The stereotypical fool who interviews other people who actually create stuff—he usually works at a newspaper or, decreasingly, a radio station, and he’s usually talking to a musician or an author—is widely presumed by his or her readers and/or listeners to know next to jack about the actual stuff in question. The cliché in widest circulation, and the bane of promo-tripping writers everywhere, is the morning talk-show host compelled to fill 5 minutes of airtime with discussion of a book he hasn’t even read.
You can tell he hasn’t read it because he asks the kinds of questions that even a cursory glance at the book’s jacket would answer, and he keeps getting the title wrong.
So it’s a little embarrassing to admit to Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman that though you’ve been a fan for 10 years running of his band’s 1995 sophomore minor masterpiece The Brooklyn Side, and though you’ve spun a few early listens of the just-released Zoysia, you really sort of lost track of them there in the middle. That lost middle amounts to five whole records—more than 60 percent of a decade and a half’s discography.
Henneman just laughs.
“Yeah. A lot of people did that.”
That a lot of people did that might seem a little strange, since the Bottle Rockets’ career has more or less coincided with the rise of a category—alternative country—designed to describe and promote bands doing more or less exactly what the Bottle Rockets were and still are doing: smudging the lines between country and rock with songs rooted in both.
In the Bottle Rockets’ take, the rock that mattered most was Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The country was Ernest Tubb and maybe Waylon Jennings. Throw in a little Roger Miller for the borderline novelty factor and a smidge of Steve Earle-style progressivism, if Steve Earle had a sense of humor anymore, and you’ve got a loose approximation of the Bottle Rockets’ sound, which is fine with Henneman: “Whatever that is,” he says of the alt-country label, “that’s what we are.”
With the Marshall Tucker Band and maybe Jason and the Scorchers in the rearview and the Drive-By Truckers—traveling the same stylistic two-lane but more Southern-mythically inclined—having passed on the left a while ago, the Bottle Rockets have belched and backfired their $1,000 car right down the middle of the alt-country road. And hailing from Missouri, they’ve been easy to overlook. The band helped keep its own profile low by skipping from Atlantic Records to New West Records to Bloodshot Records (for an interesting but detourish album of Doug Sahm covers) to Sanctuary Records before returning, with Zoysia, to Chicago’s Bloodshot, where Henneman swears they’re staying put.
Along the way the band lost two original members, in 1997 and 2002, before bringing on guitarist John Horton in 2003 and bassist Keith Voegele last year. Drummer Mark Ortmann, along with Henneman, has been in it for the duration.
And duration, it sounds like, is what much of it has been. Henneman, answering in a van headed to Chicago, makes no bones about calling Zoysia the record he’s proudest of, and this incarnation of the Bottle Rockets the best version so far. Even accounting for the fact that his band is sitting right next to him as he speaks, those sound like the words of a player, at it 13 years, with no expectation of resting on a reputation. He’s got something to prove.
“Yeah,” he confirms. “I do.”
For one thing, he and his earlier band spent many of those middle years on the road, drunk. The Bottle Rockets, Henneman says, are much more professional these days. “If you loved that sort of thing, you’ll hate us now,” he says.
So Missoula, on the receiving end of a first-ever Bottle Rockets show, can fairly expect the band not to be ragingly wasted.
And on the evidence of Zoysia—the album shares its name with a deep-rooted lawn grass—we can expect a band that hasn’t radically changed its approach, or for the most part its sound, since day one. It’s mostly hard crunchy country rock with loud guitars and an alternately tender and disdainful Midwestern twang in Henneman’s voice, matched to a fierce lyrical alliance with the fears, foibles and fuck-ups of plain old America, love and politics included.
And on Henneman’s word, concertgoers can expect a set-list drawn from 13 years worth of material, a good deal of it, on the evidence of these ears, exemplary rawk.
“Expect something,” Henneman says. “If all you do is expect something, we’re bound to deliver.”
The Bottle Rockets play The Other Side Thursday, July 13, at 10 PM. Tickets are $12 and available in advance at Kettlehouse Brewery. Call 728-1660.