Today I have the pleasure of interviewing one of my childhood friends, Rachel Hardage Barrett. Rachel and I grew up around the corner from each other in Jackson, Tennessee. She and her family moved to Dyersburg, but over the years, we've always managed to keep up with each other (thanks to social media for making it easy).
Rachel is the Editor-in-Chief of Country Living Magazine, and she and her family live in Birmingham, Alabama. Today, I'm going to learn more about how she got into the magazine world, as well as some of her favorite things about her job!
Did you always know you wanted to be involved with magazines?
Sort of. I’ve always loved writing, but there was a point in college when I thought I might pursue law. Yikes. After a stint in marketing, I started my magazine career at Glamour and moved to Real Simple, Southern Living, and Country Living (in that order).
Did you always love to read and write?
Yes, I’ve always loved writing. I was that kid writing “novels” in spiral-bound notebooks and am sure I’d be horrified to read those so-called “works” today. But I was the editor of my high school newspaper, majored in English, etc. And I have always loved, loved, loved magazines.
You were born and raised in West Tennessee and went to college in East Tennessee. What was it like living in New York working for Glamour and Real Simple?
As someone raised in Dyersburg, moving to NYC was essentially going from Mayberry to Manhattan. I honestly had no idea what I was doing when I first moved to the city. I shared a bunk bed in the West Village with someone who was basically a stranger (although she hailed from Milan, TN!). But I loved every single minute of it. I know a lot of people who visit and stay in Times Square and say, “I just couldn’t live like that,” but the thing is, most New Yorkers don’t live like that either. The neighborhoods can feel very homey. You have your corner market, your dry cleaner who knows you by name, your favorite weeknight restaurant, etc. And that helps it feel a lot more like a small community. Another tip I have for transplanted Southerners is to seek out the SEC alumni network in New York. There’s nothing like a bar full of Tennessee fans—and hearing Rocky Top blaring onto the NYC sidewalk—to cure a little homesickness.
What was your favorite thing you did while working for Southern Living magazine?
I remember sitting down for my first recipe tasting in the Southern Living Test Kitchen and thinking that I had experienced perhaps the most coveted Southern rite of passage. We also introduced a music series called “Biscuits & Jam” while I was there, and it was fun to see Southern Living starting to reach a younger audience. I also had the chance to work the CMT Awards red carpet (it was actually purple!) and to have lunch with Contributor Rick Bragg, who is as lovely as you’d expect.
Besides magazines, you’ve also helped with books. What has been your favorite to be a part of and why?
Real Simple Weddings was one of the first books I worked on and it was just a fun topic to explore—although I will say that when I did get married, it was super challenging to settle on any ideas because I had seen so many inspiring, creative weddings. In general, this job makes it hard to commit to anything, whether it’s a paint color, fabric, dining table, you name it! You’re likely to see something you love even more the very next week.
What has been your favorite department to work with in magazine publications?
I’ve never been pigeon-holed to a single department, which has been great. But I will say that the stories I love best are what we refer to at Country Living as “wildcard” features that touch on a wide variety of topics. For example, at CL we did a big package devoted to porching and it covered everything from to a Georgia community designed specifically to foster porching and neighborly banter to a history of haint blue paint (the famous blue you see on so many porch ceilings) to the art of outfitting an outdoor bar cart to choosing a great front porch read. These sorts of stories allow us to talk to so many different experts and to explore so many fun layout treatments, so they’re always my favorite. At Southern Living, we did a “wildcard” called “Secrets to Southern Charm” that covered everything from the art of the monogram to colorful, so-Suth’n alternatives to curse words. That was another fun one.
Tell me about becoming the editor of Country Living. How did that come about? I’d love to hear those details of when you found out you were being named Editor!
Oh, gosh, where to start! There are probably details I’m not supposed to divulge, but when they contacted me the job wasn’t even in Birmingham. I wasn’t sure I was ready to move back to NYC, but I had always loved the magazine and felt like I owed it to myself to at least explore the opportunity. And then halfway through the interview process, they were like, “Well, what do you think about moving it to Birmingham?” And I was overjoyed. Again, as much as I love New York, I also love having a yard, and a grill, and a consistently pleasant experience at the local post office.
As an Editor-in-Chief, can you share what a day is like for you?
The beauty of this job is that there’s no “average day.” Right now, I’m typing this on a Wednesday while on a plane to NYC for a meeting with our sales team. I’m speaking on a panel with three other editors at Hearst (our parent company). Tomorrow, I’ll be back in the office reviewing product and reading stories for our July-Aug issue (it’s a fun one!), and on Friday I’ll be headed to Nashville for the Country Living Fair, which draws 20,000+ shoppers from all over the United States. When Monday rolls around, I’ll likely be headed to Lake Martin to do a walk-through of our first Lake House of the Year project, which will be featured in the July-Aug issue. On Tuesday, it’s back to NYC for a meeting where I walk the executives at the company through the latest issue. Of course, there are also the days that I’m just sitting at my desk reading copy, but you caught me during a slightly more exciting window of time. ;)
You’ve worked with Miranda Lambert, Holly Williams and Chip and Joanna, while at Country Living. Did anything surprise you about those celebrities? Any fun or interesting stories you can share that weren’t shared in the magazine?
