February 17, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Wesley Browne's novel Hillbilly Hustle is a fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable debut.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A top-notch debut with a winning narrative voice and unexpectedly multidimensional characters."
As I wrote Hillbilly Hustle—a novel set in a Kentucky pizza shop—I sometimes chose music for the pleasure of it. Other times it was strategic. I needed to go somewhere so I played what would take me there. This playlist is a mix of both those things: pleasure and strategy. There are a number of bands, musicians and songs mentioned in the novel. A few of those are on this list as well.
This playlist isn’t all Kentucky, but Kentucky’s well represented. That was mostly where I needed to be when I wrote. The pizza shop in the book, Porthos Pizza, is a stand-in for one my family co-owns and we help run. Before we owned it, you could buy pot there. Porthos sells it in the book, too. We’ve turned our attention to live music. In our listening room, I’ve seen a lot of the best of what’s coming out of Kentucky, Appalachia, and nearby places. Like Hillbilly Hustle, the music and those musicians don’t always look or sound like you’d expect.
“Tattoos” by Tyler Childers
There was this wedding reception in a warehouse in Lexington, Kentucky. On stage was this red-haired kid. I grabbed the groom. “Who is that?” I tried to book Tyler Childers in the line for the toilet. I was drunk and he had to go. We couldn’t work anything out. Months later he turned up in one of our pizza shops asking to play.
As it turned out, Tyler’s granddad drove my wife’s school bus in Lawrence County. His mother rode it. Kentucky’s a small state. Eastern Kentucky’s even smaller. Tyler Childers is as Eastern Kentucky as they come. His album, Purgatory, spun throughout the revisions of Hillbilly Hustle. My protagonist, Knox, falls in love with a tattoo artist, Darla. This track is from an album that’s entirely gems, and it’s on point.
Tyler Childers is from Lawrence County, Kentucky.
“Sodajerk” by Buffalo Tom
Knox and Darla bond over getting high and watching VHS tapes of My So Called Life. Buffalo Tom songs are ubiquitous in that show. This is the fun one. If you remember My So Called Life but aren’t sure you know this song, you know this song.
Buffalo Tom is not from Kentucky.
“Irene” by Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters
Hillbilly Hustle had a different title for a long time. So did this band. They were simply The Honeycutters. I had just gotten turned on to them when I wrote the first draft of the book. I let them play and play. The lyrics of this song have nothing to do with the story, it’s the vibe. An old Appalachian sound that’s somehow fresh and new, it was an apt accompaniment to what I was trying to do. This is one good track of many.
Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters are from Asheville, North Carolina.
“Wishbone” by Wayne Graham
The glaring flaw in Knox and Darla’s relationship is imbalance. She’s wiser. Has more foresight. Is more clearheaded. Wishbone is a song about just such a relationship. Wayne Graham is a band whose sound you don’t see coming, and whose hooks compel you to sing.
Wayne Graham is from Whitesburg, Kentucky.
“Just Like The Rest” by Arlo McKinley
Tortured. Melancholic. Lovelorn. Arlo McKinley bleeds every time he plays. A long section of Hillbilly Hustle takes place while Knox mourns lost love. Something he cost himself. The connection between Arlo and Knox was to the point that Arlo became one of a handful of real people I pictured while writing the character. This song is a quintessential Arlo McKinley lament.
Arlo McKinley is from across the river in Cincinnati, Ohio, but he’s beloved in Kentucky.
“Bless My Heart” by Angaleena Presley
This is another one that’s pure Eastern Kentucky. If someone’s vicious enough to bless your heart, slap their face. When I needed to go there, Angaleena Presley was one of the people I played.
Angaleena Presley is from Beauty, Kentucky in Martin County.
“Mighty Little Man” by Steve Burns
During a slow shift at Porthos, two characters discuss their preference for Blue’s Clues host. They touch on the album where this song appears, and it ain’t half bad.
Steve Burns is not from Kentucky.
“The Dogs” by Justin Wells
So much of the book concerns the unglamourous grind of getting by. Of questioning it. Of the coping mechanisms employed to do it. About busting ass to stay afloat and keep things going. This song is all of that.
Justin Wells is from Lexington, Kentucky.
"When You Go" - Tiffany Williams
Another Kentucky atmospheric musician. A voice like a bell. Songs about loving an imperfect place. Her EP took me to the mountains every time I played it.
Tiffany Williams is from Letcher County, Kentucky.
“One Big Holiday” by My Morning Jacket
Knox’s body is more ruin than temple. But he’s a born hustler, like the opening lyrics of this song say, “waking up feeling good and limber” each morning, ripping off his CPAP mask, and getting to work.
My Morning Jacket is from Louisville, Kentucky.
“Build A Fire” by Chelsea Nolan
More bombastic than some of her Kentucky contemporaries. People call out for Chelsea’s Janis Joplin covers at her live shows, but this original is my favorite. It fits the women of Hillbilly Hustle well.
Chelsea Nolan is from Powell County, Kentucky.
“Sleepy Lagoon” by Carl Broemel
I avoided literal pot songs on this playlist, but this song is stoned. Fanciful, ethereal, pleasurable.
Carl Broemel is a member of the Louisville, Kentucky band My Morning Jacket.
“Martha” by Tom Waits
This one’s in the book. The album plays while Darla tattoos Knox. Later, after she’s gone, Knox sings the song to himself. It’s his state of mind.
Tom Waits is not from Kentucky.
“Behind Me Now/El Camino Reprise” by Amos Lee/Willie Nelson
Amos Lee sings “All my best days are behind me now” which is exactly how Knox feels. On the second half of this dual-track Willie Nelson’s voice bubbles up. The patron saint of American marijuana, he had to be on this playlist.
Neither Amos Lee nor Willie Nelson is from Kentucky.
“Time After All” by Sturgill Simpson
The more solo albums Sturgill Simpson makes, the more he departs from traditional country, and to fine result. But this song’s from the first one, and it brought a throwback sound to a Commonwealth hungry for it. A shining example of what he can do. A shining example of Kentucky.
Sturgill Simpson is from Breathitt County, Kentucky.
“Family Tree” by Senora May
Vocally and lyrically, Senora May might go anywhere. She doesn’t sound like anyone. Her voice is that of the eclectic Kentucky young woman, whatever that might be. After cutting the original protagonist during revisions, I added a character named Tori to fill the void. A new hire at Porthos Pizza who stabilizes the listing ship. It helped to find Tori’s character in Senora’s songs because Senora worked as a server for us in her early days as a performer.
Senora May is from Estill County, Kentucky
“Workingman’s Blues #2” by Bob Dylan
We only have a pizza shop because a good friend who owned it passed away. A black and white photo of Bob Dylan that hung over his desk now hangs behind the counter in our real life place, and it also hangs there in the fictional Porthos Pizza. This song overlays Hillbilly Hustle imperfectly, but quite well nonetheless.
Bob Dylan is not from Kentucky.
“Fish and Whistle” by John Prine
I wrote two endings. One pitch black, another more hopeful. John Prine has songs that fall at both ends as well. He practices something he calls “optimistic pessimism” and that pretty well sums up Hillbilly Hustle, and Kentucky, really. Fish and Whistle is hopeful, much like the ending I ultimately chose.
John Prine is from Illinois, but his family roots are in Kentucky, and he once said, “I’m a Kentucky boy through and through.”
Wesley Browne and Hillbilly Hustle links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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