“Country Living had never dipped its toes fully into the country music waters, but if that audience is going to read a shelter decorating magazine, I think Country Living is the magazine for them. So, we talked about how to be very deliberate about penetrating that world without alienating our core readership, because I’m realistic; I know not all of our readers are country music fans and they don’t come to our magazine for celebrities and/or music.” Rachel Barrett
Country Living magazine is taking its June issue on a long drive into the country with a guest editor and the first-ever person to appear on its cover in the magazine’s 36-year history. Grammy-Award winning singer, Miranda Lambert is the distinguished celebrity that received the honor. And it is a momentous event indeed.
Rachel Barrett is the magazine’s editor-in-chief and said the upcoming issue of Country Living showcases many firsts for the magazine as it rubs shoulders with the country music industry without deviating from its original DNA. No celeb-tell-alls here; Country Living merely continues to do what it does best, celebrating country style with tasteful class and easy fun.
I spoke with Rachel recently about the memorable June issue with all its ‘firsts,’ from the new feature: Turn This Country Room Into a Song to the first edition of Country Living Backstage, a free mini-mag created in partnership with the Country Music Association for the CMA Fan Fest held in Nashville June 11-14.
A true southern lady herself, Rachel graciously shared her enthusiastic excitement about the issue and the magazine in general. It was a conversation that was as refreshing as a mint julep on a hot southern day.
But of course, Country Living doesn’t happen only below the Mason-Dixon, as Rachel was quick to point out, even though it’s published in Birmingham, Ala. The magazine appeals to people everywhere who enjoy the country lifestyle; from New York to Nebraska; Country Living satisfies its audience all across the United States.
I hope you enjoy this fun and lively conversation with Rachel Barrett, Editor-in-Chief, Country Living magazine. I know Mr. Magazine™ did.
But first the sound-bites:
On why the June issue was chosen for the magazine’s maiden voyage into ‘country’: We began looking at what time of year to potentially do this issue and to be honest, we weren’t even seeking to put a person on the cover; we were just talking about the fact that country music is so mainstream. A lot of topics that just lined up with the country music lifestyle felt really right for the magazine to explore right now.
On the things she’s implementing in print to interact with the magazine’s audience: We’re just adding different levels of engagement. I mentioned that we moved Simple Country Pleasures to the back page of the magazine, so now we’re opening the feature well with a seasonal cross stitch and in June it’s a guitar because it’s a country themed issue, but we’ve done various cross stitch patterns.
On discovering Hearst was moving Country Living to Birmingham and her feelings about that when she was offered the job: I felt full support from Hearst; they handled the whole thing brilliantly. Transitioning a major national brand from New York to Birmingham, staffing it from scratch; I was also pregnant when I took the job, so that added to some of the chaos. (Laughs) But there were challenges and sometimes I’m floored, in retrospect, as to how we pulled it off. A lot of that credit goes to the New York-based Country Living team who sort of helped pass the torch in the most graceful manner.
On the major stumbling block she had to face: I think just starting from scratch. There was a small window of time where we had a temporary office space and a post-it note on the door that read Country Living. (Laughs) And our neighbors were like: what, the magazine?
On her most pleasant moment: The best moments are just every time we’ve added a person to the staff; it was also such a unique opportunity because the people would ask what’s the job description and we’d reply, well, what do you want it to be? (Laughs)
On anything else she’d like to add: One of the other exciting things on the heels of this country music play is that we have Country Living Backstage and I think this is a testament to how mainstream country has become.
On what keeps her up at night: What doesn’t keep me up at night? (Laughs) For one, my two children. I have a two-year-old and a one-year-old. But in addition to them, I think it’s just excitement for Country Living. You know, we’re really a small magazine, as I have reiterated a couple of times, and so everyone multi-tasks. We’re definitely kind of scrappy; I’m working on everything from brainstorming the reader page to big picture brand-building.
Samir Husni: There are so many firsts in the June issue of Country Living; we have the first celebrity guest editor, the first Backstage Pass, the first Country Living Backstage mini-magazine, you name it; I was just going through the list of how many firsts the magazine has in the June issue. Why now and why June for all these premier bonanzas?
Rachel Barrett: I’ve been onboard now for almost two years; I started in October 2013, and we took about six months to build a staff here in Birmingham and to complete the transition. And we’ve been a little slow about introducing some changes into the magazine, but recently I read an article in The New York Times about a study done by the MPD Group that talked about how country music had finally become the most popular musical format in the country with its widespread appeal.
