Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Music Behind Western Romance

Last month I featured rodeos in my first Sweethearts post and promised to come back with more on what makes contemporary westerns great in November. Again, I have to say the answer lies in the contemporary West itself because this was where country music was born. Though I can't claim to be a western girl myself - more southern belle - I grew up listening to country. I saw Reba McEntire in concert when I was nine years old. We listened to album after album of Reba, Shania, Alan Jackson, and Brooks and Dunn on road trips. (My poor daddy...)

As I grew older, I grew out of my country music fandom. So it was a nice throwback to old car rides and memories when crafting my first western romance, Blackest Heart. Western romance, whether you live in the heart of the west or not, is all about worldbuilding - a term more often attributed to the paranormal, fantasy and sci-fi genres. The world is real, yes, but it's our job as western romance writers to deliver it on the page as a full sensory experience to the reader. With the Texas setting came the landscape, the summer heat, the wind storms, the small town of Wayback, TX, and the culture of the American west. A lot of that culture, I learned, centered around the rodeo arena, the ranches, and - maybe most of all - the honky-tonk.

I'm one of those writers who is influenced by mood-enhancing music when crafting storylines. For this one, you can be sure I broke out all those old country albums as well as a few new ones. It was only natural that music from the likes of Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes are mentioned in the book. Even blues icon Johnny Cash's music makes a cameo thanks to his place on hero Judd's playlist. Bonus points for whoever can guess which one of the Man in Black's songs is featured ;)

When I went back to Wayback to write the sequel, Bluest Heart, the heroine, Josie, was a tonky-tonk singer with plenty of attitude. To help further realize her character, I put together a list of songs Josie would sing onstage. It was a medley of sass featuring Miranda Lambert, the Dixie Chicks, Gretchen Wilson, Dolly Parton, Sugarland, and - of course - that Postcards from the Edge classic "I'm Checking Out." The book itself takes on a more sentimental note as old flame, Casey Ridge, fights for Josie's heart. The medley of the story turns out to be a favorite Kenny Chesney tune. Again, bonus points for anyone who can guess which!
So you see? Country music is part of American culture - specificially western American culture. It's difficult to dive into the contemporary western genre without relying on country music to set the tone in some measure, even when it simply helps you as the writer find the right mood.

Now for some discussion. What is your favorite country music song or artist? Right now, I've got one of my all-time faves from both categories stuck in my head: Reba's "Fancy." And super special brownie points for whoever can tell me the name of Wayback, Texas's honky-tonk!
"Williams has brought the romantic back to romance!" ~ Long & Short Reviews


  1. Good morning, Amber--I see you know your CW music. So much has changed over the decades, sometimes I barely recognize a song as CW. While I've never been as immersed as you in CW, I do have my favorites--both songs and people.
    I live in San Marcos, where George Strait went to college and started a band called Ace in the Hole down on Cheatum Street. He was the lead singer--this is college days--and soon after, he branched out and recorded his first big hit--the one about being wrapped around her little finger.
    He moved away, but soon came back to town and built a nice big house in a new subdivision.
    One of his most endearing sad songs is "Baby Blue Eyes", written for his young teenage daughter who was killed in a car wreck just south of town on a road next to my subdivision. A cross is there all the time for her. He now lives in SA and is the biggest selling artist of all times.I love almost all his songs.
    The name of the honky-tonk in the Wayback books? It wouldn't be fair for me to say because I, too, have a Wayback book and my hero and heroine danced--and fought--there.
    I loved your post-- Celia

  2. Hi Amber, I love books that include music. :-)

    Let's see, Johnny's song: Ring of Fire? That's the first that came to mind.

    I'm fixated with Reba's newest album right now, Keep On Loving You, but my all time fave country singer has to be Kenny Rogers. I've loved him since I was a teen and have seen him 3 times. Also love Tim, Faith, Sawyer Brown, Garth, Travis Tritt, Jo Dee Messina, and intend to pick up Sugarland.

