straggler released by 30 Day Books yet?

 


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Highlights of My Texas Book Tour

The wildflowers were incredible!

Several things are more clear to me than ever after my whirlwind book tour in South/Central Texas: I have some of the best family and friends in the world back home; there are few sights more beautiful than a lush green pasture full of Texas wildflowers and grazing horses; and my skin and hair still visibly balk at a week spent in that 200-percent humidity.

My five-year-old son accompanied me on the book tour, and we had a great time. (My son was either selling or giving away his autograph and asking others for theirs at several of the events. He was way more popular than me. It’s hell to be overshadowed by a cute kid.)

Various members of my family (my mom, my sisters, my niece, my dad) served as my promoters, bankers and greeters. It was so nice to feel supported by them (and I think they were even a little proud of me!) Along with several friends who pounded the pavement for me to bring people in for the events, I felt like I had my very own little Street Team going on.

At the Bryan, Texas, book signing with friend Lori C.

I got to see so many dear friends from my previous lives … high school friends, college running buddies, coworkers from the jobs I held at Texas A&M. I got to catch up with wonderful people over wine and beer and burgers. I got to thank many of my hometown teachers who taught me so well all those years ago.

Other stuff that happened:

At one of the events, people took books and had me sign them without paying for them … I think they thought they were free for the taking! When I told a friend this at another event, he suggested he had attended the wrong party (since he’d had to pay for his copy that night).

My sister’s hubcaps were stolen off her Cadillac during one of the signings. This was only a little bit funny to her. (Or not at all now that I think about it.)

I spoke to a group of high school seniors at my alma mater in Gonzales, and the vacant stares and large yawns were a bit unnerving. I tried to make jokes here and there, but this tough crowd was having none of it. However, no spitballs were thrown at me, and I considered this a positive thing. Note to self: Do not go into motivational speaking to young people.

I had intended to ask someone to take pictures at the events, but kept forgetting to actually alert anyone to this need until the end of each event. But this way, I can remember myself as looking better than I actually did. (If you are reading this and took pictures at an event, and — this is important — I look good in the pictures — send them to me via email – kathy@kathylynnharris.com!)

At one event, an old friend of mine came up to me dressed in a disguise. Was this really necessary? Did make me laugh, though.

Okay, I think that’s it for a recap. Thank you to every single person, in disguise or not, who attended an event in the Lone Star State. It was an amazing experience (my first book tour ever!) and I’m just so grateful.

I’m also officially exhausted and out of gas money.


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Two Things I Miss Most About South Texas in the Spring

My book tour in Texas is coming up the week of March 26 (see details on the events here), and I’m so looking forward to not only the book events themselves, but just being in Texas in the spring.

This time of year is actually when I miss home the most. Where I’m at (high in the Colorado mountains west of Denver), we’re still very much in winter mode. March and April are our two snowiest months of the year. The huge blizzard of 2003 when we got 9 feet of snow — not a typo, that’s 9 feet — occurred in March. We just had windchills that were near 20 below in the past week. Our doors were frozen shut.

So, the thought of being in that warm, albeit humid, Texas air is exciting right now. I’m bringing my flip-flops, y’all! (I don’t think my mother will let me wear them to the book signings, though. And I’m pretty sure my ankle surgeon would not approve.)

Two more things I miss about home this time of year?

Spring in Texas. Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/bobrosenberg CC license 2.0

First, the wildflowers. The fields of bluebonnets that look like a sea of blue. The red paintbrushes (we always called them Indian Blankets). The pink buttercups. The list goes on. There’s nothing quite like a drive down a rural Texas highway in March and seeing the beautiful colors lining the roadways and dotting the pastures along the way. Our wildflower season at 10,500 feet above sea level is in late June and early July, so this trip in two weeks is going to be a real treat.

Secondly, and most importantly, I miss my mom’s lemon icebox pie. She always makes a double recipe for Easter Sunday. (Well, because we love it so much, she’s now starting making it at Christmas, Thanksgiving or anytime my son will be around! Spoiled kid.) I’ve tried making it up here a dozen times and it never tastes as good as hers. She uses the organic lemons that she and my dad grow there in Gonzales, Texas, which probably makes all the difference in the world.

I hope she doesn’t mind that I share her recipe below.

These things are seriously good. And since they are baked, I take it to mean I can eat the whole bag.

In other very exciting news, Blue Straggler is now on an Amazon.com bestseller list!  It hit the top 20 best sellers in ebooks/comic fiction on Friday. That meant, of course, that I celebrated all weekend. (Send vodka replenishment and those Snappea Crisp things.)

Mom’s Lemon Icebox Pie

  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 packages (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Beat the above ingredients until smooth. Pour into a 9-inch graham cracker pie shell. Spread whipped topping (or make your own whipped cream!) over the top of the pie.

Chill in the refrigerator for at least three hours before serving.


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Love/Hate Relationship with Texas Tornados … and Exciting Book News

Yesterday was a crazy, roller-coaster kind of day, full of ups and downs.

First, I got word that my sister’s home in Central Texas was side-swiped by a tornado as they were all getting up and ready for school and work. Everyone is okay, thank goodness. The house, not so much. But insurance is a good thing. And my nieces will have a great story to tell for the rest of their lives about the January morning the sky turned green-black and they spent some scary moments praying while crouched in a hallway closet.

Personally, I’ve always wanted to be a storm chaser (seriously) because tornadoes intrigue me like no other weather event. I’m addicted to Texas Storm Chasers on Facebook and I love The Weather Channel and Storm Stories. In fact, I have very few regrets in my life at this point, but if I had to name one, it would be that I did not pursue storm-chasing back when I didn’t have a kiddo relying on me for, oh I don’t know, daily needs and such. Now, we live so high in the mountains and so close to the Continental Divide that a tornado up here would be a hugely rare event. As in I think there’s only been one reported in a million years (don’t quote me on that). We do have our own bizarre weather events, but let’s face it, chasing blizzards isn’t nearly as exciting as chasing a massive, cat 4 funnel cloud.

Back to reality: I spent the remainder of the day out shopping. Lots of ups and downs here, too.

Up: Upgraded to a Kindle Fire and am in love. Tip: Target has a better warranty, but Best Buy has better Kindle cases.

Down: Again saw that indie authors are so not well-represented on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. (I had a gift card to use.) Very disappointing. I had a list of about five indie books that I wanted to get my hands on, but they had none of them in stock.

Up: Treated myself to Starbucks coffee with … wait for it … real whipped cream in large amounts.

Down: Tried on swimsuits for an upcoming trip to Mexico. Sometime I would really like to sit down and have a discussion with a swimsuit designer or two just to figure out what in the hell they were thinking. Potential question: Did you really think that a very large polka dot design would look good on anyone, especially grown women with, errr, curves? (I refuse, however, to regret the whipped cream noted above.)

Then, a Big, Huge Up: Got home and found that the galley proof of Blue Straggler had arrived in the mail from my publisher! It looks fantastic, as you can clearly see from this photo of a cute mystery kid displaying it for the camera. Galley Proof of Blue Straggler, a novel by Kathy Lynn Harris

I then proceeded to stay up til 2 am proofing the book because I couldn’t wait.

Exciting times. The official release date is now March 1, and I have so much to do to prepare. It’s a good thing that I have so many wonderful friends and family to keep me sane.

Stay tuned for more information on a book release party or two in Texas and book signings/readings in Colorado.

Random Texas music note: If you’ve never listened to the San Antonio-based band, the Texas Tornados, give them a try. Good stuff.


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