BY JOHN SCHACHT
It’s easy to overlook the socio-political backdrop that fueled a lot of the best country rock of the ‘90s. The genre’s heyday occurred on Bill Clinton’s watch, and through the prism of the Bush/Cheney years afterward is often remembered as a liberal paradise.
But it wasn’t a progressive’s idyll by a long shot. Clinton the Liberal dismantled the safety net in his own way, legitimizing the very idea that it was broken in the first place. In that way, he continued the work started by Reagan and Bush the First: overhauling a welfare system that barely needed tweaking (how’d that Wall Street reform work, Bill?), sticking life-long education loan-debt on students through bankruptcy law changes, and, most perniciously, gutting the nation’s industrial heritage through NAFTA. Oh, yeah, he killed a retarded guy in Arkansas just to appear tough on crime and become president. Pretty nasty tell, frankly.
Next to that Ricky Ray Rector, hardest hit was the heartland, where Festus, Missouri’s The Bottle Rockets’ hail from. The band took as its songwriting mill-works the dying industry towns and rural flight and collapse that they’d watched daily all around them. That was especially true of their eponymous 1993 debut and its Atlantic Records’ follow-up the next year, The Brooklyn Side. Long out-of-print, both have been reissued by Bloodshot in a 46-track double-package that includes plenty of musical extras and a handsome 40-page tribute and liner notes pamphlet.
Originally formed by singer/guitarist Brian Henneman and brothers Bob and Tom Parr, the trio was joined by drummer Mark Ortmann and played under the name Chicken Truck in the late ‘80s. The Parrs quit and Ortmann went to Nashville to become a session musician, leaving Henneman as guitar tech/roadie for his friends Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn, who became Uncle Tupelo and soon signed a record deal. Their manager, Tony Margherita, knew first-hand that Henneman had the goods, and offered him help. Soon Henneman re-formed his old band with Ortmann on drums, Tom Ray on guitar, and Robert Kearns on bass, renaming the outfit the Bottle Rockets.
Like Uncle Tupelo, there are overt socio-political moments on both LPs to remind us, like canaries in coalmines, what was coming down the road. Just for starters, there’s “Welfare Music,” the scalding repudiation of the notion that assistance recipients are on the government gravy train. There’s also the anti-suburban sprawl rocker “Manhattan Countryside,” and “Wave That Flag,” a damnation of rebel flag-wavers. The latter works perfectly as a bookend to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” only maybe even more so given that it’s coming from a state with as complicated and nasty a relationship with slavery as Missouri.
But the strength of the band’s first two LPs was their portrayal of the human toll these abstract economic and political movements take on working men and women. The characters in these songs aren’t held up as saints, but their trials are often not of their own making. “Kerosene” chronicles the life-and-death of a trailer-dweller who learns the hard way the difference between (cheaper) gasoline and kerosene, but the Bottle Rockets do so in heart-breaking, judgment-free fashion. “Get Down River,” a true country gem featured here in a live radio studio version extra, rivals Son Volt’s “Tear-Stained Eye” for the best song about disastrous Midwest flooding you’ll ever hear. The Crazy Horse-like “Lonely Cowboy” connects the lone rig-hauler with his Wild West roaming ancestors, lamenting the fact that he was born 100 years too late.
But like any good artist depicting what they actually see, rather than what they want to see, the Bottle Rockets aren’t taking ideological sides — contrast the working man’s lament of the gritty rocker “1,000 Dollar Car” with the extra “Building Chryslers,” a scathing portrayal of those assembly line workers whose union job security has turned them into greedy sloths. Then there’s the Thin Lizzy-like “Radar Gun,” the tale of a local deputy drunk on the power of his revenue generator. He comes off more criminal than protector, and clearly isn’t thinking too hard about the havoc his tickets wreak in the lives of the poverty-ridden bastards who collect them. The Bottle Rockets had gallows humor about all this, but portioned it out where appropriate. Just in case you’re wondering, for example, there’s nothing remotely NYC-borough cool about The Brooklyn Side (taken from a bowling term, actually and un-ironically) — just ask the jaded, twang-hating hipster getting lambasted over the rockabilly of “Idiot’s Revenge.”
Drinking may be the most obvious escape for these down-and-outers, but the Bottle Rockets’ sober reflections makes it clear it’s not the only vice people turn to for load-lightening. The grunge-y “Sunday Sports,” with its protagonist in boxer shorts forgetting about “the wife and kids and selling auto parts,” brings to life the old saw — “the opiate of the masses” — about the new Sunday religion. Even with the topic of love and its blinding promise, the Bottle Rockets add depth to the matter. The slinky “Pot of Gold” isn’t about money, but about the rush requited love is like. And with pedal steel and fiddle lighting the way, “Queen Of the World” waltzes boozily into your heart; love certainly is having to say you’re sorry, but when “any fool can that you’re queen of the world,” it makes it a bit easier. On the other hand, the classic honky tonk of “Hey, Moon” makes it clear that love’s got a dark and lonely side, too.
Twenty years later, you come away impressed by the unfaltering directness of the Bottle Rockets’ vision as well as the band’s tightness on record. The Brooklyn Side is the more sophisticated sounding record — though the band still sounds plenty gutsy, there’s major label polish here. (The difference isn’t Let It Be versus Don’t Tell a Soul polish, but it’s noticeable.) But that’s not a bad thing, largely because the songwriting is just as tight as on the rough-and-tumble debut.
The extras are plentiful and essential for any completist, though they’ve all been out there in the internet ether for years. Disc 1 includes Henneman’s demos done with Uncle Tupelo – for anyone familiar with the Mississippi Nights bootlegs, you’ll already know how well these acts sounded together. Even more crucial are the six 1989 Chicken Truck tracks from the early incarnation of the band. Many of these show up later on the two LPs, but these raw versions emphasize the band’s southern rock, Thin Lizzy, and early ZZ Top roots, especially in the vital guitar attack of Henneman and Ray. Disc’s 2 extras are fewer, but also include definite keepers.
These two LPs still sound vital two decades later, just as the copious musician tributes and journalist essays in the accompanying pamphlet declare. Part of that comes from the fact that country rock never really goes out of style because, along with blues, it forms one of the great bi-racial strains of the music’s melting pot DNA. But it also has to do with the Bottle Rockets’ no-nonsense approach to rock & roll, and the unflinching honesty that runs through every lyric and note.
These two LPs represent the height of the band’s output, a snapshot of life in the 1990s when the country turned its back on large swaths of its core. We needed bands like the Bottle Rockets to remind us of what we were losing; we could use them again.
DOWNLOAD: “Gas Girl” “Kerosene” “Got What I Wanted” “Lonely Cowboy” “Welfare Music” “Gravity Falls” “I’ll Be Coming Around” “Idiot’s Revenge” “Get Down River”