The Bottle Rockets: Heartland Tales Of Heartbreak

Originally published on August 14, 2011 6:34 pm

The Midwestern country-rock ensemble The Bottle Rockets have been playing together for close to 20 years. Along the way, they selected an audacious nickname for themselves — "The Best Band on the Planet" — which they've worked hard to live up to ever since. Frontman Brian Henneman says he prefers that name to the one some fans have settled on: "America's Greatest Bar Band."

"We were saddled with that because we predominantly played in bars," Henneman tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host David Greene. "But I think we're actually the worst bar band in America, because you have to pay attention to us."

A long attention span is a big help when listening to The Bottle Rockets, whose catalog features lots of winding story-songs, often based around downtrodden, working-class characters. The song "Kerosene" is a case in point.

"It's a story of a family just weren't making it, and didn't really have the money for kerosene, so they put gasoline in the heater of their trailer," Henneman explains. "The rest is history. They went up in flames."

That song and others from across the band's career appear, in stripped-down form, on the new album Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening with the Bottle Rockets.

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DAVID GREENE, host: Time now for music...


GREENE: .and a group that's worked hard to live up to its self-proclaimed nickname, the best band on the planet. These are the Bottle Rockets.


BOTTLE ROCKETS: (Singing) Straight from 12th grade into junior college. Buddy, buddy, buddy, I passed my exam. They're making me a law...

GREENE: Whatever you do, don't call them a bar band. That's a title the band is not very fond of. While the lyrics are simple and straightforward, their songs can rock hard or quietly capture the pain of poverty.


ROCKETS: (Singing) There's a pure perfect world. You see, it tells no lies. It'll burn you down, you try and improvise. If kerosene works...

GREENE: This is from their new live acoustic album called "Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening with the Bottle Rockets." And with me now is the front man of the Bottle Rockets, Brian Henneman. He joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Brian, welcome.

BRIAN HENNEMAN: Hey. Good to be here.

GREENE: You guys, the Bottle Rockets, you were once described as the thinking person's hillbilly bar band.

HENNEMAN: Now, how does that work out?

GREENE: What do you take issue with most, the hillbilly, the bar, which - or both?

HENNEMAN: Well, you know, hillbilly, we're not hillbillies, never have been hillbillies. And bar band, I mean, we were saddled with that simply because we predominantly play in bars. But I think we're probably the worst bar band in America because you have to pay attention to us.


GREENE: Well, whose stories are you telling?

HENNEMAN: Anyone from our area, the Midwest, you know? It's kind of like where we live. It's what we know. It's what we sing about.


ROCKETS: (Singing) I can't do nothin' for myself. My baby's upset says if I don't get better she's gonna break my neck. But I'm sleeping in late. I just say what the heck is this, my dream came true doin' nothing, gettin' a check. I fell down so here I lay, got the workman's comp so everything is okay.

GREENE: When did you start to think about, God, I can tell somebody's personal stories in a song?

HENNEMAN: Well, it kind of came to me by default in that I was in a band that actually had a lead singer and songwriter. He left the band, and we were left with the remainder of the band. And since nobody else would step up to the plate, I ended up doing it, so then I started looking at music a whole different way from a songwriter's standpoint. But I only was able to do it by talking about what I knew about.


ROCKETS: (Singing) Yeah. I'm a day to day guy, got no retirement plan. Working till my body gives out, a small town labor man. I got lucky this time with the right diamond Joe. If this had happened last night, no compensation, no dough.

GREENE: Well, what makes you want to tell the stories of people and workman's comp and hard on their luck and sort of, you know, the everyday stories of Americana?

HENNEMAN: They don't get sung about much.


HENNEMAN: It's kind of a wide open pallet, really. It's usually what gets looked over or it gets - in modern new country, they cartoon it up.

GREENE: And you grew up in the middle - in a small town outside Saint Louis.


GREENE: These stories, do they capture the type of life that you had?

HENNEMAN: There's very little fiction in anything we do. Everything's sort of like a police report of the situation.


GREENE: I want to bring up "Smoking 100s Alone." Sounds like a woman in a pretty sad state.

HENNEMAN: Yup. What's funny is it's one of the only songs we've ever done that is actually fiction.



