by Andrew Clayman
It's not every day that a grizzled band of roots-rockers gets the chance to play a set with gaudy, shred-able, hair-metal guitars. When the opportunity presented itself at a recent, private gig near Dekalb, Ill., however, the gung-ho members of The Bottle Rockets played their new, cartoonish axes with a reckless abandon worthy of Randy Rhoads.
â“These were the pointiest, stupidest looking guitars you ever saw on MTV in the '80s,â” laughs Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman, who had asked a friend to lend the band the retro instruments in the name of good fun. â“They're the kind of guitars we'd normally laugh at if we saw them in a guitar store. But we ended up playing them, and they sounded fantastic! So, who knows, you might see us on stage one of these days with pink, neon guitars.â”
Henneman is joking, of course. But then again, a hair-metal revival wouldn't be his first crack at bucking the musical trends of the day. Twenty years ago, when hair metal actually was en vogue, Henneman and current Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann took the subversive route by playing working class, country-rock in a Missouri bar band called Chicken Truck. In the late '80s, their adventures through the Midwest club circuit brought them to Chicago for a while, where Chicken Truck became friends and regular touring partners with a similarly rebellious and rootsy outfit known as Uncle Tupelo.
Years later, when Tupelo leaders Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy split up to form Son Volt and Wilco respectively, people retroactively began recognizing the brilliance of the so-called â“alt-countryâ” scene. It was an awakening that temporarily helped Henneman's next band, The Bottle Rocketsâ"earning them a deal with Atlantic in the mid-'90s. But as the alt-country bandwagon rusted, so did the Bottle Rockets' ascent toward the mainstream, despite steady critical praise for their eight studio albums.
â“Well, you go through stages with it,â” Henneman says. â“We've been around 15 years, so along the way, first you wait for it (success) to happen. Then, you get mad that stuff isn't going as fast as you want it to. Then, you eventually end up being very happy with what you've got and feeling amazed that you're still around after all that time. So many bands have come and gone in the time we've been here, and we're still hanging and making it work. In the end, that is the success. If it ever gets bigger, awesome. And if it doesn't, we're certainly surviving as it is.â”
The Bottle Rockets' current summer tour is the latest of many jaunts in support of Zoysia , the acclaimed 2006 album that jumpstarted a new, optimistic era in the band's long history. During the time surrounding the record, Henneman kicked his alcohol addiction, John Horton (guitar) and Keith Voegele (bass) improved the line-up, and Bloodshot Records brought the band back into the fold after a brief hiatus.
â“Everything is better these days,â” Henneman says. â“Way better. It's a better band than we've ever had before, so I have absolute trust in each band member to get the job done. Plus, we all get along great, and everybody's kind of in the same place, for a change, headspace wise.â”
Zoysia is the latest testament to the Bottle Rockets' beloved blue-collar spirit, which appeals to the rural values of the Midwest without getting sentimental or stupid about it. Like Son Volt, there's a musical nod to Crazy Horse, but with a cleaner, classic-rock style beneath it. Meanwhile, Henneman takes an admirable stance for individualism in his lyrics, lambasting unnecessary alliances and society's need to label states â“redâ” or â“blue.â” In a way, the band's all-inclusive ethos actually makes it a more progressive political band that those who blatantly choose one side and generalize the issues.
You might say, then, that bringing people together is the central reason that the Bottle Rockets play music. But Brian Henneman is way too much of a straight shooter to sign off on that one.
â“I don't know if that's it exactly,â” he says. â“The true answer is that I was a kid who hated sports and couldn't get chicks.... I guess you could say we've somewhat accomplished (bringing people together) as a positive byproduct of liking guitars, wanting to get chicks, and hating sports.â”
Now that's good old-fashioned Midwestern honesty.
WHO: Bottle Rockets w/ Time Lee Band WHEN: Saturday, August 18, 7 p.m. WHERE: The Shed, Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson
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