A Taco Bell just outside St. Louis might seem like an odd place for a life-altering epiphany, but for the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman that's just where it happened.
"It was just a bizarre scene, man. I was sitting there eating my frito burrito or whatever the hell it was. The radio was going and they had just played a David Bowie song, 'Young Americans' -- and then right after that 'I'll Be Comin' Around' comes on."
It was a cruel shock hearing one of his own songs played on the radio as he sat there eating -- dirty, sweaty and on a break from his job making tee shirts. The terrific irony of the situation was a welcome slap in the face for Henneman. "I was just sitting there thinking, the way I was looking that day on my lunch break from work, if I would have stood up in that Taco Bell and tried to explain that it was me singing on the radio, they would have probably called the police or something."
It was then that Henneman realized how trivial the indignities and misfortune of the last year had been. At that moment, Henneman understood more than ever that label deals, record distribution and album sales were completely inconsequential in the face of what really mattered -- making music.
Brian Henneman spent 1997 in a dizzying state of flux. It had been just a few years earlier that the Bottle Rockets had released their self-titled indie debut, following it up with a brilliant sophomore effort, The Brooklyn Side. The album was snapped up and rereleased on Tag Records, a new imprint of Atlantic.
The album went on to spawn a minor radio hit, "Radar Gun," and earn the band reams of praise for its insightful songs about down-on-their-luck losers and the perils of small-town life. It seemed a good start, but things began to turn sour when Tag folded and was absorbed by Atlantic.
The group recorded its third album, 24 Hours a Day, but had to wait almost a year before it saw the light of day. When the label finally consented to put it out, it was only after a string of delays and false starts that ensured that the record would die an ignominious death.
Despite all this, the group soldiered on -- thanks to a solid fan base and hard-won critical acclaim. The band even earned a coveted spot opening for John Fogerty on his sold-out comeback tour. "The week the record came out was the same week we got the John Fogerty tour. There was not one ad taken out anywhere to say that the album was released, let alone say that we were on the tour," recalls Henneman from his Festus, Missouri, home. "They wouldn't even sell us any CDs to sell at the shows. The whole thing was as ridiculous as government works."
Like one of the hard-luck characters in his songs, Henneman and the band had the added misfortune of releasing their album in the midst of the nationwide UPS strike, which meant that most stores didn't even get it until weeks after its release, if at all. "We didn't even see what the album looked like until we were out on the road with Fogerty and got to Fresno, California, and found it in a record store there," remembers Henneman.
Not long after, the group parted ways with the label, embittered by the fact that the public had not even been given a real opportunity to hear what was by far their finest and most mature effort. After all that, Henneman was left without a record deal, back home and stuck doing manual labor when he had his lunchtime revelation.
Brian Henneman is not one to quit so easily. His rough appearance, which some have likened to a redneck Muppet, tells at least that much. After the Tag/Atlantic debacle, Henneman regrouped, found an interested label (Doolittle Records) and released Leftovers, an album of unused tracks from the 24 Hours a Day sessions. The band also appeared on River of Song, a PBS anthology celebrating the music of the Mississippi. Finally, the group returned to the studio for the first time in more than three years to begin work on Brand New Year, their fourth and most strident record to date.
The group again recorded with longtime producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel. Henneman and the band elected to work with Ambel despite pressure from the record company to get someone else behind the board. "They would have liked us to have used somebody else, I think. But as far as I'm concerned, he's like the fifth member of the band. He's George Martin and we're his low-budget Beatles. We're very cheap versions of that."
The group's long-standing association with Ambel has served them well. Ambel's deft sonic touches and firm production skills have helped the group create a style that successfully blurs the line between country-folk and Southern boogie rock.
The most surprising and immediately noticeable aspect of Brand New Year is that the band has almost completely stripped away the country element from its sound, leaving behind an almost unbroken surge of songs with an aggressive, classic-rock quality in the vein of ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It's something Henneman attributes to the sheer exuberance of being able to record after such a long and difficult absence.
"We were just so happy to be in the studio again. It had been like three years," recalls Henneman. "We were just so excited, we kept playing one rock song after the other, and by the time we stopped, we had like 14 of them -- a whole album's worth."
Henneman realizes that a change in the band's sound may alienate some fans and critics, and he's not altogether unhappy with that possibility. "Maybe subconsciously we are trying to get some bad stuff going," says Henneman. "If everybody in the world is liking what you're doing, man, that sucks. You'd be Garth Brooks. We've taken pretty much all the country out of it now to see if someone will actually hate it."
