Author Playlists

Frank Bill’s Playlist for His Novel “Back to the Dirt”

“Some of the music within the book was the soundtrack for the characters, while other tunes helped influence feelings when rewriting the story but also helped detail the nature of the working-class characters.”

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Frank Bill’s novel Back to the Dirt evocatively captures the trauma and brutality of the American Midwest in its propulsive and visceral prose.

Booklist wrote of the book:

“Bill draws wrenching parallels between battle and family-abuse trauma through evocative hallucinations, survival-of-the-fittest settings, and disarming compassion… Bill’s descriptions are both ugly and beautiful, often merging the hunt with Miles’ Vietnam flashbacks, capturing the realities of those resigned to being left behind and the violence that offers short-lived power.”

In his own words, here is Frank Bill’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Back to the Dirt:

It always goes back to a picture. Black and white. My father in his military fatigues, Chuck Taylors on his feet and grasping a grenade launcher in Da Nang. Sitting down with my father to discuss his time in the Marines, from bootcamp to serving his country in Da Nang was liberating, comical and heartbreaking. His struggles with war. Losses incurred. And the comedy he and others found in the day to day mundane. He’d joined because he wanted to prove himself as a young man around the age of 19. And prove himself he did. But he also lost a lot of himself in the jungles of Da Nang. In the war. As men who serve have done for generations.

And with that conversation and many others, I combined what my father dealt with, being an engineer with the US Marines in the Vietnam War and what I’d dealt with working in a factory since the age of 20 on the nightshift, addicted to strength training, raised on testosterone-fueled-films and from that I created Miles Knox. A steroid addicted, iron pumping Vietnam Vet haunted by war, while dating a younger woman. A stripper with an unknown mental health issue. And everyday Miles struggles to make sense of the time he served and the blue-collar world he’s living within. While Nathaniel, a retired police officer, takes on the responsibility of his nephew as he searches for the killer of his brother and sister-in-law who dealt Oxy.

Back to the Dirt deals with many themes. PTSD. Mental health. Working class despair and struggle. Drug addiction. Poverty. Loss. Regret. Revenge. Racism. The Midwest. But also hope.

For me it might be my most personal work because at the time of rewriting the manuscript I was dealing with my mother’s cancer and early stages of dementia. In many ways it pushed me to dig really deep into a place I hadn’t been and place my heart on the page regardless of how harsh and sometimes ugly my situation might’ve been. But when you have good editors, they know what questions to ask, the right buttons to push. They pulled the pulp from the fruit.

Some of the music within the book was the soundtrack for the characters, while other tunes helped influence feelings when rewriting the story but also helped detail the nature of the working-class characters. The men and women within Back to the Dirt are hard, whittled from their environment. Their living experiences. Being a blue-collar worker is just that, harsh, there are no easy days when you roll out of bed, especially with a family and a mortgage. And everything else life delivers to you sometimes from poor choices other times its unexpected; illness. Despair. Bills. Death. And a stiff drink and a good tune is your soundtrack to deal with that life.

There are no selfies to showcase your strife. No platforms for influencers. It’s a real existence. Every day is a grind. You work to pay your bills. Earn your way in life. There’s no favoritism or privilege when you work in a factory. Sometimes you help others, other times folks will help you. And if you’re like me, you exercise to keep strong and keep doing all of the above. It’s not about looking pretty or playing a role. It’s not a scripted reality show. It’s real life. To me that’s what being a working-class writer entails, hard work.

When I was working through edits and rewrites, certain songs would encompass a mood or a feeling I was searching for within a character. Some songs and musicians are mentioned within the book, basically what the character was listening to while driving around or dealing with situations within their homes or some other property or location.

Here’s my playlist:

Jason Isbell—Codeine

This tune really hit home for the rewriting of Shelby and her brother’s addiction to Oxy and even their abusive upbringings, which in a sense has become her addiction while Miles searches for her, flashing back on memories they’d shared all the while wondering where she’s at.

Rolling Stones—Gimme Shelter

At Nathaniel’s home, when he turns on his stereo, this becomes his soundtrack to how he feels after losing his brother and sister-in-law, all of these feelings hit at once, and he’s realizing the responsibility he has inherited on top of needing to find his brother and sister-in-law’s killer, this tune struck that nerve of redemption.