  3. Amber, George Straight is one of my favorites although I think he was the wrong person to play the lead in Pure Country :-) He's got a great singing voice but his speaking voice is so not "hero-like" at least in my opinion and when he ran in one scene...shudder. The guy isn't athletic.

  4. Amber, I grew up in Lubbock, Texas where a lot of CW artists are from. Mac Davis grew up there. Waylon Jennings was from only a few miles away. Buddy Holly--I know he's rock and roll--but he was from Lubbock. Larry Gatlin and his brothers are from a few miles away but went to Texas Tech. My sister-in-law is from Kiowa, Oklahoma whis is where Reba McIntyre grew up. You can't throw a stick in Lubbock without hitting a CW singer. LOL

  5. Amber,
    Fun post on country music. I have to also say Ring of Fire for the song by Cash. I used to listen to it on my transistor radio way back. ;-)

    I've loved country music forever. My dad used to play classical music on Sunday all day. My mom loved popular songs as well, and those radio stations would play country music too. Also picked up country songs from the TV. I can always tell when a song will be a huge hit. There's just something about the song. I love lots of country music, and too many to list, but right now I'm looking for songs by Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flats, Tim and Faith, and Jason Aldean. Caught him on the Leno show last night and his song had tones of heavy metal in it. I like all kinds of music so a little heavy metal in country just makes it all the more fascinating.
    :-) Many times a line from a country music song will inspire a story and a character for me to write. Wonderful, emotional inspiration for writers.

  6. Interesting take on country music, but I tend to go for soundtracks, like the "Last of the MOhicans", I could listen to that all day and write.

    True there is a certain flavor gained from honky tonk music and country and western music. Mel Street's Smoky Mountain Memories is haunting. And Johnny Cash's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down."

    And Good ole George Jones, "He Stopped Loving Her Today". Some really good ones.

    It is so interesting what inspires though and gets us writing about the west.

  7. Hi Amber,
    I love country and western music! My mom didn't like it, because when I was growing up she talked about how "whiney" it was. LOL To me, that's just part of the attraction--it's down-home and earthy. I grew up in Oklahoma--we've had so many good C&W singers from here--Reba, as Caroline mentioned, Garth Brooks, who grew up in a little town about 15 minutes west of where I live, Joe Diffee, (Remember "Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox" and "Welcome to Earth Third Rock From the Sun"?) and of course Vince Gill, who I absolutely LOVE. Also Ronnie Dunn and there are others that have all played such a part in C&W music that it's amazing. My best friend's son took Carrie Underwood to the high school prom. They were just friends. No one asked her because they all thought she already had a date!

    I think the reason I'm so crazy about C&W music now is because when I was a teenager and the Eagles were popular on the pop charts, music like that would be considered country or crossover in today's market.

    Loraine, I loved Kenny Rogers too! What a voice he had! I went to see him when we lived in WV, and my dear MIL made a deal with me that she would go with me to see KR ir I would go with her the next month to see Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Jeannie Seeley and Skeeter Davis. Both of those concerts were fantastic! Wonderful memeories and great music all around.

    Not a huge George Strait fan, not a huge Tim McGraw fan--the "Indian Outlaw" song sets my blood boiling. Love Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings--what a SEXY VOICE on the slow songs he had!

    Just a bit of trivia-does anyone remember the duet that Reba sang with Linda Davis, "Does She Love You?" (which had a fantastic video, btw!)? The girl--can't think of her name, in Lady Antebellum is Linda Davis's daughter. She has a wonderful voice--even better than her mother's I think. I also like Sugarland, Rascal Flatts and some of the newer stars.

    Very thought provoking post, Amber. I love taking a walk down memory lane!


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  10. Amber, thank you for a wonderful post. I grew up in a house filled with music. My mother was a singer/musician/recording artist and made her debut in 1936 at the State Fair of Texas. She was 7 years old, and the youngst member of a western singing group with her two older sistiers. Their mother, my grandmother, was a published poet and songwriter who wrote many of their songs. They would broaden their repertoir to include other types of music as well, and became quite popular on radio shows, touring the country (including with the USO during WWII), and as recording artists. One of my mother's first cousins was also Orville Crouch, a Texan western/honky tonk singer and songwriter. One of the popular songs he wrote and recorded was Hello Trouble.

