The Whole Way Home
By: Sarah Creech
Releasing June 6, 2017
A ferocious talent on the brink of making it big in Nashville must confront her small town past and an old love she’s never forgotten in this engaging novel—a soulful ballad filled with romance, heartbreak, secrets, and scandal from the author of Season of the Dragonflies.
Playing to packed houses while her hit song rushes up the charts, country singer and fiddler Jo Lover is poised to become a big Nashville star like her idols, Loretta, Reba, and Sheryl. To ensure her success, Jo has carefully crafted her image: a pretty, sassy, down-to-earth girl from small-town Virginia who pours her heart into her songs.
But the stage persona she’s built is threatened when her independent label merges with big-time Capitol Records, bringing Nashville heartthrob JD McCoy—her first love—back into her life. Long ago Jo played with JD’s band. Then something went wrong, they parted ways and took their own crooked roads to stardom. Now, Jo’s excited—and terrified—to see him again.
When the label reunites them for a show, the old sparks fly, the duet they sing goes viral, and fans begin clamoring for more—igniting the media’s interest in the compelling singer. Why is a small-town girl like Jo so quiet about her past? When did she and JD first meet? What split them apart? All too soon, the painful secret she's been hiding is uncovered; a shocking revelation that threatens to destroy her reputation and her dreams. To salvage her life and her career, Jo must finally face the past—and her feelings for JD—to become the true Nashville diva she was meant to be.
JD Gunn stood up from his wooden pew in the Ryman and joined the entire audience as they clapped and whistled for Jo to return to the stage for an encore. It felt good being on this side of the stage for once, just another audience member looking up with awe at a stellar performer. Nashville’s finest musicians, critics, and business folks gathered in these pews to witness her performance, alongside some of the most devoted fans he’d ever seen. JD’s ears were ringing from all the screams unleashed for her.
He and the band cut their Northeast tour short a day to come to the Ryman for Jo’s induction into the Grand Old Opry family. He and his band had been members for five years and he tried to make it to every new induction. Now he was second-guessing that decision. He figured enough time had passed between them that his presence here wouldn’t bother her, that maybe she would’ve expected to see him and be happy about it. But there was something about the way she looked at him, like there was a glitch in her system. And Jo Lover, who was master of her instruments, one of the finest musicians he’d ever known, messed up that easy Loretta number.
JD put his fingers in his mouth and let out a cattle whistle. His bass player Rob stood next to him and shouted Jo’s name over and over. Rob wore the same black and white Willie and Waylon outlaw t-shirt he’d owned since middle school. JD was an only child and Rob was the closest to a brother that JD had. JD and Rob snuck out the house and hitched a ride away from Gate City to attend that Willie and Waylon show together. Rob waited in line for almost an hour to have his shirt signed. When it was finally his turn and he had the chance to talk to Willie, he almost didn’t speak, just stood there adjusting his thick glasses. JD shoved him and Rob finally said, “You guys are so cool” and Willie said, “So are you, kid.” Rob talked about it for months. Still brought it up when they got drunk. All they wanted back then was to be those guys. Swore they’d grow up to be outlaws and not ruin their bodies at the quarry like their fathers had. They swore they’d find something better to do with their hands.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
The research process! I explored the history of country music through the wonderful scholarly texts of Bill C. Malone and I drew so much inspiration from tales of Opry romances and curses, friendships and heartbreaks. Country music is the most neglected of all music styles in scholarly work due to its complicated regional history, but it’s far and away the best narrative music genre. I’m grateful for Malone, who dedicated his scholarly career to studying the roots of country music and beyond. Through Malone and other important writers, I discovered the romantic relationships between Martina McBride and her producer husband and George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Those romantic/working relationships have long fascinated me since I’m in a marriage with another artist.
I also researched the on stage duet relationships between superstars like Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and all the complications that arise when a romantic link is missing. I had the pleasure of being granted access to the Frist Library in the Country Hal of Fame in Nashville, TN, where I listened to the earliest recordings of the Grand Ole Opry, found the first draft of Waylon Jennings’s autobiography, which I promptly read it from start to finish, and explored all the microfiche a writer could want about the country music industry. I’m fascinated by independent labels like Big Machine (Taylor Swift’s label) headed by Scott Borchetta and 3rd Man Records headed by Jack White and how they operate in a town where multi-national corporations hold most of the power. I read through many newspaper clippings and explored the trajectory of the country music industry from the 60s to current day and all the disruptions along the way like rock music, the Vietnam War, and the rise of pirating technology.
On one of my last days at the Frist Library, Jack White and his entourage walked into the room where I was the only person granted access on that day. He’s much taller in person and extremely charismatic. His energy animated the inanimate objects in the room. He told me I was pretty. And I thought, the nerve of that guy! He said that to me because he’s Jack White, because he could. Still, for a full hour I was deeply distracted. A few weeks later I found out he was there to pick up one of the earliest known recordings of Elvis. A friend of Elvis’s from before he was famous found the record in his closet, and Jack White had it digitally re-mastered at the Frist Library. And I happened to be there when it was all finished. Meeting Jack White and researching in Nashville became a turning point for the novel. The night before I was set to head home from this research trip, I had a dream that I’d forgotten my current manuscript on an elevator that would never come back down to me. I knew my dream was telling me to start over, to make it bigger, to try and capture all the light, charm, and magnitude of Jack White’s presence and Nashville at large.
Beyond book research, I found myself drinking lots of whiskey with great musicians who generously gave me just enough access to their lives to inspire the characters in this book. Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show and J.P. Harris of J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices were so open and helpful that I’ll never be able to thank them fully.
If you could trade places with anyone for just one day, who would you be?
A la Twitter style, please describe your book in 140 characters or less.
About the rising Queen of Country and the Top 40 superstar she used to love.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
A few years ago I was sitting at a local honkytonk joint called the Thirsty Beaver here in Charlotte, NC, where I live. This is an iconic bar in Charlotte, and proudly sells the most Jim Beam in the entire state. The bar is run by two fabulous brothers who created the idea for this place before the Plaza Midwood neighborhood was as cool and in demand as it is now. They had no idea if anyone would come to a bar playing Hank Williams, not Blake Shelton. There’s a velvet Kenny Rogers poster on the storage room door and a Charlie Pride hologram on the wall. (I tried to capture the charm of this place in my novel. The Thirsty Baboon is an homage to this place.)
So I was sitting on a barstool at the Thirsty Beaver, drinking a whiskey neat, and waiting for J.P. Harris and The Tough Choices to start playing. I’d seen J.P. play once before in Galax, Virginia, on a snowy evening where couples came out for a two step. He promised me his show at the Thirsty Beaver would be a lot more raucous. And he was right, of course. I remember sitting on that bar stool, watching him perform with his sleeves of tattoos on display and his big black beard grown out before all the hipsters were doing it and I remember his passion for the roots of country music, for playing covers by the greats like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. This rebellious musician and all his respect and passion for the tradition really struck me. I thought, What if I guy like this could become really famous in Nashville? And that question sparked the beginning of The Whole Way Home. The book doesn’t follow the exact trajectory of that question, but I’m glad to report that J.P. Harris is well on his way to turning that what if into reality. Now he’s so busy touring that the guys at the Thirsty Beaver can’t book him anymore! We’re all proud of him.
How long have you been writing, and what (or who) inspired you to start?
I wrote and illustrated my first book of poems in the 4th grade and my first novel in the sixth grade, and I’ve been writing ever since. My mother was a voracious reader. I have many memories of walking into her bedroom in the evenings and on the weekends to find her reading paperbacks in bed with many more scattered on the floor. She was a single, hard-working mom of four girls with no help from my father. I knew how stressed and difficult her life was and I remember drawing the conclusion that books gave her comfort, peace, just like reading Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Amelia Bedelia did for me. Books were magical, and I wanted to participate as a creator.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Treat the first ten years like an apprenticeship. Be impatient for success and patient with your failures. Don’t quit.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Thank you so much for reading on all formats, for building community through books, and for keeping word of mouth promotion alive and well. Without you, writers work in a silo.
Born and raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sarah Creech now teaches English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. She lives in Charlotte, NC with her two children and her husband, the poet Morrie Creech.
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