Project Announcement, Scope, General Throat-Clearing
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WHO ARE THE BOTTLE ROCKETS, AND WHY DO WE CARE?
Stop me if you’ve heard this, but my friend Chad and I do a podcast. Specifically, a podcast that examines the band Uncle Tupelo by taking a close-ish somewhat-researched look at each of their songs. It’s a hoot (you should listen), and it’s led me to reconnect with a band that was once very important to me but I had drifted away from.
We’re given to digressions (you should try taking a long drive with us some time). But during the course of the show so far (at this writing, we’re three tracks into Uncle Tupelo’s final album), our most common topic of digression has been Brian Henneman, the guitar tech/utility instrumentalist/almost-Uncle-Tupelo-member and his band, the Bottle Rockets.
If I was over the top in my fandom of Uncle Tupelo in my 20s, I was just a shade less fanatical about the Bottle Rockets. Uncle Tupelo seemed, back then, to be unreachable visionaries (time and the close read of We’ve Been Had have changed my opinion on that, although I still think they’re a hell of a band). Henneman’s Bottle Rockets seemed like something else. They were an amazing band, but they seemed like a more attainable type of amazing band. Like, really the best possible Midwestern small-town bar band (there is, of course, an excellent Bottle Rockets song honoring Midwestern small-town bar bands). It’s not that Red Hay, the slavishly Tupeloid band I played bass for back then, had any realistic hope of being as good as the Bottle Rockets, but we could plausibly dream of being maybe 66% as good as them on our best day. That meant something.
So the Bottle Rockets are another alt-country band that I’ve loved for decades, and the project of digging back into Uncle Tupelo has prompted a lot of thought about and listening to them. So there’s one reason for this project. Another: Brian Henneman is a truly rare talent. When we’ve digressed on We’ve Been Had to talk about him, it’s usually in the context of praising some insane piece of instrumental work he added to a song (he quietly carries much of Uncle Tupelo’s seminal March 16-20, 1992 on his back). His guitar work with the Bottle Rockets is similarly stellar; the guy can fucking shred, and that’s worth talking about. So is the way the first two Bottle Rockets albums are produced in a very best possible Midwestern small-town bar band fashion.
But also: as a student of both music and visual art, I value the outsiders. And that’s Henneman (and to be clear: although every role in every band is important, to talk about the Bottle Rockets is mostly to talk about Brian Henneman, with some important exceptions). He’s always existed outside of the wider easier channels of the music industry. He’s talented enough that you could easily imagine him making a good living as a session player in Nashville; as far as that goes, he played lead guitar on Wilco’s first album and could have been a member of that band (thought experiment: imagine what that divergent history would have sounded like three or four albums in). Instead, he’s just kept doing his own thing on his own terms, and seems to have found a measure of success. And I respect the hell out of that, and want to talk about it.
So: this will be an ongoing blog series examining the Bottle Rockets, sort of a written companion piece to We’ve Been Had. I won’t go song by song through their entire catalogue; there are just too damn many Bottle Rockets albums, and there was kind of a rough stretch. But I’ll go song by song through the first trio of ass-kicking albums, and then a mix of talking about single songs or groups of songs or entire albums later on. Some of these entries will be long; some’ll be a paragraph. I imagine there’ll be a lot of autobiography seeping its way in. I make no promises on an update schedule; I can’t even promise for sure that I’ll finish, but I sure as hell mean to try. As the Henneman-adjacent Jeff Tweedy once said in a song whose title is a chewing tobacco joke, we’ll get there eventually.
Right on. Welcome aboard! Next stop: Early in the Morning.