Lincoln Durham—Bones

Lincoln sums up the emotions we sometimes hide while sorting out the hand we’re dealt, our skeletons in a closet and making sense of it all. This is very much Miles Knox’s OD to the remains of lives he recalls every day, especially the hallucinations that tie into his memories of the war he served and in particular when he crosses Blue River and enters an old farm house and deals with a conflict that may or may not be real.

Javi Garcia—God and Country

In many ways this is an anthem for the entire book, singing about the economy, serving one’s country and the politics of being a war veteran and working class/blue-collar. Javi has only recorded two albums and they’re pitch perfect from the opening tune to the last. His music piles up the bodies with his words while delivering a lot of honesty for working class folks.   

Orbit Culture—Open Eye

Adrenaline. This was one of the tunes during the rewriting or the adventurous scenes where I needed that fast pace rhythm and these guys really deliver that. Especially when Miles drops LSD and at first things kind of come all at once and he’s swerving through obstacles.  

Waylon Jennings—Honky Tonk Heroes

This tune for me encompasses that kinship between rural folks sharing a beer or a shot of whiskey. That sweet amusement park journey or sharing. Taking a ride through conversations of how folks are feeling, what they’re dealing with or the cards they’ve been dealt, similar to the scene at the VFW, where conversations are raunchy but real. As the song says, for loveable losers and no-account boozers, and honky tonk heroes like me. This is Miles Knox’s tune while driving the back roads in his El Camino and sipping some booze.

Chris Knight—Down the River

Chris Knight penned one of the best short stories to become a song, in my opinion, he’s a highly overlooked singer-song writer, and he’s a Kentucky treasure. This is a song about redemption, and it really pulls at the heartstrings for what Nathaniel wants to do within the book when searching for the killer of his family members and like most of the songs I’ve listed it held a deep impression on my thought process for this story and the characters. 

Son House—Death Letter Blues

Son offers so much depth and emotion with his voice, your spine becomes a guitar string every time he fingers a chord. Son House is my favorite Delta Blues musician, though that’s probably my favorite music, the stripped-down acoustics. Heartache and pain bleeds from his voice, which helped with the emotions Miles was feeling when reflecting upon his time with Shelby and even his job in the factory as he talks with Pie just before they confront Miles’s racist boss from the factory.  

Ryan Bingham—Bread and Water

Ryan has influenced my days since his first album, long before his appearances on Yellowstone. When I heard his first album, Mescalito, from the beginning to end, it’s pitch perfect. And this tune captures travel and surviving and offers a great depth of blues, movement, groove and good vibes. He’s another one of those musicians who only needs his voice and his acoustic guitar. 

Roots music wielded from the soil. 


Here again, when I want adrenaline and power and that electric charge, these guys bring that downward gut rush of a rollercoaster speeding fast and hard and never letting up. I like metal that takes your breath away and never lets you catch your breath until the music stops, and I try to write my action scenes the same way. Similar to a film like The Raid 1 or The Raid 2, it’s an opera of mayhem and movement and I believe this tune personifies that perfectly.   

Ryan Bingham—Don’t Wait For Me

What can I say, Ryan, other than Chris Knight is probably my favorite musician, mainly because they frame feelings like a picture and this song sums up everything that happens in the story between Miles Knox and Shelby McCutchen and their ending. As the lyrics state: 

Don’t you wait for me ’cause I’ll be runnin’ late
Don’t you wait for me by the flowers upon my grave
Don’t you wait for me, I won’t be comin’ home
Don’t you wait for me, unplug your the telephone

‘Cause I’m wild runnin’ through the hills
And my eyes are wonderin’ how you feel
And the miles upon miles keep fallin’ from the sky
Don’t you wait for me when the flowers die

Frank Bill is the New York Times bestselling author of The Ravaged, with Norman Reedus; the novels The Savage and Donnybrook, the latter of which was turned into a film in 2018; and the story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana, one of GQ’s favorite books of 2011 and a Daily Beast best debut of 2011. He lives and writes in southern Indiana.

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