The Bottle Rockets are a band from East St Louis/Southwestern Illinois basically Missouri. These guys and Uncle Tupelo all formed within 30-40 miles of each other and all played on each other’s albums as well. Bottle Rockets are Brian Henneman (guitar and vocals), Mark Ortmann (drums), John Horton (join in 2003 guitar), and Keith Voegele (joined in 2005 bass, vocals). This is the current line-up, and while the line- up may have changed over these many years the songs and story- telling have not. With nearly thirty years of touring and albums under their belt these guys have worn their hearts on their sleeves and never had a problem saying it honestly. When I first heard them I was about 15 and my older brother was trying to get me into them and Uncle Tupelo, but me being a staunch metal head I said, “I don’t listen to country” turned my head and stared out the window pretending like I didn’t like what I was hearing, and realizing that I really did love this stuff. I wasn’t much for labels, never have been, they were calling it “alt country” whatever that means I just thought it was rock and roll with a huge a folk influence, check out, “Welfare Music,” and you can see they have no problem with getting loud.
I wanted to do this review of some of the hardest working guys in music who are now like cult icons, true troubadours of Americana and folk music because this is what I grew up on. Between them, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco I probably would never have heard Woody, probably still would have it would have taken longer though.
To say they changed my life would be an understatement, but we can go with that. Their music is gritty at times and soothing, their lyrics honest and raw which is how we all try to write. Brian Henneman put it simply in a PBS Documentary called “The Mississippi River of Song: The Grassroots of American Music.” The series was narrated by Ani DiFranco and Brian says that he and the band are, “reporters from the heartland” writing stories about their friends. For anyone doing something that you love, that’s why you do it for the love. Sure the notoriety is great, the money too, but that’s not everything. Sometimes you even piss it away for whatever reason you are dealing with. Staying true to your friends, well ain’t that what it is all about at least in a small way? The Bottle Rockets though have been all over the world and played many a different place I have had the pleasure of seeing them in Chicago and in Northern Kentucky, but the greatest pleasure was a house show in Columbus, OH that I will never forget. It was cold-ish, and it was myself, Ian Mathieu (Buffalo Wabs & The Price Hill Hustle), and Ben Knight (Ben Knight and The Welldiggers), we sat in this lady’s living room on Buckeye Lake I believe, and they played every song. One of the most intimate shows I have ever been to and one of the most rewarding, because between breaks to have a smoke with Brian Henneman and talk about Willie Nelson and Guy Clark and the songs and their personalities was cool. It was cool to see somebody not so overly famous (in their own head) to not give us the time of day or B.S. us.
The Bottle Rockets can be raucous and can be honest. The one thing they are not is phony or disingenuous. From the early 90’s until now, and have no plans on stopping anytime soon. These guys are the real deal and have been for nearly thirty years. Songs any honest working person can understand or a song about a cop having fun with his radar gun, the list is endless. “If Kerosene works why not gasoline…” another great song a song about just setting fire to the whole damn thing because it’s just too damn much (that’s just my opinion.) The library and catalogue of tunes is nearly endless with these guys, and they do it well and they seemingly love to do it.
One thing from the house show I remember is Brian and the guys saying we love these more because we get to interact with you all. I didn’t have a chance to interview them. I have no notes. This was all done from the experience(s) I have had with the band. Myself and my younger brother and our best friends the four of us would all take this drive and we have done this… I don’t even know how many times now, but we would drive from Chicago to St. Louis on interstate 55 South and then back all the while listening to our heroes. Our Bottle Rockets, our UT, our Wilco, and it was through these drives and through these songs that at least for me, I realized how much bigger and grander the world really is.
You can see the Bottle Rockets this Saturday night down in Friendship, IN at The Whispering Beard Folk Festival closing out the night. They are one of many not too miss this year. Tickets and camping are still available at whisperingbeard.com or through bottlerocketsmusic.com, at least for tickets that is.