By Joe Hooten • Guest Writer
Americana-roots music has seen its fair share of imitators since its revival in the early 1990s. The explosive array of alt-country talent that preceded all the primed-for-CMT bands can be traced back to a handful of artists that pushed the door wide enough so that others could conveniently slip by.
Thankfully, pioneers like the Bottle Rockets are still making considerable attempts at carrying their banner into the 21st century.
Currently based in St. Louis, the Bottle Rockets have earned their well-deserved place alongside bands like Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks as the “godfathers of the alt-country movement” by creating their own brand of Americana heartfelt rock that transcends far beyond the simplistic and overly glorified artists that grace the stages of the most recent Country Music Awards show.
Frontman for the Bottle Rockets, Brian Henneman, has seen a lot in his 15-plus years with his group, but he has never lost sight of the fundamental elements that encompass their music — a good story, solid musicianship, a sense of humor, and that midwestern honesty that comes through in every song. The once self-proclaimed “reporters from the heartland,” Henneman, Mark Ortman, John Horton, and Keith Voegele, have maintained a solid and rather substantial fanbase through all the ups and downs of the Bottle Rocket’s history. Regardless of record label or band member changes, the Bottle Rockets’ sound has expanded in its stature and force over time as they have continually presented solid albums throughout the years, particularly on their most recent, Lean Forward. And with classic songs like “Kerosene,” “Get Down River,” and “Welfare Music,” that may perhaps rival some of the best in the business, the Bottle Rockets catalog grows with new songs like “The Long Way,” “Done it All Before,” “Hard Times” and the rocking “Nothing But a Driver.”
As they celebrate the release of their new album and the anticipated live DVD, the Bottle Rockets show no sign of letting up and despite being one of the hardest working bands on the planet. Brian Henneman took time to talk to Smoky Mountain News prior to the band’s show at the Grey Eagle in Asheville on Aug. 29.
SMN: The title of your new album, Lean Forward (in stores Aug. 11) sounds optimistic in these bleak economic times. Does this apply to the current philosophy within the band or could this be construed as a charge put forth to the listener?
BH: If you wanna be optimistic these days, you gotta work at it. Lean into it. It can be done. You can keep on the sunny side, but, seems like the minute you start slackin’ black clouds’ll find you. This album’s just a little reminder of that. You can do whatever you want, but you can’t say we didn’t remind you.
SMN: Songwriting duties on Lean Forward were divided among the band members. Does this process help the chemistry within the band when it comes to creating an album?
SMN: You regularly post on the Bottle Rockets message board. Is this a conscious effort on your part to stay in touch with fans?
BH: Not a conscious effort, just me goofin’ off on the Internet. If you’re going to waste time on the Internet, might as well put it to good use. It’s fun. I think the fans enjoy it. I know I do.
SMN: In 2008 the Bottle Rockets celebrated their 15th anniversary. How does it feel to make it this far with all the label and band member changes?
BH: Makes me feel like a cross between a superhero, Survivorman, and a cockroach.
SMN: The music industry has changed dramatically over the past several years, especially when faced with the issue of illegal downloading. Have you come to accept this practice as apart of the business?
BH: Yes. Wha are you gonna do? Go ahead, steal our shit. For us to complain makes us look greedy, which may make us lose potential fans who’d love to steal our shit. It’s all about the consumer. I’d hate to make anything inconvenient for anyone. Please, take it from us, send me your address, I’ll buy you some McDonald’s gift certificates too. I don’t need money, I’m a superhero.
SMN: Extensive touring has been apart of the Bottle Rocket’s work ethic for many years. Music fans often romanticize life on the road. Is it as glamorous as we imagine or is the reality drastically different?
BH: Depends on your definition of glamorous! We don’t get much sleep, I’ll tell you that. Is that glamorous? If so, this life is VERY glamorous.
SMN: In early May 2009, the Bottle Rockets were filmed for an upcoming live DVD release; did this idea originate with the band or with your record label, Bloodshot Records? Was everyone pleased with the outcome?
BH: It was a band idea. The performance that night was great. We haven’t seen any of the footage yet, they had six cameras goin’, gonna be editing for a while yet. I predict it’s gonna be very cool.
SMN: You recently reflected on your contribution to the acclaimed Uncle Tupelo album, March 16-20, 1992. Did those five days in Athens, Ga., have any impact on your career as a musician?
BH: I guess it kinda got my foot in the door back then. A year later we were recording the first Bottle Rockets album in the same studio. Seems like the impact faded pretty quickly, and we were thrown out into the cold, hard, music biz on our own.
SMN: Have you ever entertained the idea of creating your own record label?
BH: Bloodshot’s great, as long as they’ll have us, this answer is an absolute NO. None more no. The no-est.
SMN: The Bottle Rockets are notorious for energetic and memorable live performance. What can Western North Carolina music fans expect at your upcoming show at the Grey Eagle on Aug. 29?
BH: An energetic and memorable live performance! That’s how we roll!
Tickets for their show at the Grey Eagle are only $10 and still available.