Country Living had never dipped its toes fully into the country music waters, but if that audience is going to read a shelter decorating magazine, I think Country Living is the magazine for them. So, we talked about how to be very deliberate about penetrating that world without alienating our core readership, because I’m realistic; I know not all of our readers are country music fans and they don’t come to our magazine for celebrities and/or music.
We began looking at what time of year to potentially do this issue and to be honest, we weren’t even seeking to put a person on the cover; we were just talking about the fact that country music is so mainstream. Recently, even Steven Tyler announced that he was doing a country album; Nelly is also going to do one, and so there’s definitely widespread appeal. We decided to look at the lifestyle associated with the genre of country music.
As we started discussing the issue in more detail and brainstorming ideas, we thought that it would be more authentic and interesting to bring on a guest editor from that world to help us brainstorm. We bounced around a few names, but Miranda Lambert just seemed like the perfect choice for us; she’s the reigning queen of country; she took home a ton of awards recently at the ACM’s, I think more than any other country artist, and then we started digging a little deeper and found out that she’s from Lindale, Texas, where the town’s motto is actually “Good Country Living,” which was perfect. She chooses to live in the small town of Tishomingo, Oklahoma; I think the population is around 3,000 people.
So, we reached out to her publicist, who also happened to be a Country Living fan; it’s always great when an L.A. publicist is familiar with a magazine called Country Living. It turned out she’s a reader and so we didn’t really have this awkward back and forth, where we were trying to rope in the celebrity who didn’t really understand the magazine or was pitching content that was off brand. Miranda reads us on her tour bus.
She bounced around a ton of ideas on our first phone call; she had clearly taken notes and went over ideas with Blake (Shelton), it was a really nice back and forth. We photographed her for the inside story and of course, if you’re Country Living and you have a photo shoot and time carved out with Miranda Lambert, you’re going to shoot a vertical, a potential cover shot; it wasn’t necessarily the plan to put her on the cover, but it felt like the right move at the right time. I can’t think of anyone, particularly in the last five to ten years, who would be a better face for the magazine.
I felt strongly that everything we put in this issue needed to appeal to the Country Living reader who didn’t care at all about country music; the houses weren’t going to be chosen just because they were tied to a celebrity, they had to be houses that would be worth running in the magazine no matter who their owner was.
We found spaces that fit the bill. We have a story called ‘King of the Road’ and the title is inspired by a country song, but it’s a celebration of the new travel trailer culture. Of course, country stars drive around in their Airstreams and have these great, decked-out trailers, but our readers are also really into that lifestyle and we know they’re also into small spaces, so a lot of topics that just lined up with the country music lifestyle felt really right for the magazine to explore right now.
In terms of Backstage, that was just another thing we felt was right. We’d been talking about; generally speaking, people aren’t flocking to the newsstands as much as they used to, so we talked about how Country Living needed to be present where our readers are and where potential readers are. I’m originally from Tennessee and I know that the CMA Fan Fest is a huge event. I think 50,000-plus people flock to downtown Nashville to celebrate country music; HGTV has a presence there, they have this giant building called ‘The Lodge,’ and so we thought: how does Country Living build a presence at this event, because it’s great exposure for us, albeit a slightly different audience.
When I worked at Glamour, we had done a special publication during Golden Globe’s week and it was distributed throughout Los Angeles and Glamour has the Golden Globe’s weekend; this feels similar in spirit to that. It’s sort of Country Living’s inside guide to downtown Nashville throughout that weekend. The content gives attendees a sneak peek into our brand, but through the lens of the things they’re interested in.
One of the stories that we have in Country Living Backstage is ‘Turn this Country Song into a Room,’ so we’re taking four or five songs that will be performed through the CMA Fan Fest in downtown Nashville and we’re putting together a room. There’s one song called ‘Get Your Shine On’ by Florida Georgia Line, so we put together this living room with a bunch of fun, metallic touches and there’s, of course, some sort of Tennessee Moonshine resourcing on the page. (Laughs) Another song out right now is ‘American Kids’ by Kenny Chesney and so we built this whole Americana-inspired porch.
So, I think that we’re finding a way to tap into the world of country music without pandering to the celebrity side of things.