I’ve found that celebrities in the “country” category tend to be refreshingly down-to-earth, and that certainly applies to the people you just mentioned. And the same goes for Sheryl Crow, who graced our cover last June. Miranda Lambert was our first Guest Editor, and you’d be surprised how much work and thought she put into the role. She didn’t just want to attach her name to the issue; she wanted to put her stamp on it, and I loved that. We also shot a cover try with her in Nashville, in the middle of February, when there was still snow on the ground. She was sitting outside on a porch swing in a sundress in 30 degree weather, and didn’t complain once. Chip and Joanna were also lovely, and of course Holly Williams is the most fun. That girl loves to renovate a farmhouse and has such a great eye. I’d probably commit to shooting a project of hers sight unseen because I know it’d be great.
What is something that would be surprising for people to learn about you?
People always seem to be surprised to hear that I was a hip hop deejay for several years when I lived in New York City. (!) Like, seriously. I will always have a soft spot for Biggie Smalls. And Q-Tip.
What’s the best place you’ve gotten to travel for work?
Oh, gosh. I truly love going to our annual Country Living Fairs in Nashville, Rhinebeck, Columbus, and Atlanta. It’s so rare for a magazine editor to have a chance to interact with 100,000 readers throughout the course of a year. Of course, we can sit behind windows during focus groups, but this is so personal, and I truly think Country Living readers are the most fun, laid-back readers out there! We also just went on our first-ever Country Living cruise, and the itinerary included the Bahamas, St Maarten, Puerto Rico, and Turks & Caicos. That wasn’t a bad week at work. And I’m still due a trip to London to check out the holiday fair that our sister publication in the UK puts on. The UK Fairs are what inspired the US experiences.
Did anyone give you advice that still sticks with you?
My grandmother Zelma (known as “Z”) used to refer to experiences, good or bad, as simply “the fullness of life.” Her words tend to put even the darkest days in perspective. The “fullness of life” includes the whole lot of it.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” comes to mind as of late. In the age of social media where we all tend to present the best versions of ourselves (myself included—I just posted photos of my toddler’s birthday party and not a single meltdown—mine or his!—made the frame!), it’s nice to be reminded that comparing yourself to someone else is futile.
If you weren’t a magazine editor, what would you be doing?
Maybe I’d be spinning hip-hop music in Ibiza alongside Paris Hilton? Kidding. (Seriously, though, Amnesia Ibiza, call me.)
How do you balance being a wife, mom, and working?
That’s the eternal question, isn’t it? I honestly don’t think there’s true work-life balance. The scales are usually tipped in one direction or another, and as long as it all evens out at some point, I think (or hope!) it’ll all turn out fine. When I started this job, I had an (almost) one-year-old and was three months pregnant with another (!), so balance has certainly been an issue from the outset. I was also helping relocate the magazine to Birmingham from NYC, so I couldn’t take a traditional maternity leave. You can’t quite put a monthly magazine on hiatus, and I had to build a staff, etc. I will say that I try to be in the moment as much as I can, but it’s not always so easy. Sometimes, when I don’t have the energy to play or read a book and find myself gravitating toward my phone, I think to myself: If I could rewatch this very moment on video ten years from now, when my teenagers won’t come near me, I know I’d be kicking myself for looking at Instagram at the expense of readingPete the Cat or playing tag. And if I have a lot of work travel in any given window, I’ll try to sneak out during the workday for a cupcake. If there were a home delivery service that supplied working moms solely with guilt cupcakes, 2% organic milk (why are we ALWAYS out of milk?!), and could maybe, just maybe, give the kids a quick bath while we have one glass of wine and watch thirty minutes of The Bachelor, I think that service would do exceptionally well. (Actually, can you redact all that? I think I’m on to something….)
What advice would you have for someone that wants to pursue his/her passions? What’s one thing they absolutely must do?
Not to get too motivational speaker-y, but basically, the question is: Which would you regret more: Doing X, even if you fail, or not doing X at all? Taking the leap is by far the hardest part. I still remember my first night in NYC when I felt alone and unsure and in over my head, but it was the best decision I ever made because it led to where I am now. But even if NY as I envisioned it hadn’t worked out, I would have been successful in the sense that I’d never have some “What if?” scenario tugging at me. There are plenty of types of failure, but I think the tried-and-failed kind is the best, most rewarding of them all.
Rachel, thanks so much for chatting with me and sharing more about your story. I always love every month getting my copy of Country Living to read your Editor's Letter! If you want to learn more about her and her magazine Country Living, make sure to follow them on Instagram: