Hard Cash Valley: A Spotify Soundtrack (Part 1)

See how Brian Panowich gets inside the heads of his characters with Part 1 of his Hard Cash Valley Spotify playlist.

Music means everything to me. If there were ever a day that music was to inexplicitly vanish from the planet as an art form, then I would most likely never be able to write another word. The two mediums are that intertwined with me. I’ll try to lay it out for you. I’m sure at least some of you have been asked the age-old hypothetical question a few times in your life,

“If you had no choice but to choose one or the other, would you rather be blind or deaf?” Typically, most people I know would answer ‘Deaf”. But for me, there has never been a question in mind that I would choose ‘Blind’.

“But, Brian,’ they’d say.  “You’d never be able to see your loved ones again, your children, or your grandchildren, or sunsets even.”

That’s the usual argument against my unshakable answer, but I’ll never waver from that decision for this reason. I don’t need to see love. Love is something you feel… and I can do without sunsets. But I absolutely cannot do without the feeling music gives me or the places it takes me—usually with my eyes closed. And never hearing Waylon Jennings again is my version of my own personal hell.

That being said, music transports me to places in my mind, and without it, there would be no McFalls County. There would be no Bull Mountain.

So, here is part one of a playlist I put together for my latest novel, Hard Cash Valley.

I’ve done this kind of thing before with my previous books, but those were more thematic and based on what I was listening to at the time when I wrote them. I approached this one a little differently. These songs actually tell the story in real-time as the book unfolds, as we meet the characters, and learn who they are and what they are going through. Almost like a musical adaptation of the novel. A lot of it is not my typical fare and not what you’d expect from a Southern writer, but so is Hard Cash Valley. It isn’t quite my typical book, or what you might expect from a Southern author. It’s still all me, but with a little something new. I hope you enjoy it and of course, the book that accompanies it. Go ahead a dig in, and don’t worry, no spoilers. I’ll be back next week with Part 2.

  1. “BB Guns & Dirt Bikes” by The White Buffalo

Hard Cash Valley has as much to do with the concept of loyalty and the bonds between Dane Kirby and his circle of friends as it does the main storyline or even the underlining love story that unfolds throughout the book. When we meet Dane, it’s apparent that these other full-grown men he meets up with grew up together from kindergarten. They learned how to ride bikes together and snuck their first warm beers from their father’s coolers as kids into the woods together. The learned about girls and most likely fought over them, too, but always remained unbreakable friends. Every heartache and triumph they shared as one cohesive unit of brothers that not even time or tragedy could tear apart. Most people are lucky to have even one person in their life they can call at two in the morning and they’d come running with no questions asked. Dane has both Ned and Keith and he’d go to war for either of them. That kind of friendship in the modern day is a rarity and most of them are forged during adulthood, not in a red dirt fort in the woods before life takes comes in and takes its toll. I wanted that bond to come across in the book. I also don’t believe there’s another song on earth that conveys that kind of childhood bond like “BB Guns & Dirt Bikes” by The White Buffalo (The recording name for singer/songwriter Jake Smith) If fact, I was so smitten by the song, I wrote a flash fiction story based on it that I published years ago. You can find it here.


  1. “Survivor Blues” (The After Hours) by Cory Branan

This is a slowed down reprise version of a song by the same name by master songwriter Cory Branan. It’s a song about loss and having nothing left to lose written in the most literary way, much like everything Branan writes. It felt to me like he was singing through the same hollow darkness in this song that Dane feels through most of the novel. He’s broken and so are the characters in this song. I even used some of the lyrics from this tune as the epigraph at the beginning of the book since for me they hit so close to home for the main character I was writing about. I’ve said it before and I stand by it, if Cory Branan ever decides to switch pitch from writing songs to writing novels, he’ll be an instant favorite among those who love to read world-class prose. I seem to always be drawn to his work when I write, and this song, in particular, is almost too tough for me to listen to as I imagine it to be Dane’s voice and Dane’s pain.


  1. “The Dirt” by Joseph J. Jones

I have to admit that I’m not that familiar with Mr. Jones’ entire body of work, but this song spoke to me the first time I heard it at full volume. I immediately imagined Dane sitting on the bank of Bear Creek in the beginning of the novel trying to convince himself that the reason he was there was to forget, but in fact, it was more likely that he was there to remember. I think all of us need to feel our deepest heartaches on purpose sometimes just so we can keep ourselves grounded and feel alive. If we don’t, we just become numb and even after everything Dane has gone through when we first meet him, he isn’t quite hollowed out completely. There is still a small glimmer of hope, and like the song says, “I love not to feel anything, but sometimes I need the dirt. I need to feel the hurt.” I think that’s spot-on for anyone who isn’t ready to give it all up.


  1. “The Firebreak Line” by Steve Earle

First of all, I love everything about Steve Earle. In my eyes, he can do no wrong and is incapable of writing a bad song, but I really dug this one because there aren’t very many songs that feature firefighting as the subject matter, and the swinging up-tempo beat is exactly how it feels to be part of a big family of firemen and women. Being a firefighter is a privilege and just being in that circle of heroes can make a person walk a foot taller. This song captures perfectly how it felt during the time Dane, Ned, and Keith were all working for the McFalls County FD. It was a happy time for them, one of the few. And Steve Earle knocks that feeling out of the park with this one with such ease and effortless skill only he is capable of.


  1. “Brightly Burst Into the Air” by Ruston Kelly

I imagined this song from the point of view of Ned Lemon after his initial fall grace. When we meet him he’s lost and spinning in the world, and trying to make sense of it all, mostly from the dark back booths of roadside bars. I also love how Ruston Kelly ended this song with just one chorus. There was no need to repeat himself. He said what he had to say and that’s it. That’s something Ned would do. If you didn’t get it the first time, then maybe it just wasn’t meant for you to hear. The arrangement made it perfect for Ned’s method of thinking.


  1. “Alone & Distanced” by Cory Branan and Jon Snodgrass

Once again, I return to Cory Branan’s music who seems to be a running a theme through this entire novel, but this song, seeing as it is a duo, felt to me like it captured the excitement, confusion, and despair of Dane and Ned seeing each other again after so many years. The two men have been best friends since birth but once they are reunited, they still have this overwhelming feeling of still being “Alone and Distanced”. Yet the bond they share is still intact. It’s a great song that conveys just how much better something can be when it’s done with a partner. With someone you trust.


  1. “Die For Alabama” by Firekid

This song is from the point of view of FBI Agent Roselita Velasquez. When we first meet her in the novel, all we know about her is she is driven, well put together, and takes very little shit from anyone. We also learn that she drives her car like a lunatic and that she’s Alabama born and raised. This song could be described the same way and it makes the listener want to break the speed limit. I’m not sure what the lyrics are about at all, but I can see Rosie tear-assing down the interstate listening to something like this with a chip on her shoulder and a smile on her face, singing about her home state. And not giving one damn about what anyone else thinks.


  1. “New Way of Living” by David Ramirez

Ramirez is another one of those songwriters that can’t help but tell the truth in his songs regardless of how painful it may be. The tune brings me back to Dane and all the questions he has to face about his future, or what future he has left. He’s gone from the highest of highs and the greatest of loves to now having to settle for less than he ever expected. His life was not supposed to be this way. But he isn’t curled up in a bottle blaming God or shaking his fist and screaming how unfair his life is. He’s trying to navigate his new existence before it consumes him, and he gets completely lost. He’s trying to find a “New Way Of Living.” And sometimes that in itself can be the hardest obstacle to overcome after facing tragedy.


  1. “Snake Eyes” by Mumford & Sons

This song is all Misty. Dane’s current girlfriend and the woman who can’t seem to get through to him no matter how hard she tries. It’s an angry song about knowing the danger you’re getting into with the people you’re with but being too stubborn, or too in love to quit them. Misty can’t compete with Dane’s ghosts and she knows it, but it doesn’t stop her from trying. The song feels to me like the heat in her blood that runs just below her skin keeping her angry but firmly grounded in her belief that she can put Dane out of his grief and fix him. There is a lot to be said about loyalty even when your staring down snakes. It makes her one of my favorite characters in the book.


  1. “McDowell Road” by Travis Meadows

I have become good friends with Travis over the years and I believe he may just be the most underrated songwriter on the planet. I guarantee you that you’ve heard one of his songs by another artist and loved it, but you just didn’t know he was the one who wrote it. That is Travis’s life. He’s the man behind the curtain. In the shadows. His music alone could be a perfect soundtrack to nearly all my writing. He writes about small-town people with big, beautiful problems, and this song is only one of many that inspire me every day to sit down and write about real people. Not super soldiers or trained ex-military badasses for hire. Real people, broken and flawed like the rest of us is where all the true heart of storytelling is for me and it bleeds out of every Travis Meadows song. Go buy his records and you’ll understand. I chose this song for this soundtrack due to the fact that I made McDowell Road a main thoroughfare that runs the length of my fictional McFalls County.


Here’s a link to the entire playlist. And side two is coming up next week.

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