Carrie Underwood immediately came to mind when Vernell Hackett was asked to write a biography for a celebrity who has been a positive influence on America’s youth. The resulting book, Carrie Underwood: A Biography (Greenwood, September 2010), focuses on the dynamic career of “the-girl-next-door,” as well as her dedication to worthy causes like the Humane Society and the USO.
A freelance journalist, Hackett has contributed to a number of iconic country music publications during the past two decades.
I was around ten years old and in the fourth grade in Riesel, Texas, when I started writing short stories. From the moment I started to read I was in love with books, and I’m sure that is what stirred my interest. At first I wrote really bad mystery stories, which my brother patiently took to a writer friend of his in Houston who oh so gallantly made suggestions to me. Then in junior high, I was asked to write on the school newspaper, The Indian, which was published each week in the weekly newspaper, the Riesel Rustler. It was then I discovered the art of the interview, and that if you were a reporter vs. a creative writer, you could ask anyone anything and they usually would answer you. A whole new world opened up for me as a writer once I made that discovery!
How did you break into entertainment journalism?
I was studying journalism at Sam Houston State University, with a minor in history and a near-minor in criminology. At that time my goal was to be a police reporter for the Houston Chronicle because I loved hearing all the stories about criminals that my brother, a Houston police detective, told me. But I also loved country music and I subscribed to Country Song Roundup while a junior at Sam Houston. As I read those stories in that magazine, I thought to myself, ‘You could write about country music too. Why don’t you go to Nashville when you graduate?’ That was my turning point in journalism, from a career in crime to a career in music!
I got married to Ken Hackett right out of college, and after a short tenure in Buffalo, New York, we moved to Nashville. I worked for the Country Music Association the first year I was here, which was a great training ground for me because everyone in music came through their door at one time or another. In one week I met Johnny Cash and John Wayne. I knew I was going to love living in Nashville!! I wrote for the CMA magazine, Close-Up, and loved my time there, but after a year I wanted to strike out on my own as a journalist. Not too long after I left the CMA, I started writing for Country Song Roundup, the magazine that gave me the idea to get into country music to start with.
When I was studying journalism at Sam Houston, one of my teachers, Leon Hale, was a freelance writer in Houston. As I heard him talk about the freedom he had as a writer, I aspired to one day be a freelance writer too. By the way, the last time I checked, Mr. Hale was still ‘freelancing’ for the Houston Chronicle!
I worked various other jobs throughout the years, including editing two great magazines, Country Hotline News and American Songwriter. In 1986 I did become a full-time freelance writer, working for various publications and online sites, taking a few side trails along the way to work for Westwood One/Metro Radio Network, John McEuen, Pinecastle Records, and Rural Rhythm Records.
Who/what influenced your writing career the most?
I believe my love of books, and reading about all those exciting places and people in them, made me want to write. I had a lot of encouragement from people who saw my desire to be a writer, including my brother and my parents.
In high school I had an English teacher, Vickie Johnson, who saw my love for writing. Despite the fact that we had no journalism class, she found a textbook on journalism and gave it to me to study on my own. Then she took me to numerous writing competitions all over the state of Texas, on her own time, to encourage me to develop my writing skills. Somewhere I still have ribbons from contests that I won or placed in. I didn’t realize at the time what a sacrifice she was making to take me to all those events. I was just having a good time!
Another teacher, Mr. Westbrook, helped me get a scholarship to Sam Houston State University so I could get a foot in the door at the school. After that initial year, I worked my way through school. If he had not encouraged me to apply for that scholarship I’m not sure what I would have done as I had not saved money to go to college when I was in high school.
In college, the aforementioned Leon Hale was a big influence, as was another professor there, Ferol Robinson. They were very encouraging and offered words of advice along the way.
Has God ever provided an unexpected “detour” in your life that turned out to be positive?
When I was editor of Country Hotline News and American Songwriter, I was totally content. I loved what I did with those publications and I was not thinking about being a freelance writer. But suddenly and unexpectedly the company that owned them went bankrupt, and I was faced with a decision as to what my next job might be. At that point I said to myself, “Well you’ve always wanted to freelance. Let’s see if you can do it.”
Jim Sharp ended up owning American Songwriter so he offered for me to stay onboard as editor of that magazine on a freelance basis, with no set salary. From that base I started to pitch to other magazines including Country Song Roundup, Countrystyle, and Amusement Business, and soon I was doing pretty well as a freelance journalist. Imagine that! If the company had not declared bankruptcy, I doubt that I would ever have pursued the freelance route, as I so loved working for those magazines as editor.
Let’s talk about your new book, Carrie Underwood: A Biography (Greenwood, September 2010). Please tell us about it.
The book on Carrie basically takes the reader through her life, focusing on the years from the time she won “American Idol” through her wedding and recent tour. I touch on her hometown and family, and some of her early gigs before she auditioned for “Idol.” I think, for those who are fans of Carrie, and those who enjoy reading celebrity bios, the book would include all the information on the singer in one place, for the reader to get a good idea of who she is and where she is going. It also includes background on her hometown in Oklahoma, Nashville, and the music industry, and gives readers a little insight into how the music business works.