Although they might not hate it, it's easy to see how some fans might be disappointed, or at least put off initially, by the group's change in direction. A bigger problem with the album is that it relies on a number of sustained, heavier-sounding rock numbers without any of the band's sprite twang to break those songs up. The unintended side effect is that the record bogs down -- sounding monotonous at times. That isn't to say that Brand New Year isn't a good record, as it certainly has more than its share of fine moments.
"Let Me Know" is a Replacements Pleased to Meet Me-era-sounding treasure that has Henneman out-Westerberging Paul Westerberg (an easy thing to do these days). On "Gotta Get Up," Henneman refuses to be sedated with a pulsating Ramones-style rocker that pays homage to a band he's long considered to be a seminal influence. Even the lyric of the song apes the group's fervent simplicity ("I gotta get up/Gotta go to work/Then I come home/'cause I gotta go to bed").
The album finds Henneman in good lyrical form with the clever "White Boy Blues" -- a send-up of yuppies who ache to be Stevie Ray Vaughan ("He knows his licks/So don't you laugh/His beat to shit Strat/Cost him a grand and a half"). While "Helpless" is a crunchy Luddite anthem in the making ("I don't ever use a fax machine/The mailbox's worked so far/I still wait to make phone calls/Till I get out of my car").
Upon deeper inspection, it's not entirely fair to say the band has betrayed all its country influences. "Dead Dog Memories" is a muscular shuffle that finds the group mining familiar territory, while "Love Like a Truck" is another Henneman auto-as-life metaphor that recalls 1995's "$1,000 Car."
However, songs like the title track (done twice on the record -- once as a cacophonous midset rocker and later as the album's acoustic closer) and "Alone in Bad Company" demonstrate the band's penchant for engaging in the kind of over-the-top rock bombast that usually falls flat. In the end, Brand New Year is only disappointing in that it falls short of the heights of 24 Hours a Day, and, to a lesser extent, The Brooklyn Side.
Reportedly, the Bottle Rockets' label wasn't especially pleased with the record the band had delivered. During March's South by Southwest conference, the band was noticeably absent from the Doolittle Records party. Although there was no official reason given, the rumor was that it was the result of some friction between the band and the label over the album, which one Doolittle rep had deemed "unreleasable."
Despite the Austin scuttlebutt, the group's current relationship with Doolittle (a subsidiary of another major label giant, Uni-gram) seems far more stable than the final confused months of their Atlantic days. At the very least, the band will be making records for a long time. "We're actually supposed to make five more records for them. But I don't know if I'll be alive by then," jokes Henneman.
Henneman proposes another possible solution as a way to fulfill the contract. "We'll just put out a five-CD box set as our next album and just retire."
Regardless of how many more records the Bottle Rockets make, it seems the group has taken a definite (and seemingly permanent) step away from their well-defined alternative-country sound. The band's stylistic transformation is part of a larger trend as other prominent alt-country groups, including Wilco and the Jayhawks, have gone in different musical directions with their most recent efforts.
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Still, Henneman doesn't think the movement has really died. "It's gone back underground. It's like locusts," says Henneman with a laugh. "I've found that the excitement for country rock or whatever comes about every decade. The music is always there, it never goes away.
"New generations of writers come around and discover it and think they're onto something really hot and new. Then the record companies get excited about it, they sign it all up, it doesn't sell anything and then it goes back underground again."
The fact that none of the bands linked to the alt-country movement has broken out commercially doesn't faze Henneman either. For someone as closely associated with the genre -- from his days in the early St. Louis scene as a member of Chicken Trick to his stint in the early '90s as a utility sideman for Uncle Tupelo -- Henneman is actually glad that it never got saddled with big-time commercial success and the inevitable gutterization that follows. "I think it would have been a drag if somebody would have gotten a hit with it. Say if Wilco would have gotten huge, it would have been really sick to watch the record companies and what they would have tried to do," says Henneman. "I think I would have been embarrassed with what would have come out of that."
Henneman holds a firm belief about the cyclical nature of country-rock, alt-country, Americana -- regardless of what tag is applied to it. He jokes about how one day a future generation of bands may look to him as a pioneer. "Who knows? Next time, maybe the next generation of alternative country groups will hit it really big," says Henneman. "Then I'll be the old grizzled guy that somebody will have sing on their album for a little legitimacy."