Every time the Bottle Rockets step on stage, they resemble bikers who weren’t good enough to qualify for the Hell’s Angels. Lead singer Brian Henneman, in particular, is scraggly and skinny and talks like he’s smoking at least two cigarettes at the same time. But when the music begins, the Festus, Missouri, quartet’s combination of outlaw country and truck-driving metal gives the Bottle Rockets a whole new stature—they look and sound like they could throw Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top through the same bar window.
The Rockets have graciously accepted the Skynyrd comparisons throughout their career, but the reality is they hardly do the Southern boogie at all. They’re more interested in rocking furiously than in preserving old blues and country classics, and they usually play with one foot in Ramones-style punk and the other in Motorhead-style metal. Nonetheless, Henneman acknowledges the influence of 1970s Southern rock.
“Lynyrd Skynyrd is a rock band with a country singer, which is the same kind of deal as what we’re doing,” Henneman, a friendly character who gives frequent enthusiastic media interviews, told the Washington Post in 1999. “It’s like putting Merle Haggard in front of Bad Company; Haggard and [Skynyrd singer] Ronnie
Members include Brian Henneman, guitar, vocals; Robert Kearns (joined group, 1997), bass; Mark Ortmann, drums; Tom Parr, guitar, vocals; Tom Ray (group member, 1993-97), bass.
Group formed in Festus, MO, 1993; signed with East Side Digital Records, released debut CD Bottle Rockets, 1993; signed with Atlantic Records, released 24 Hours a Day, 1993; signed with Atlantic Records, released 24 Hours a Day, 1997; signed with Doolittle Records, released Brand New Year, 1999; signed with Bloodshot Records, released Songs of Sahm, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Bloodshot, 3039 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, IL 60618. Management—Hard Head Management, P.O. Box 651, New York, NY 10014. Website— Bottle Rockets Official Website: http://www.bottle-rockets.net/home.html.
Van Zant have always seemed pretty much the same to me. A singer like that makes a rock band more interesting than just having your traditional rock singer strutting around doing the traditional rock thing. At least it’s more interesting to me.”
There are tons of punk-stomping “alternative country” bands, from Jason and the Scorchers to Uncle Tupelo, but what distinguishes the Bottle Rockets is a strong lyrical empathy for disenfranchised heartland types. Country superstar Alan Jackson may sing about the “Working Class Hero,” but Henneman’s lyrics give the personal details: Said hero drives a worthless $1,000 car, watches Sunday sports in his boxer shorts, is completely smitten by the pretty gas-station attendant, and rues the day a Chevy ran over his dog.
“Festus used to be a classic small town,” Henneman continued in the Post, “with cobblestone on Main Street and all the little shops. But since Wal-Mart came in, they’re all gone. There used to be industry, but that’s all gone, too. Now it’s just a highway stop on the way to St. Louis, all fast food and gas stations. These subdivisions are coming in for people who don’t want to live in the city. So it’s not some big romantic thing; it’s just where we’re from. It’s the only thing I know, so that’s what I write about,” he adds. “The songs on the first two albums were about specific incidents in town. But we told all the stories we knew on those albums, so we stopped doing that. But it’s all still Festus; all the women in the songs are gauged to Festus women; all the bars are Festus wome all the bars are Festus bars.”
Henneman began his rock career in 1977, in various Festus bands like Waylon Van Halen and the Ernest Tubbadours and Chicken Truck. After performing in Midwestern clubs, he hooked up with Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar from Uncle Tupelo and wound up working as their guitar tech and sometime second guitarist. He was a ringer, of course, and landed a solo deal with the tiny record label East Side Digital. Bringing along some scruffy pals from Festus, the Rockets put out a fiery 1993 debut, with roaring, simplistic country-and-rock anthems that sound great when you’re driving rural Illinois highways.
Their masterpiece came a year later: Brooklyn Side, an obscure bowling reference. Henneman peaked as a songwriter, opening with the folksy thesis “Welfare Music,” then immediately stepping on the gas with “I’ll Be Comin’ Around,” a love song addressed to somebody else’s unhappy wife; “Radar Gun,” a first-person narrative about an abusive highway trooper; and the perfectly written “$1,000 Car,” which concludes, “If a $1,000 car were really worth a damn, why would anybody ever spend 10 grand?”
Critically acclaimed, Brooklyn Side led to a contract with the major label Atlantic Records, but while the Rockets maintained their furious rock ‘n’ roll pace, they never quite matched that album’s songwriting level. The band’s subsequent releases had their moments—notably the self-explanatory “When I Was Dumb,” from 1997’s 24 Hours a Day and the looped line “Gotta get up, gotta go to work, then I come home and I gotta go to bed” from 1999’s Brand New Year (on a small label, Doolittle, distributed by the much larger Mercury Records)—but they never really jelled as cohesive rock albums.
Although alternative country spawned certain record companies, magazinem and radio formats in the mid-1990s, the Rockets sold few records, didn’t hit the FM airwaves and wound up in major-label purgatory for months. “The record industry just seems so screwed up to me, I don’t even know why anybody would want to be on a major label, unless you were Ricky Martin or Britney Spears or something,” Henneman told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1999. “It’s just like government work: Everything is so complicated that simple functions make no sense, like the income tax system. It was like being in jail for three years. Then we had to come out, pick our lives back up and hope we fit back into society.”
The picking-up process began in 2001, with the Rockets’strongest album since Brooklyn Side. Songs of Sahm contained no original tracks, but the Rockets captured their late Texas cousin Doug Sahm’s spirit perfectly, nailing his Latin-spiced rocker “Mendocino,” the garage anthem “She’s about a Mover” and the psychedelic-redneck classic “Lawd, I’m Just a Country Boy in This Big Freaky City.” Sahm came out on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, home of many like-minded country-punk artists.
As of the early 2000s, the band remains in a holding pattern, staying at Motel 6es (“Hey, man, this is actually a Motel 6 Premier!” Henneman corrected a Chicago Sun-Times interviewer) while they play dives around the United States. Songs of Sahm was a superb musical return to form after several years of trying to move beyond Brooklyn Side. Henneman’s next step is to recapture his lyrical powers.
Bottle Rockets, East Side Digital, 1993.
Brooklyn Side, East Side Digital, 1994.
24 Hours a Day, Atlantic, 1997.
Brand New Day, Doolittle/Mercury, 1999.
Songs of Sahm, Bloodshot, 2001.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Billboard, October 15, 1994.
Chicago Sun-Times, December 14, 1997; October 3, 1999.
Peoria Journal Star, March 21, 1996.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 23, 1998; August 22, 1999.
Washington Post, September 13, 1999.
“Bottle Rockets,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 12, 2003).
Bottle Rockets Official Website, http://www.bottle-rockets.net/home.html (February 12, 2003).
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