Author Brian Panowich On How Musical Exploration Fueled His Writing

Van Halen's "Fair Warning"

Van Halen's "Fair Warning"

Editor’s note: Last week, I noticed authors Brian Panowich, David Joy, and Michael Farris Smith having a lively discussion about music on Twitter and I butted in like a teenager looking to crash the cool kid’s table. I pitched them an idea for a post on writing and music and our new landing page The Writer’s Guide to Music was born. Since Brian’s entry landed in my inbox first, he has the honor of leading us off. Be sure to tune back in for David on Thursday and Michael on Friday. If any authors, writers, or musicians are interested in submitting a post for consideration, email or tweet us @WritersBone.—Daniel Ford

By Brian Panowich

First of all, the entirety of my novel, Bull Mountain (due out July 7), sprang from the first line of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek.”

“When I get off of this mountain, you know where I wanna go…”

So knowing that, let me give you a little history behind my love affair with music and how it’s part of every word I write.

The first record I ever bought for myself was Van Halen’s “Fair Warning.” It scared the shit out of my mother, and although my father was deeply rooted in the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s, I could still see the devil smiling through my old man as he watched his little boy try to get his head around something that would soon alter the rest of his life.

Eddie Van Halen and his band didn’t call that album “Fair Warning” for nothing. It was all sex, violence, excess, and debauchery. All the shit my mother had hoped to shield me from, but from that point on, it was off to the races. “Fair Warning” served as my gateway drug, leading me to my current state of being a hopeless musical addict, or as I like to think of myself, a musical explorer. I dig though copious amounts of regurgitation in search of my next obsession. I can never settle on default favorites. Sure, there are bands I love, and songs that I can compile into lists I consider to be the best stuff ever written, but I have a burning need to discover something new and challenging on par with my need to breathe, or eat. It gives purpose to my free time and more often then not saps my not-so-free time. 

I spent a lot of time in my youth trying to make music. Armed with three chords and the truth, I tried to channel the passion of Bruce Springsteen and the utter cool of Joey Ramone. The results were less than stellar. There’s a reason those two guys are who they are, but still, I used music as a way to pay the bills and separate myself from the herd. I called it a badge of honor back then, but realize now that it was more like a protective barrier that kept me safe and blind from the frightening world of adulthood. I liked being Peter Pan and I liked the heft of a Telecaster. It was a good life.

But goddamn it, everyone has to grow up at some point.

In the second act of my life, much like my father, I find my musical taste somewhere between Jennings and Jones (hat-tip to Jamey Johnson). It was a natural progression for me, like father like son, from the punch-in-the-face of rock-and-roll to the snide swagger of Americana and country.

Son Volt, The Drive-By Truckers, and similar artists, serve as the soundtrack to my current incarnation as a novelist. I don’t need music as a shield anymore. My skin is thick and worn. So now my music is more akin to a comfortable chair. A small plot in the universe I can sink into that exists just for me.

The funny part of that is I write in silence.

So to set the mood of whatever scene I’m fixin’ to dive into, I binge on whatever record I need to fuel it. Bull Mountain was written to a soundtrack as varied as it’s characters. Clayton Burroughs, my protagonist, was written to classic country songs by Waylon, Sturgill Simpson, Hank Jr., and Jamey Johnson. They helped me voice him. His brother Halford’s themes, on the other hand, were a little more brazen, like Whiskey Meyers, Skynyrd, and Blackberry Smoke. Another main player in the book, Simon Holly, wasn’t raised on Bull Mountain, so his soundtrack was equally as unique to him. Live and Northcote, Chuck Ragan, and the post-punk of Frank Turner helped me form his personality.

I built Clayton’s wife, Kate Burroughs (my favorite character in the book) directly out of Maria McKee’s unparalleled voice, and Brandi Carlile’s “Bear Creek” record. I even named the main waterway that cuts through Bull Mountain after that album. Like everything else in my life, Bull Mountain, the novel, wouldn’t exist without the music that inspired me to write it. It flows through the whole story.

David Joy once told me that the last chapter to his debut novel, Where All Light Tends To Go, was the closest he’d come in his life to writing music. I get that. For me, there is only a slight shift in pitch between the two mediums. It’s easy to see the influence through the genre as well. Look at all the thinly veiled references to Waylon Jennings and the Drive By Truckers in Bull Mountain, or in Frank Bill’s Donnybrook (What? You didn’t see them? Go look again). Whenever I read something like that, I feel like the author is speaking directly to me, like I’m in the club. And it’s fair to say, that feeling of inclusion is the best reason to read anything.

Every now and then I revisit that Van Halen album. I pull it out of the sleeve and listen to the vinyl pop under the needle, and just for a second I get just a brief glimpse of that little kid who thought his dad was made of steel and that girls were made of stars. But like some asshole said once, “You can never go home again.” So I march on, always looking for my next fix.

For those interested, check out the comprehensive playlist that inspired Bull Mountain. Maybe a line in one of these songs will inspire you to write a novel of your own.

Brian Panowich  Photo credit: David Kernaghan

Brian Panowich 
Photo credit: David Kernaghan

To learn more about Brian Panowich, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @BPanowich. His debut novel Bull Mountain, a southern crime saga, is available July 7, 2015 from Putnam Books. Look for our interview with the author closer to his Pub Day.