He is both disarming and accessible and has a way of making you feel immediately comfortable. It’s the same kind of feel-good vibe that comes through in the band’s music.
On August 19, The Bottle Rockets will be playing River Splash, followed the next night by their make-up date at The Pageant, opening for Lucinda Williams. The original date was back in April. But Williams’ mother passed away a few days prior to the show and the remaining dates on the tour were canceled. Since that time, the band—Brian Henneman, Mark Ortmann, Robert Kearns and John Horton—have played SXSW, changed booking agents, and spent much of the spring and summer playing a handful of other dates, working on new songs, and dabbling in ’70’s-era country covers with a side project called Diesel Island. Still, Henneman and Ortmann found some time to fill me in on what the last year’s been like for the band.
Even though it’s the first time we’ve ever spoken to one another, talking with Henneman is like catching up with a long-lost high school buddy or running into a guy you used to work with. His voice on the other end of the phone has an inviting “crack open a beer and sit a spell” tone to it. He is both disarming and accessible and has a way of making you feel immediately comfortable. It’s the same kind of feel-good vibe that comes through in the band’s music.
Because of the cancellation of dates in support of Williams, these will be the band’s first shows in St. Louis since Halloween of last year, when they played the Duck Room in support of their then newly released album Blue Sky. It was the band’s first album of new material in four years. Henneman lost both his parents in 1999 and, after having toured regularly for seven straight years, the band decided to take an indefinite hiatus. “You can’t be on the road and trying to deal with lawyers and insurance people,” says Henneman. The band had fulfilled their contractual obligations with their label and the break seemed to come at the right time. But even though they were walking away from the music business, they were not walking away from each other. The Bottle Rockets were still very much a band and were still writing songs during that time.
“It’s one of those totally weird family connection stories,” says Henneman of how Blue Sky came to be produced by Warren Haynes, guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band and leader of his own group, Gov’t Mule. It seems that Haynes’ brother saw the band in Asheville, North Carolina, a few years back and raved about them to Warren. A couple of years later when Haynes’ wife (and Gov’t Mule manager), Stephanie Scamardo was looking to take on another band, Haynes suggested the Bottle Rockets. After completing some demos of songs written during the band’s break, Henneman sent them to Scamardo, who played them for Haynes, who liked them enough to want to make them into an album. And thus, Blue Sky was born.
Haynes enlisted the help of legendary engineer Michael Barbiero, and before the band knew it, they were in the studio. To hear Henneman tell it, it was exciting, but also a bit scary. Although the band had label interest, they were technically going into the studio without one. And the band wasn’t sure how they were going to pay for the record. But Haynes’ confidence in both the songs and the band ran deep. He and Barbiero were willing to invest their own time and money to get Blue Sky made. It may have seemed like a gamble at the time, but after shopping the completed tracks six different labels came knocking on the Bottle Rockets’ door. After reviewing their options, Blue Sky was released on Sanctuary Records, who offered the band enough to more than cover reimbursing Haynes and Barbiero, as well as a deal for future albums.
The Bottle Rockets’ music is routinely labeled “Americana” or “alternative country.” And while they are veterans of the rock/country genre, they can also be purely either one at any given time. Once called “AC/DC meets Hank Williams,” Henneman feels that John Prine and Crazy Horse, two of his biggest influences, would be a more accurate description of the Bottle Rockets. Of Prine, he says, “It’s a comparison I wish came up more often.” And the longer the Bottle Rockets are around, the more likely it will. Their songwriting is emerging as another strength in an already strong band. But that fact is, it’s often overshadowed by the just plain good-time enjoyment of listening to their music. They are so associated with, and loved for, being a great live band, people tend to overlook the content of the songs themselves.
There is also another point to be made about the Bottle Rockets, which is that they are very much a band’s band: still somewhat undiscovered by the masses, yet known and respected by other musicians (as evidenced by the fact that a guitar monster like Haynes is a big enough fan to take Blue Sky and run with it). I ask Henneman about this and he agrees. “It’s true. But unfortunately, those guys in other bands always find a way to get the CDs for free.”
Also look for the Bottle Rockets on an upcoming tribute album to Check Berry to be released on Undertow Records and a return to the Pageant for a live date in September.