Greenwood does a series in which books about celebrities who are positive influences for young people are placed in junior and high school libraries, as well as public libraries. Carrie’s book is in that series. When I was first approached to write a book for this series, Carrie was the first person I thought of who might appeal to young people because of her popularity on “American Idol” and continued popularity in country music—and because she truly seemed to be “the girl next door.”
How long did it take you to research the book?
It took me about six months to research the book, but I continued to do research throughout the 12 months that I was given to research and write it. I went through magazines at the Country Music Hall of Fame, read everything I could on the Internet about her, and went through the “Tulsa World’s” newspapers online to read about her. I also had done four or five interviews with Carrie since she had won “Idol,” so I had a lot of quotes to pull from. Some of my friends, including Deborah Evans Price, were kind enough to let me read through some of their interviews with Carrie as well, which was extremely helpful to me to get more insight into her personality and background.
Besides providing entertainment, what is the one thing you hope readers will take away from this book?
I would hope that some young person who loves music and is thinking about it for their career, will find my book one day when they have to write a book review, and they will read it and go, “Wow, Carrie did all this and she didn’t get into drugs or go to jail for a DUI or any of that stuff I hear that some celebrities do. I think I’m going to try to model my career after all the good things that she has done.” That would be a total compliment to Carrie, and it would be cool to think that something I wrote might inspire that.
You are also a freelance journalist and work with several national and international magazines and online outlets. Where do your bylines regularly appear?
I write on a regular basis for www.theboot.com, which is AOL’s country music website. I also contribute articles to a variety of other publications and websites including Venues Today, Country Weekly, Gospel Music Channel (GMC), and to Reuters News Service. I have also written for The Quilter, American Cowboy, Rope Burns, The Bullrider, and Billboard.
A few fun questions…
What do you like to read when kicking back with a good book?
Any good spy or detective novel, like Robert Ludlum or Susan Wittig Albert. I also like stories about animals, as well as uplifting and spiritual books.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re relaxing with the radio or an mp3 player?
I listen to a wide range of music including country, rock, gospel, Americana and bluegrass. My iPod has everyone from Dierks Bentley to Kid Rock, the Gaither Vocal Band, the Black Crowes, Dickey Lee, Earl Thomas Conley, Miranda Lambert, Brenda Lee, Alvin Crow, Toto, Joe Ely, Michael Martin Murphey, Larry Stephenson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Jamey Johnson, and Hank Williams, Sr. on it at any given moment!
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
Mexican food probably, though I love a good meat loaf or a Texas sized chicken fried steak, both served with mashed potatoes and green beans. And ice cream of course!
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
Okay that’s a hard one because I think the song would depend upon the day. But overall I think I would be a story song about real people in real life situations that could portray tragedy but overall would offer a positive solution in the end.
Are you a major or a minor chord?
I think I would be a minor chord though I can’t explain why I think that!
In the story that is your life, are you the strong, female lead; the girl next door; the mysterious woman behind dark glasses; the super heroine; or the little girl trying to walk in high heels?
Absolutely the mysterious woman behind dark glasses! That goes back to my love of mystery and intrigue.
I’m a dog lover—and I noticed in the advance copy for Carrie’s biography that she works with the Humane Society. Does she have personal pets? Please tell us about your personal pet or pets.
One of the things I loved about Carrie when I got to know a little about her is that she is vegetarian and she loves animals. She has a dog, Ace, who travels with her, and I believe she still has a couple dogs who live with her parents in Oklahoma that were her dogs when she was living at home before “American Idol” fame. She has said many times she could live without singing again but never without her four-footed friends.
I have a dog, Shadow, who is a King Charles spaniel mix. I also have five cats—Dakota, Jerry (real name Geroni-meow), Montana, Bandit, and Sage. And I share an outdoor cat, Rocky, with my neighbor. Plus I have several goldfish and a beta fish named Rio. I love animals and have had pets since I was a kid in Texas. I am not real active in pet rescue work, but I do what I can if I find a stray, to get it into a good home (obviously some have ended up in mine as all of my animals found me except for the fish). I also occasionally drive pet transports, helping move an animal from a kill shelter to a no-kill shelter or to their new home. That is a very cool thing to do when I have time and resources. Just recently I ended up with nine puppies at my house because a transport got mixed up for about 12 hours. That was a pretty interesting experience! I’ll just say Shadow and the cats were not really happy about sharing their home with nine strangers!
Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this great website, Kathy. You do an awesome job with the people you interview and the very interesting content on it.
Thanks so much, Vernell! It’s great to have you here!
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For more information about Vernell’s books, visit http://www.amazon.com/Vernell-Hackett/e/B003R7QXLS/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0/188-8547537-6745953.
To order Carrie Underwood: A Biography, logon to Greenwood Publishing Group, http://www.greenwood.com/catalog/GR7851.aspx.