What sneaky musical misanthrope came along behind our backs and took the first two pivotal Bottle Rockets albums out of print? The answer to that rhetorical question isn’t important, but it remains a conundrum how a few of the finest and most influential alt-country releases from the ’90s were unceremoniously pulled from circulation.
Neither 1993’s Bottle Rockets debut nor The Brooklyn Side follow-up a year later were commercially successful. But the musicians who were exposed to them and borrowed attitude, songwriting or musical insight are some of the more recognizable in the alt-country genre. Artists that appear often in this magazine such as Patterson Hood, Jason Ringenberg, Shelby Lynne, Marshall Crenshaw, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and James McMurtry lend quotes to that effect in the sumptuous 40-page book that accompanies this important double disc resurrection … and then some … of these seminal works.
Formed in the musical nowhere land of Festus, Missouri out of the dissolution of some earlier bands, most notably Chicken Truck – six of whose tunes appear as bonuses here – singer/songwriter/frontman Brian Henneman used his connection as guitar tech to Uncle Tupelo to learn from the best. Back in the early ’90s, the alt-country/Americana genre was in its infancy with only Jason and the Scorchers making noise by mixing country and folk with a punk attitude and amps cranked to 11.
The opening tracks to the Bottle Rockets’ self-titled debut speak to the yin and yang that followed through their career. Kicking off with Henneman playing solo banjo for a Celtic influenced ballad “Early In The Morning,” then exploding with guns and guitars blazing on “Gas Girl,” one minute and fifty four pulverizing seconds of pure adrenaline fueled intensity about the singer’s love/stalker infatuation with the titular gas station attendant. It was the beginning of the group’s innate ability to shift from gritty, acoustic fare, soon to mature on their next album’s moving “Welfare Music,” to the full throttle, speed limit breaking “Radar Gun.” Those songs have become Bottle Rockets staples and remain in their set to this day.
But beyond the seemingly effortless melodies and Henneman’s unaffected flinty voice is the songwriter’s intuitive lyrical ability to capture the blue collar lives of the people he knows well. He loves these working-class folks, the ones he warns not to buy that “1000 Dollar Car” like he did, and who feel “Stuck In A Rut,” like he does. He never denigrates or looks down on them like he does the poseur chick who ignores him for loving country music in “Idiot’s Revenge.” Here he takes solace in knowing she’ll never hear the song which itself is a hot wired Johnny Cash gallop with rich, twangy guitar picking and driving train-time drums.
As a reissue, credit the always dependable Bloodshot for exceeding expectations. The sound on these remasters crackles, revealing musical and lyrical nuances along with spotlighting how critical Mark Ortmann’s in-the-pocket drumming is to the vibe. The project is coordinated by Eric Ambel whose production of The Brooklyn Side tightened up the raw yet riveting approach of the band’s debut. A hefty 19 live, demo, and previously unreleased tracks not only bolster the playing time, but provide insight into how the Bottle Rockets’ sound progressed and matured over these two formative years. Both are vital, uncompromising and timeless works, as riveting today as when they planted their roots country rock seeds two decades ago.