A short drive down from St. Louis on Interstate 55, Festus, Missouri, sits hard against the Mississippi River. It's an all-American town, smack in the middle of America and almost indistinguishable from its sister burg -- Crystal City, the hometown of former basketball star and current presidential candidate Bill Bradley.
"Oh, yeah, they're proud as hell of him," says Bottle Rockets singer-guitarist Brian Henneman. "Everyone talks about him all the time."
It's a bit surprising, considering Bradley left the area to spend four years in Princeton, New Jersey, two years in Oxford, England, 11 seasons with the New York Knicks, 18 years as U.S. senator from New Jersey, and three more as a former senator trying to relocate to Washington, D.C.
"Bradley has not lived here for 40 years or so," Henneman adds. "But people still regard him as being from here. That's how they are about you. Except our band. They couldn't care less about us. Most folks, I think, don't know who we are."
The Bottle Rockets are hoping they make more progress toward their goal than Bradley did in the Iowa caucuses. Their latest album, Brand New Year, is a straightforward rock record, very different from the country-fried rock of earlier releases. Henneman insists this isn't a deliberate attempt to take the band from its cult appeal into a more MTV-friendly audience.
"Actually, I don't think we have moved in a new direction," Henneman says. "We always sounded like this live anyway. We never took our fiddle player or a steel guitar with us on tour. I figured, if this is what we are, why not make an album like that for a change?"
Why not, indeed? Brand New Year, released last August, caught a lot of fans and critics off-guard -- conditioned as they were to the bluegrass-meets-British Invasion sound of their previous two discs (three, if you count 1998's collection of outtakes, Leftovers). Since their founding in '92, the Bottle Rockets had been in the vanguard of the alternative country movement by melding banjos, mandolins, and steel guitars with lyrics far more to the point than the drivel coming out of Nashville's Tin Pan Alley.
Needless to say, not everyone was happy with the new sound that Henneman, singer-guitarist Tom Parr, drummer Mark Ortmann, and new bass player Robert Kearns have delivered.
"It took us awhile to get used to it, too," Henneman says, "but it turned out pretty good. The trick is to explore something new, but still sound unmistakably like the Bottle Rockets."
Anyone who reads the lyrics will know the Bottle Rockets are still the Bottle Rockets. The twang is gone, but the working-class sensibilities that were always the bedrock of the band's appeal are as present as ever. Songs about the daily life of the common folks from Festus give the band a literacy that coexists just fine with the punch-in-the-gut attitude of the music.
Lyrics, in fact, have always been important for Henneman, from as far back as his high school days in the late '70s, when he was doing his damnedest to imitate his guitar heroes.
"The bands that everyone was copying in Festus back then were the ones they call classic rock today -- Aerosmith, Foghat, Boston, and Kiss," Henneman says. "That was what you could find in Festus. But later, I got into less well-known bands, like Thin Lizzy, that wrote better lyrics. Of course, I had to go into St. Louis to find Thin Lizzy albums. No one in Festus ever heard of them."
Then there were the country influences.
"I felt closer to country," he says. "I sounded like an idiot trying to sing about the same things Foghat was singing about. So we tried to write about what we knew."
The Bottle Rockets still do that. Their songs are packed with stories about the people who drive trucks for a living, whose social lives revolve around the corner bar, and whose ideas of working out are twice-a-week bowling nights. Mundane? The Bottle Rockets' self-deprecating humor keeps things from becoming sterile.
Check out "Helpless," on which the narrator proudly proclaims that he manages to survive without the technological toys that everyone is supposed to own these days. Listen to the sarcasm of "White Boy Blues," with its clueless yuppie talking about how cool he is by playing the music of Muddy Waters and Elmore James on his $10,000 guitar. Who cannot love and relate to lines like "Oh my God, the bar's on fire! Somebody save the beer!" And how about "Nancy Sinatra," a hymn to schoolboy crushes with a ZZ Top-style riff? Okay, maybe for you it was Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek, Elle MacPherson, or Mariah Carey. Go-go boots, bikinis, or pierced navels -- it's always been the same.
The album's link to the group's hard country days is "Love Like a Truck," both for its old-time feel -- before country music became blow-dried -- and its blue-collar subject matter. Everything else is good old American rock and roll.
"It's strange, but I was never into the country-rock bands of the '70s," Henneman explains. "I bought the Flying Burrito Brothers in their Gram Parsons era, but that introduced me to Merle Haggard, who sounded better to me. But if there's a country influence for us, it's Neil Young. The guy can do country and still be one of the best rock guitarists. That's the kind of versatility we want.
"This latest album is our Reactor," says Henneman, referring to Young's relentlessly ax-driven effort from 1981.
So if Bradley can right his political ship, will the Bottle Rockets have a gig at the inauguration a year from now? If Jimmy Carter could have the Allman Brothers, why not the Bottle Rockets for Dollar Bill? After wasting months of his life playing nice with lobbyists and self-serving fat-cat contributors, you have to figure he would be ready to party with some real Americans.
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