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July 8, 2015

Book Notes - Brian Panowich "Bull Mountain"

Bull Mountain

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Brian Panowich's novel Bull Mountain is a remarkable debut, gritty and literary southern noir.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"The author delivers characters with depth, a lushly described setting, and an intergenerational battle between good and evil. After many twists and turns, the story ends with a welcome surprise. . . . His book will appeal to readers of Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, and ­Daniel ­Woodrell for the way in which it brings the landscape and culture of rural Appalachia to life."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Brian Panowich's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Bull Mountain:

Music and literature.

For me they are interchangeable and exist symbiotic of each other. I've been fortunate enough in my lifetime thus far to be both a recorded songwriter and a published novelist, so I'm of the firm opinion that there is not much noticeable difference between to two art forms. Mainly, they both need to form around the hook, that all-important selling point that every writer or musician is looking to reinvent. Whether the story or song is an epic like Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", or Philipp Meyer's The Son, or a guilty pleasure like Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" or James Patterson's Swimsuit, they both adhere to the same principles. They both need to flow and pace themselves to get across to their audience with the proper tension, and they both share a rhythmic quality, melody even. If any writers out there reading this doubt that, please go read Woodrell's Tomato Red.

Right now.

Music is the great enricher of life. If life were food, than music would be the MSG without the cancer causing side effects. It makes books better. It makes beer and food taste better. It can make your present company much more tolerable and your memories more vivid. It makes movies better. Could you imagine watching Jaws without the music? 90% of it would just be a boring marine documentary on the History Channel.

Now after saying all of that, I have to come clean and tell you that I need absolute silence to write. Weird, after my above tirade, I know. So I get around this quirk in my brain by shoveling in as much music as possible before and after my jaunts at the computer to keep myself where I want to be creatively. Much like a runner does with carbs and protein to finish a marathon.

I started by creating a playlist from thin-air to set a basic mood for the novel I wanted to write, and then rode my mountain bike around listening to it as the characters began to take shape. Over time, some songs were added as characters took on their own voices and some songs were dropped because they just didn't suit the record I was making anymore. (See what I did there?)

Anyway, the soundtrack to Bull Mountain is a lot longer now and available to anyone out there with Spotify, but I'll cherry pick the top ten songs that represent the main voices of McFalls County.


As interchangeable as music and storytelling may be, the one major difference is that with music, it is perfectly acceptable to take bits and pieces of it out of context to apply it to your life however you see fit without pissing off the artist. It's almost expected by the songwriter. I do that a lot with these songs. In fact with this song, the ENTIRE story of Bull Mountain sprang out of the first line. "When I get off of this mountain, you know where I wanna go?" I dwelled on that line for a long time before I realized it was Clayton Burroughs trying to talk to me. The rest of the song has nothing to do with the novel but that simple first line, of a song I'd heard a thousand times over, was the beginning of my career as a novelist.


Lyrically, Son Volt is a lot more in tune with the mood I wanted to set for my story. There's a sadness in Jay Farrar's voice that settles over me every time I hear it that I wanted to inject into the people of Bull Mountain. Not just sadness, but a power, a power not meant for everyone, just those "in the know". Son Volt's Lyrics for the most part are very open to interpretation, but the atmosphere is the same underneath, and it was very important for me to have all the inhabitants of McFalls County share that commonality.


My father was a huge Waylon Jennings Fan, as every man should be. So naturally, as a rebellious teenager, I bucked against my dad's vinyl records, his reel to reel recordings, and his love of all things outlaw. And also, like so many sons come to find out later in life, my father had it right. I named the town that Clayton Burroughs lives in after this song as a tribute to my father.


Cory Branan is one of the sharpest and most skilled songwriters alive, and the day he decides to write a novel, he's going to bring the house down. This song, although most likely about the damage caused by a burnt relationship, is exactly how my character of Clayton Burroughs has begun to think his life will always be.

"Down on the corner of what I want and what I tend to get."

Coming to a crossroads and moving on is a normal rite of passage for most people, but living at those crossroads, setting up camp and unable to move on, is an entirely different animal. It can break you.


There is nothing more transcendent or beautiful to me than the female voice being wielded like a weapon. That's what Brandi Carlile does. Her voice can cut through you and conquer up emotion you didn't even know you had. She's a brilliant singer and the heir apparent to Maria McKee. This song serves as the theme for Annette Burroughs, Clayton's mother, who realizes her lot in life will only end in bloodshed or shame. Annette is as engraved into the landscape of Bull Mountain as anyone else but somehow finds the courage to make the very difficult decision to leave her sons, her life, and the only home she knows, just to stay alive.

"No one sees it coming, and no one walks when they should've been running."


Speaking of Maria McKee, who in my opinion is the greatest female vocalist of her time, this song from her second solo record, You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, evokes the perfect version of Clayton's wife, Kate, growing up on Bull Mountain, literally among the outlaws. She knows marrying Clayton could be the worse decision a woman of strength and purpose like her could make, but she rolls the dice and charges ahead without regret. Kate became the life blood of my story by complete accident, and characters like her are the reason I love to write.

"If it took those years to get her here, she'd do it again, and again."


In the song "Luckenbach, Texas," Waylon and Willie mention Hank Williams as the man in charge of "pain songs". Well, it's time to update the file. Travis Meadows bleeds in his songs from an open wound. While I was deep in the throws of writing Bull Mountain, I was driving home from somewhere in North Georgia and the profound impact of this song mixed with Gareth Burroughs, who had currently taken up my headspace, brought me to tears. I had to pull over I was so shook up. I see all the Burroughs Brothers feeling like this. Not Evil. Not wrong. Just tired and doing their best with the cards they were dealt.

"I ran like the devil in a house on fire, but I didn't run fast enough. You can run all you want, but you can't outrun yourself." "It don't do no good to complain about the pain you can't outgrow, so you just let it go."


If Son Volt is the sound of Bull Mountain, and it's people, than Blitzen Trapper is the sound of The Jacksonville Jackals Motorcycle Club. Blitzen Trapper call they're brand of music Rocky Mountain Whoop-ass. I believe Bracken Leek and his gang of bruisers would approve of that. I picture them riding in a pack to this song, nurturing farmer's tans, untouchable and invincible, right before very bad things happen.


This tune is about as Bull Mountain as it gets, considering that it was written specifically for the book. I went to college with Dan Adams and watched him become one of the most formidable songwriters in Nashville, TN before taking his act to Austin, TX. I sent Dan a copy of the manuscript before it was even sold just for his opinion and he decided to go book a few days of session time in Muscle Shoals, Alabama at Fame studios (Lynyrd Skynyrd fan's take note). He gave my book a proper theme song. Thanks Dan, you nailed it. You can find out more about the best-kept secret in Texas at


The mood this song puts me in is how I wanted to end my book. I think I did that. Lyrically it has nothing to do with what I wrote, but if this song were playing over that scene in the background, they would become one solid piece of art. I can't say any more without spoiling it, so I'm leaving it at that.

Okay, I lied. This list goes to eleven.


One of these things is not like the other. That's the point of this song and the character of Simon Holly. He's the wild card in my story, the one not born of the mountain, so his voice would be different from the rest, but equally as passionate and righteous. Ed Kowalczyk's voice is the very definition of passionate and righteous. This song is the last track on Live's Secret Samadhi record. My personal favorite.

Brian Panowich and Bull Mountain links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Augusta Chronicle review
BookPage review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review

Huffington Post interview with the author
LitReactor interview with the author
The Reading Frenzy interview with the author
Writer's Bone essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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