There’s an Indigo Girls song called “Southland in the Springtime,” and it contains a line in the chorus: “When God made me born a Yankee, he was foolin’.” That line resonates for me. Born and raised in upstate New York, only 90 minutes outside of Manhattan, I’m the quintessential Yankee. Yet there is something about the South that calls to me.
When I began researching contemporary life in Eastern Kentucky for my Samhain novella, Ain’t No Sunshine, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to capture it adequately. I started lurking on message boards dedicated to life in Harlan and the surrounding areas. I learned about the history of “bloody Harlan,” and battles between the coal mine operators and the miners. I watched documentaries, and movies dedicated to revealing the strength of character in the people of the Eastern Kentucky backwoods hollers.
In the end, it was the food and the music of the region that really helped me understand its people best. They are a people who thrive under harsh conditions that would send many of us searching for greener pastures. They create delicious country food from simple ingredients, and stirring bluegrass music that haunts the heart.
In the first chapter of Ain’t No Sunshine, Boone Butler is driving into Harlan for the first time in twelve years, and he tunes his pick-up truck’s radio station to a bluegrass station. Below you’ll find the playlist I used as a soundtrack while writing this novella. Not all of it is bluegrass, but each song represents an important part of Boone and Delia’s story.
“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” by Patty Loveless
“The Mountain” by Levon Helm
“Sorrowful Angels” by Patty Loveless
“Goddamn Lonely Love” by Drive-By Truckers
“Mandolin Rain” by Wanda Vick
“Far Away In Another Town” by Justin Townes Earle
“Mountain Angel” by Dolly Parton
“Down To The River To Pray” by Alison Krause
“Ain’t No Sunshine” by Eva Cassidy
Comment for a chance to win this iTunes playlist!
Delia Concannon, the heroine of Ain’t No Sunshine, owns a diner in downtown Harlan. In the third scene of the opening chapter, she’s slicing fruit for a cobbler when she hears someone speak the name of her long-lost love, Boone Butler. Below you’ll find her recipe for peach cobbler.
2½ c. sugar
6 c. fresh peaches
Slice peaches into bite-sized pieces. Combine with sugar. Let stand overnight to allow formation of juices.
2 c. flour
1 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
¾ c. vegetable shortening
⅓ to ½ c. ice water
½ c. butter, melted
½ to ¾ c. sugar
Combine fruit and sugar. Let stand for a day or overnight to allow formation of juices.
Combine flour, 1 tbs. sugar and salt. Cut shortening into dry ingredients. Add water slowly and work with fingers until dough makes a ball. Divide in two portions.
Lightly floured surface, then roll ½ of dough into rectangle to cover bottom and sides of 13x9x2-inch pan. Pour fruit and juice into pastry-lined pan.
Roll remaining dough to rectangle shape to fit over fruit and to edges of pin. Do not seal.
Prick top with fork or knife to vent steam. Drizzle butter over pastry and sprinkle with ½ to ¼ cup sugar.
Bake at 425° for 45 minutes or until golden brown. Cool in pan.
Comment here for a chance to win a paperback copy of Best of the Best from Kentucky Cookbook: Selected Recipes from Kentucky’s Favorite Cookbooks!
And finally, here is an excerpt from my Samhain debut, Ain’t No Sunshine:
…she was standing at her stove, applying a squeeze bottle of chocolate syrup to a pan of simmering milk, when Boone Butler walked back into her life.
She knew his shadow against the screen like she knew the shape of her own hand. That same loose, easy stance belied by the tense set of his shoulders, and the way he ducked his head at her approach, appearing almost shy till you caught the bright glint of danger in his eyes.
“Well, look at you,” she said and pushed open the door, stepping barefoot onto the porch. A sudden wave of been-here-done-this washed over her, strong enough to make her eyes water. All at once she was seventeen again, face-to-face with the only boy who’d ever made her look twice.
He whispered her name as if that single word was all he could manage. The few feet of space between them seemed too far to bridge, like the distance between stars. When he reached out his hand to touch her cheek, she stepped into it, turning her face into the heat of his palm.