    So, music has always been a big part of my life, and I love incorporating it into my books, especially with characters. The heroine in my first western sings. Since the novel is set in 1885,I had to research music that would have been known or available at that time.

    As a writer, I agree that music can greatly help worldbuilding. Since I write historical, I listen to music of the time period for my book. I prefer baroque classical or soundtrack music. is wonderful because you can actually set up personal radio stations featuring the type music you like. As mentioned by Redameter, the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans is amazing and one of my personal favorites; it is so transporting.

  11. Hi Amber, I was born and raised in Iowa, and I have to say was never a country music fan. It wasn't until my hubby from Chicago played the tapes and cds that I came to appreciate it. It is indeed world building. That's a good way to put it. Johnny Cash is my hubby's number one favorite, I think. And "Walk the Line" went a long way to opening me up even more to CW music.

    I don't listen to it on my own, though. I'm more of a Andrea Bocelli/Josh Groban/Il Divo fan. But music was definitely part of my life growing up. My mother put on Broadway show albums while she ironed or cleaned.

    Whatever, music is a great way to encourage writing ideas AND sooth the savage ...


  12. This one is eay for me - Kevin Sharp. I was president of his fanclub for thirteen years and through this grand experience we spent five years at Fan Fair in Nashville meeting Kevin's fans and seeing our own (besides Kevin, of course). His very first song 'Nobody Knows' was No. 1 for four weeks. LeAnn Rimes' booth was across the way from ours at Fan Fair held at the country fair grouns and she was interesting to be around. It was amazing to see the country artists and find out what they were really like. One night Kevin sang at the Grand Old Opry and I stood next to that orange barn and beamed with pride as the crowd applauded him. Twenty-four big-name artists sang that night and we got to stand up there and watch most of them. Yes, you can say I love country music and was thrilled to have had a taste of it up front.

  13. Thanks for all the comments, ladies! I enjoyed your take on country music and favorite songs/soundtracks. As for my trivia questions...

    The Johnny Cash song is actually "Folsom Prison Blues." Though I LOVE "Ring of Fire" and "Walk the Line!"

    The Kenny Chesney tune that became the medley for BLUEST HEART is "You Save Me."

    And, as Celia knows, the Wayback honky-tonk is called "The Blue Bug Saloon", coined by the first series author, Rita Thedford, in her Wayback novella, Hot Night in the Blue Bug Saloon!

  14. I listen to music when I write. My first contemporary western I listened to Shania Twain, even mention one of her songs that the heroine is singing to on the radio in my book. For my book that's coming out in January about a rodeo bronc rider, I listened to Chris LeDoux. And for the workshop I give on how to get into a hero's POV I used songs by Brad Paisley. Yeah, I'm a CW music fan.

  15. The Dixie Cash book slated to be released next summer is about an aging country music star trying to make a comeback. In the back of the book, in the A+ material, I wrote a short summary of the origins of country music. ..... It began at some point in the 18th century, brought by the Scots and Irish immigrants who migrated to the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky. The amalgam that we know now actually began as Bluegrass, which evolved into a mix of the Scottish fiddle, the African banjo and the Spanish guitar. Like all folk music, the original songs were songs of everyday life--lost love, hardship and sorrow, which carries over to today. ... Likewise, dancing came with the same immigrants. Even the line dancing that they do in dancehalls today is derived from the old Scottish and Irish reels. ... Country music depended on dancehalls, then radio for many years. Early radio was responsible for the spread of the sound. The state of Georgia lays claim to being the first to broadcast the sound to the public at large, but Texas wasn't far behind, since so many of the Texas settlers after the Civil War were descendants of those first Scottish and Irish immigrants. .... Just my 2-cents worth. :-)

  16. I am seriously seriously so excited!! I can not think of anything better than Reba & George TOGETHER in concert! It's honestly like a dream come true .This month they giving away great George Strait Tickets at . it would be a dream for George fans.


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