Reagan Boggs is a product of the “Crooked Road.” She grew up in a “holler” outside the depleted mining town of Pound, VA. Her songs have been likened to the writings of Darrell Scott, Dave Alvin and Buddy Miller. She’s been referred to as a “Throwback Artist.” Lee Zimmerman of No Depression compared her to such legendary singers as Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, describing her voice as “filtered through a mix of hard-wrought emotion and soothing sensitivity, the kind that breeds great balladry and stirs the senses simultaneously.” Wayne Bledsoe of the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote, “Reagan Boggs is exactly what modern country radio is missing.”
On February 11 of 2014, Boggs released her third solo album, her first in nearly seven years. On February 24, 2014, Quicksand emerged to number 35 on the Americana Music Chart. It remained on the chart for 20 weeks.
Boggs is a two-time Mountain Stage performer and was featured in the spring of 2016 on the PBS syndicated live-performance of Song of the Mountains. Her 2011 single, “Thank You (Miner’s Song)” was requested for a compilation honoring Mother Jones. The record includes nationally recognized artists Gretchen Peters, Robert Earl Keen, Tom Russell, Katy Moffatt, Kieren Kane, Utah Phillips, Fred Eaglesmith, Si Kahn, and many more. Boggs was the “Fan Favorite” in the 2014 Orthophonic Joy contest put on by The Birthplace of Country Music. Her rendition of the Carter Family’s song “Storms are on the Ocean” garnered over 3000 votes. The song was so well received; she decided to record it as the only cover for her new release, Empty Glasses.
As much as she loves performing music, Boggs is also the mom of a 9-year-old son. She has seriously cut back her tour schedule, and started pursuing other avenues of performing, where she could work, but still be home with her son. When a friend suggested that she should narrate audiobooks 2 years ago, she didn’t really consider it as an option. She didn’t have access to the publishing world, didn’t have a lick of acting experience, and being from East Tennessee . . . she joked about her accent sounding like Andy Griffith.
Fast-forward to 2018, and she now has indeed taken all her music and life experience – and her hillbilly accent, and jumped feet first into the deep end of the audiobook world – and is loving every minute of it.
You are primarily a singer, with six original albums completed. How did you turn to performing audiobooks instead of music?
It’s crazy how that happened. I still do music. I’ve been an Audible member since 2002, and my love of audiobooks goes all the way back to listening/reading “chime” books like Fox and the Hound along with the record. (I’m dating myself). I’ve been told a lot that I have a pleasant listening voice, even described as what the industry calls a “beautiful voice,” whether it’s radio or interviews, but I didn’t think I would be able to be a narrator. I didn’t even know how to begin. It seemed like something only actors did, and then you’d have to have connections to a publisher.
I had recently performed a speech about growing up with an alcoholic father for a group of people who had completed an addiction recovery program. I recorded it and put it on YouTube. Someone heard it, and said, “Man, you should do audiobooks.” I’m like, yea right. So out of curiosity, I just googled it to see what it entailed. I found Karen Cummings, and then ACX [Audiobook Creation Exchange]. I didn’t have any samples ready, so I just put up a copy of my speech, and set up a basic profile with the intent on coming back later to spend more time getting it ready for real. When I logged back in a few hours later, I was already getting requests to do books. It was a complete baptism by fire. That is where I got my start.
How has your music career helped you as you develop an ear for performing books?
I think writing songs and singing have trained me to be able to convey real emotion and paint real pictures. Musical artists have to be able to do that in three and a half minutes with a lot less words. Someone can have an amazing, pitch perfect voice, but if they can’t make you feel something, then it’s just vanilla. That’s where the strength lies – finding the voice or voices of the books, and not just being a voice reading words – to convey the message and the feeling behind it.
I also have an audience and a fan base, and the projects I’ve worked on so far have been books that my music fans would also enjoy – like the biography of Maxine Brown, who was part of the famous The Browns. They were made famous by their song “The Three Bells” back in the 50s. It’s really cool when I can do that.
As a songwriter, I am the type of person who is always listening. I am looking for material for songs and am very alert to what’s going on around me – reading people. There is no greater teacher than real life.
You had a difficult childhood. Does that give you a unique perspective in your interpretation of books?