“Delia,” he said again, and then his mouth was against hers, quick and clumsy, as if he’d never kissed a woman before. Still, she felt the slow twist of desire in the pit of her stomach, and a flutter in her throat that stole her breath. He pulled away and grinned–that righteous, go-to-hell grin she still saw in her dreams–and in that instant she wanted nothing more than to let him chase her down the path of her own destruction.
“Hope I didn’t wake you,” he said and she laughed out loud. Sleeping Beauty she’d never be, but if she were cold and dead in her grave, Boone’s kiss would rouse her. She knew it for a fact.
From somewhere far away, she heard a splash and a hiss, and remembered where she was.
“My cocoa’s boiling over,” she told him. “Come on inside.”
She felt his eyes on her as he followed her into the house, and the sensation made her keenly aware of the shortness of her robe and the bareness of her legs. While she cleaned up the mess on the stove, he wandered around her kitchen, running his fingertips over the shape of every canister and examining the toaster as if he’d never seen one before. Finally, she tossed the dirty rag into the sink and turned to face him, her arms folded over her chest in a defensive gesture she already knew was completely useless.
Boone was staring at her like she was the last working source of light in a fifty-mile radius. “You look good, Delia.”
“Do I?” Maybe he hadn’t noticed the faint lines at her eyes, or the extra pound or two at her hips, or how the difference between seventeen and twenty-nine might as well have been a lifetime. “Why are you here, Boone?”
He glanced away, and she knew the next words out of his mouth would be a lie.
“Just passing through,” he said, careless and offhand. “Thought I’d stop by and see how you’re getting along.”
“Passing through?” She sounded half-witted, parroting his words as if she didn’t have any of her own. But she couldn’t seem to absorb the fact of him standing in her kitchen, tall and solid–broader through the shoulders and thicker at the biceps than she remembered–and most definitely not a dream.
He shrugged. “I’ve got a job coming up in Atlanta next month organizing security for some politician and his family. I thought maybe…”
He stopped and pressed his lips together like he’d said more than he’d meant to. Her own lips tingled where he’d kissed her. She wanted to ask him a million things, but mostly she wanted to close the distance between them and run her fingers over the rough stubble on his jaw. A second kiss wasn’t out of the question, either. They’d do it right this time. She’d see to it.
He lifted his head and sniffed the air. “What’s that I smell? Not the cocoa–something else?”
“I fried up a mess of okra for yesterday’s supper.”
He squinted at her. “You make that with tomatoes?”
She nodded, undone by the bizarre turn in the conversation. “Balsamic vinegar, a little lemon juice, salt and pepper.”
“Sounds good. You’ll have to write that down for me.”
She couldn’t help laughing. “A tough guy like you does his own cooking?”
“A man’s gotta eat to live.” He reached out and swiped at a dribble of chocolate syrup she’d left on the counter. “And not by bread alone, or so they say.”
She watched him suck the syrup off the pad of his thumb and felt her body flush with heat from the bottom up. His eyes sparked against hers, flint to tinder, and she had to look away.
“Tell me why you’re here, Boone.”
He went still, leaning against the edge of the counter and staring at the floor. “I don’t know,” he said.
It sounded like the truth.
She took the pan off the stove, set it in the sink, and filled it with warm water to loosen the burnt milk. When she’d finished, she turned to him again.
“I waited for you.” She dried her hands on a dishtowel and hung it on its hook next to the stove. “You remember? You asked me to wait, and I did.”
It was the last thing he’d said to her before his cousin had dragged him away, muttering something about trouble in town with Boone’s brother, Gilley.
“Wait for me,” he’d said, and she had. Long after he’d enlisted in the army, long after Granny’s charm had left her hollow-eyed and spitting blood, she’d waited. Five years, to be exact–which, in the lifetime of a girl who’d never been past the state border in any direction, counted as almost forever.
The look he gave her now went straight to her heart, opening a fracture she’d believed was mended with solid concrete.
“You shouldn’t have waited,” he said. “I never should’ve asked you. It was never any good, you and me.
Thanks for reading, and have a great week!