Samir Husni: One of the things that I remember about Country Living from the days of John Mack Carter and Rachel Newman, when the magazine was first launched, was it had that spirit of enjoying everything ‘country.’ And you seem to be bringing that trait back to the magazine. You’re not going miles from the original DNA, but you’re rebuilding upon that basic foundation.
Rachel Barrett: I appreciate your saying that. Country Living has only had four editors in the history of the magazine and I’ve received some sweet letters from readers who’ve said, I think it’s a promising sign that your name is Rachel. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: (Laughs too)
Rachel Barrett: You know, everyone sort of pines for their old issues, including myself; I love looking at magazines from their very beginnings and I’ve been in touch with Rachel Newman and Nancy Soriano, so there’s this nice connection from past editors; I’m sort of revisiting some of my favorite aspects of all of the incarnations of the magazine over the years. We’re definitely trying to celebrate that more in the magazine and we’re putting a little more heart and soul into the pages.
Samir Husni: We’ve named all the previous editors; let’s also add Sarah Gray…
Rachel Barrett: Yes, certainly. Even working in the magazine industry in New York, I’m from Tennessee and she’s from Mississippi; everybody was always saying that she and I needed to meet. And I’ve always been a huge fan of what she did at Country Living; I would say that I started reading Country Living even more regularly when she came onboard. And I think that she definitely seized upon the social trend of country becoming cool again. Even hipsters in Brooklyn were into canning. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: (Laughs as well)
Rachel Barrett: I think that she really embraced that in a smart way and brought a whole new readership into Country Living. I haven’t had a chance to communicate with her, but I’m definitely a fan.
Samir Husni: You also created ‘Find the Horseshoe’ inside the magazine, which was a staple of Country magazine that was started by Roy Reiman many years ago. What other types of things are you doing in print to engage people in this digital age and create that interactivity with the audience through ink on paper?
Rachel Barrett: Country Living was not a magazine that was broken, so we’re not trying to come in and fix it and introduce whiplash-inducing change, but one of the things we did modify was our section called ‘Collecting.’ The word collecting is great, it describes jut what it is, but I felt like it wasn’t tapping into the heart of collecting. So, we renamed the section ‘The Thrill of the Hunt’ because it opens up this section for us to feature some new merchandise. I had been at a Country Living fair in Columbus and they were doing a TV segment and we asked this woman: what brings you to the fair? And she said it’s the thrill of the hunt. And you really see that in action at our events and so we decided to rename the collecting section ‘The Thrill of the Hunt.’ And that’s when the Horseshoe Hunt came up and we thought to play off of The Thrill of the Hunt we’d incorporate that element into our pages, so we’ve been hiding a horseshoe in every issue. It’s just one way to have readers interacting with every page of the magazine.
A reader came up to me recently at the Nashville fair and she said the first thing that she always did when she got her issue of Country Living was look for the horseshoe. And that just made me so happy that that one little touch, a tiny, subtle little horseshoe, could bring such fun to a certain set of our readership.
Another example of that interaction, I would say, would be Simple Country Pleasures, which is this longstanding popular column in the magazine. It used to be the back page of the magazine, then it opened the feature well, and recently, we moved it back to the back page of the magazine. It’s an image of the countryside and then a great quote. To be candid, it’s one of the most popular pages and the easiest page to produce. Beautiful images of the countryside are not hard to come by. On our side, we said, OK, this is a page that we don’t have to really do anything new with; it’s successful as is, but is there some way we can build on this; some way we can do something to get readers really excited about it.
So, I read an article in The New York Times recently about how adults have gotten into coloring books and these childhood-inspired crafts. Even our guest editor, Miranda Lambert, had posted something on Instagram the other day; she was coloring in a coloring book while drinking beer. (Laughs) It was like hashtag beer and coloring book.
One thing that a lot of people shop for at the Country Living fairs is paint-by-numbers, those relics of the 70s and 80s; they’ve really had a big resurgence. So, we found this Kentucky-based company, Easy 123 Art, to team up with and they have turned every image now on the back page of the magazine into a paint-by-numbers kit that readers can order.
We didn’t really change the DNA of the page, there’s just a small redirect to the company. And the company has been inundated with thousands and thousands of orders for these paint-by-numbers kits. It’s really been amazing. Some readers are sharing their paint-by-numbers art online; we’ve tapped into the sort of crafty mindset of readers and given them something else to take away from their magazine experience. So, that’s another example.
This is another small example; we’re introducing in our July/August issue a column called ‘Ask a Country Vet.’ It’s another really popular franchise. We have a fairly new country vet that answers our reader’s questions and talks all things animal. We know from social media that people just love adorable pet pictures, so now we’re adding one pet photo that’s just captioned ‘This Pet Photo’ and it’ll be almost our version of The New Yorker caption contest. So, we’ll see how much readers get into that. It kind of gives them the chance to be clever and we’ll run their best answers in the next issue of the magazine and hopefully, eventually we’ll tie it to a prize.
We’re just adding different levels of engagement. I mentioned that we moved Simple Country Pleasures to the back page of the magazine, so now we’re opening the feature well with a seasonal cross stitch and in June it’s a guitar because it’s a country themed issue, but we’ve done various cross stitch patterns. We make the cross stitch pattern available online and readers are sharing that they’ve recreated our cross stitch. Of course, the ultimate goal would be to sell a Country Living brand of cross stitch kits down the road and it’s beautiful that our copy editor is actually the person who does the cross stitch every month; she’s definitely multi-tasking. (Laughs)
We’re still exploring it every month, but kind of looking at pages that are already successful, but figuring out if there is a way to give them more depth either in the magazine or off the page.
Samir Husni: When David Carey announced that Country Living was moving to Birmingham, there were a lot of skeptics out there who said this move was just a nice way of killing the magazine, shipping it from New York to Birmingham. When you took this job, did you have any doubts or any fears that screamed: I’m moving from an established magazine that was doing very well to a brand that people were sure was about to end? Can you recall your original feelings when you were offered the job? Were you skeptical as well or did you jump and say, no, I believe in this brand and I’m with it all the way?
Rachel Barrett: Even when I moved from Real Simple to Southern Living, I kind of felt like it was a similar challenge. I felt like Southern Living had been a brand that my grandmother had read, but didn’t have as much cache with a younger audience or a new audience, so at the time I think even people in New York were asking; what is she doing. (Laughs) And Southern Living has had this great resurgence and a lot of success recently, so I felt like that challenge only inspired me. I had always loved Country Living. Way back in the day, when I was an associate editor at Glamour and Eliot Kaplan would do his requisite check-in with you and he asked me what magazine at Hearst would I ever want to be editor-in-chief of and I pointed at Country Living and he remembered that.
I love the content, it’s great. And I know while you’re transitioning a magazine, there are a lot of question marks around that and it creates storylines, but Country Living has such a healthy subscriber base and that’s something we’re looking to build on with the Country Living fairs and other events; it’s a really strong subscriber base and they’re very loyal, so I didn’t feel as uncertain as other people around me felt.
And I felt full support from Hearst; they handled the whole thing brilliantly. Transitioning a major national brand from New York to Birmingham, staffing it from scratch; I was also pregnant when I took the job, so that added to some of the chaos. (Laughs) But there were challenges and sometimes I’m floored, in retrospect, as to how we pulled it off. A lot of that credit goes to the New York-based Country Living team who sort of helped pass the torch in the most graceful manner.
I think one of the advantages; obviously, having some sort of history with the magazine, there’s a lot to be said for that, and there were a lot of people at Southern Living and it was so helpful to have these people around you who had this knowledge of the brand and why certain things didn’t work. It’s also rare and maybe unprecedented to be able to look at and build upon a decades-old brand through the eyes of an entirely new team. That was very exciting. Our style director came from the New York-based Country Living staff, but for the most part we were a fresh staff. There was no one saying ‘but that’s not how we’ve always done it.’
I think in some ways it was such an interesting opportunity to be able to take a magazine with a strong subscriber base and look at it with fresh eyes and fresh energy; trying to build on, I hope, the best parts of all the decades of the magazine.
Samir Husni: What was the major stumbling block you had to face and how did you overcome it?
Rachel Barrett: I think just starting from scratch. There was a small window of time where we had a temporary office space and a post-it note on the door that read Country Living. (Laughs) And our neighbors were like: what, the magazine?
In terms of recruiting during that interim period; recruiting a staff from scratch was definitely challenging. I brought over a couple of people from Southern Living who I really admired, but I also saw it as an opportunity to expand within the talent pool of Birmingham. I didn’t want our filter to naturally skew Southern; I wanted to make sure we had people representing different parts of the country. I think seven or eight people on our staff relocated from New York City and other locations. And we’re a small staff right now; we’re at 16.
Just building a staff from scratch and finding office space and really just finding the right balance, sometimes when new editors come in they’re very eager to try a million new things, but I realized that this isn’t a magazine where you need to do that. So, part of the challenge is just reining myself in. (Laughs) I mean, you get very excited and have a ton of ideas. Ellen Levine had some great advice; sometimes I’m like trying to brainstorm some flashy, amazing new pet column, and she says Ask a Country Vet is working, readers love it; don’t overthink it. (Laughs again) Sometimes I need to be reminded of that.
Samir Husni: And what has been the most pleasant moment?
Rachel Barrett: There was a week when we were fully staffed. We have an open position right now; our executive editor was just named editor-in-chief of Coastal Living.
As a small staff we just have lots of great, little victories; we’re a very close-knit group. Every time we get our new issues in the box delivered, we have sort of an official unveiling in the conference room.
The best moments are just every time we’ve added a person to the staff; it was also such a unique opportunity because the people would ask what’s the job description and we’d reply, well, what do you want it to be? (Laughs)
Samir Husni: (Laughs too)
Rachel Barrett: When you have open headcount that’s entirely open; I mean normally at magazines you’re dealing with one very specific role, because one person leaves and they have a very decisive role and you’re filling that position. But with every new person that came onboard, I was asking well, what do you want to do and then we’ll hire the next person based on what you don’t want to do. It’s just been this really unique and interesting experience.
My dad is a recruiter, a headhunter, so maybe I learned a little from him. I was really pleasantly surprised. The most daunting thing probably was having a staff of one and three months pregnant. (Laughs) But one of the most surprising and rewarding things was building this really talented staff from scratch and seeing how well they work together and how everyone inspires each other here.
Samir Husni: The journalist in me has to ask you this question; was that like a Time Inc. revenge, getting your executive editor to be the editor-in-chief of Coastal Living because you left them? (Laughs)
Rachel Barrett: I don’t think so. (Laughs too) I feel like when you hire really talented people, other people are going to recognize their talent too. We were so excited for Steele (Marcoux). We had a champagne toast in the conference room and she was recently at High Point and uploaded a picture on Instagram with our address and I was like hands off, Steele Marcoux. (Laughs) I don’t see it as a revenge play at all, I think Steele is such a great hire; she was the first person I hired. Every meeting I was ever in with her, I was always in agreement.
So, I think if you’re looking to tap into the talent pool to hire a new editor-in-chief for Coastal Living, she was such a clear choice, regardless of where she was working. She also started her career there.
Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Rachel Barrett: One of the other exciting things on the heels of this country music play is that we have Country Living Backstage and I think this is a testament to how mainstream country has become. Back when I lived in New York City there wasn’t even a country station and now, of course, they have a country station and they’re also getting a huge country music festival this summer, in late June. It’s called FarmBorough and it’s a 3-day country music concert series that will be held on Randall’s Island. Country Living is also taking over the Green Room for that event. So, that’s exciting. Again, it’s a different audience; it’s a New York City-based audience and so we’re currently putting together the plans of how we’re going to decorate the Green Room for that event.
That’s been fun. It’s hard, because I left New York four years ago, and now I’m thinking if they’d only had a country station and a country concert festival when I lived there. (Laughs) But this is just another exciting thing that Country Living is doing, in tandem with this June issue.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Rachel Barrett: What doesn’t keep me up at night? (Laughs) For one, my two children. I have a two-year-old and a one-year-old. But in addition to them, I think it’s just excitement for Country Living. You know, we’re really a small magazine, as I have reiterated a couple of times, and so everyone multi-tasks. We’re definitely kind of scrappy; I’m working on everything from brainstorming the reader page to big picture brand-building.
I think step two for Country Living is really building on our fair franchise; we just had a really successful first-time Country Living fair in Nashville. I think we had 22,000-plus people attending over three days. I go to the fair and it’s a huge success, but then my brain begins churning with how do we build on this franchise and how do we round out the experience? Do we add a sound stage; just that sort of thing. So, the things that keep me up at night probably change every single day, but I think it’s just that we have a great magazine and how do we expand upon it in ways that are really going to resonate with our subscribers.
And then also those toddlers. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: (Laughs too) Thank you.