I think when we experience trauma or pain in life, our ability to empathize and draw from our own emotions is so heightened. I believe that’s why many artists you see, who are now celebrities, have overcome a background of adversity to get there. It drives them; it gives them purpose and something to say. In my last book, Suppose, written by DJ Adamson, the main character, Lillian Dove, is a recovering alcoholic. There is a scene in the book where Lillian has a flashback of going into a bar as a child while her mother sits in the car with her siblings. She has to go into the bar, get her drunken dad off his barstool and drag him out to the car . . . then endure the events that follow. She’s the grown-up little girl. That was a very real scene for me and there was no acting involved.
How do you prepare to record a book? Do you have any tricks that make the recording process simpler?
I try to read through the book first. I get to know my characters. I also treat non-fiction as fiction in the same way. I will research the author – learn who they are. I try to learn the personality. I’ve read a character and find their real persona later, and I’ll actually go back and re-read their parts. Some narrators feel like as producers it’s always their call, and they don’t like a lot of micromanagement. Maybe it’s because I always come from a place of service, I try very hard to get the authors’ thoughts and input as much as possible. They know their characters – They wrote them obviously. I try to collaborate as much as possible when it’s doable. That’s not always feasible.
I don’t know if it makes it easier, but I feel like these things make the book more believable. I continue to search for ways to do that.
The reviews of your performances especially bring up your gift for creating voices for the characters in your books. They particularly cite how effective your male voices are. How do you create the voices for your characters? Do you have a trick for making your male voices realistic? And how do you keep all those voices straight in your mind?
I’m lucky that I have a natural alto voice, so I can drop in my register pretty easily. Being in the music industry and also in IT (they are very male dominated fields), I have many people to draw from as inspiration 😀. Characters voices are a challenge. You have to be able to maintain them consistently. I actually find female voices harder, especially when you have several characters who are the same age and are having frequent group conversations. I am constantly listening to people’s voices now, and I’ll record my imitation of them and store it with a name like, this is my bitter, matter-of-fact, old lady Marlene, who has smoked a pack a day all her life. Someday, I’ll have a place for her!
You state on your website that you’re an audiobook junkie. Me too! What do you like to listen to?
My audiobook list is as diverse as my music collection. I used to listen to a lot of Regency Romance, then I got into Self-Development and ultimately educational books as I was becoming a certified Life Coach. I did a lot of research on ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and taught myself a lot about neuroplasticity and retraining the brain . . . So I’ve learned that some narrators can do these types of books well, and others . . . not so much. That’s a big reason why I hired Sean Pratt to be my narration Coach. He understands non-fiction needs to be engaging and entertaining as well.
I love good fiction though. Fiction that’s based on real events is my favorite. Books like The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, Phillapa Gregory’s work, and of course, Diana Gabaldon.
You performed the book Looking Back to See: A Country Music Memoir by Maxine Brown. As a country singer yourself, what were you able to bring to this performance that someone with no background in the field might not have?
I actually sing in the book in a few places. This was such a passion project for me. I was able to communicate with Maxine via email some. I’d get lost researching artists on YouTube, and listening to the music. I understand how hard the business is. I understand how high the highs are and how low the lows are. I was so excited when Arkansas University Press chose me for it.
Do you think an audiobook narrator needs to enjoy the book she or he is performing? Could you make a book you truly hated seem likeable to an audience?
It definitely helps. I think true professionals would say, “You have to be good enough to treat all books the same. Bring them all to life equally.” For me, the fact is that books that are in my wheelhouse light me up, and I look forward to sitting in a booth for hours talking to myself, and editing, all that stuff. When they don’t – they are work. You may have to give yourself a big old pep talk before going in to get them done. It doesn’t mean I work harder on ones that fit my interests more. I do my best at the time, no matter what it is.
Of what in your audiobook career are you most proud? What has been most challenging?
That I’ve been patient with myself and allowed myself to be a beginner. I have had to build my credibility in an entirely new field, which is humbling. New things are hard, and while you may have some natural talent and similar experience, audiobooks are a different animal. I had to learn how differently recording was done between music and spoken word – how unforgiving your environment is – you can’t just bury things in the mix behind drums and guitars. Though I have 20 years of recording experience, I had to do a major shift in how I went about it for books. Also, I was worried about my accent in the beginning. Being from Tennessee, I clearly sound like it. Early on, I tried to dial it back, and it caused me to sound wooden. I finally stopped looking for a narrator voice and decided – choose work that fits my strengths and stop worrying about it. There are plenty of books out there that need a Southern accent.
What narrators have particularly inspired you in your own audiobook career?
I love Davina Porter. She does characters across the spectrum – dialects – all over the place, to me, she’s amazing. Jim Dale and the Harry Potter series – My gosh . . . a million characters. Incredible. People like that make you want to get better or just quit 😉