HENNEMAN: So, yeah. It was like it was a friend of mine came up with the title while we were sitting in a restaurant. He was looking across the table at me and he goes, ooh, she's smoking 100s alone. And I just thought, oh, there's a song title.


ROCKETS: (Singing). Another cup of coffee down the hatch. Another cigarette soon as she finds a match. Feeling more like a loser as each minute drags on. Whoa, she's smoking 100s alone.

GREENE: I'm speaking with Brian Henneman. He's front man for the band Bottle Rockets, and their new record is called "Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening with the Bottle Rockets." And I heard you speaking on the new album before one of the songs, and you said that your parents had a tremendous influence on you. And your mom and dad died in the same year.

HENNEMAN: Right. They died six weeks apart in 1999, which was pretty heavy duty. Looking back on it, I think it was the best way for it to happen. But, yeah, you know, it's like, I've lived with my parents, you know, for longer than a guy should, you know?


GREENE: How long are we talking here, Brian?

HENNEMAN: Being a musician, oh, I was in and out, you know, well through my 20s. So, you know, it was like, I was the slacker in the basement more or less in between traveling road shows. But they're your parents. Of course, they're influential if you, you know, unless they're doing things that drive you away from them, which mine never did.


ROCKETS: (Singing) Mom and Dad, where have you gone? I'm here at your house and I just mowed your lawn. Ah, but nobody's home now but me. I wonder just where you could be.

GREENE: How did your mom and dad influence you, Brian? How do you still see them?

HENNEMAN: They didn't really clamp down on me when I took off in the guitar playing direction. They, you know, let me go ahead and do it. They weren't the kind of parents that were like, well, you have to get a real job. You have to fall back on this or you have to do that. Might have been wise of them to do...


HENNEMAN: ...but they didn't. And when I didn't make enough money to have a home, they let me have one. And they were not musical people at all. So, yeah, just being folks that let me take off on my thing. That was their hugest influence.


GREENE: You've played with some pretty big names. You were in a band called Uncle Tupelo.

HENNEMAN: Well, yes and - yes, I was, and no, I wasn't.


HENNEMAN: I was like the guy that nobody ever really knew what my position was there. So I was like the all-purpose - I was like Country's Bob's all purpose sauce with that band, you know, just...

GREENE: But with a musician like Jeff Tweedy, I mean, it's - I guess I'm wondering now that you're in the Bottle Rockets, you guys have become big - you've become. You're not as commercial, as big as Wilco.


GREENE: I mean, what takes you to the next level if you're trying to get there?

HENNEMAN: It's too late to go to the next level. We're too comfortable where we're at.


HENNEMAN: Why would we want to move now if just everything will just be more of a pain in the butt? So, yeah. No, this is a real awesome comfortable place, and we like it. And by golly, that's our story, and we're sticking to it.

GREENE: I can't let you go without asking you about your guitar.

HENNEMAN: Which one?


GREENE: Well, I heard you have one that's made of trash?

HENNEMAN: Oh, the trash picker. Of course. That's an awesome - I've got a clog(ph) Creston Lee, Burlington, Vermont


HENNEMAN: (Unintelligible) electric instruments, OK?

GREENE: And he made your trash guitar?

HENNEMAN: Oh, yeah. It was a fun project. I had a bunch of spare parts, and I sent it to him.

GREENE: Like spare parts from cars or instruments?

HENNEMAN: No. Just musical instrument parts.


HENNEMAN: And I mailed them to him in a case, and I said: the only rule is you have to use only materials that you were going to throw away anyway. You have to use everything I sent you, and you have to make it fit within this case. Every piece of it is something that was destined for the dumpster. And it turned into a great guitar.


ROCKETS: (Singing) I've been traveling over my...

GREENE: Brian Henneman. He's the lead vocalist and guitarist of the Bottle Rockets. Their latest, called "Not So Loud," comes out on Tuesday. But you can hear a few tracks of it right now at our website Brian Henneman, this has been fun. Take care of that trash guitar. It was good talking to you.

HENNEMAN: Oh, yeah. I treasure my garbage guitar.


GREENE: Thanks so much.

HENNEMAN: Thank you.


ROCKETS: (Singing) Well, it's not I don't love her and the Lord knows that I do. But the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.