Until late last year, the Bottle Rockets' career had proved to be just as combustible as their name. Their last release, 1999's Brand New Year (Doolittle/Universal), had sporadic moments of brilliance, but its shiny hard rock licks and greasy power-boogie jams couldn't hide the uneven songwriting and production. The group was warring with Doolittle (its third label in less than a decade), which was pushing for a more radio-friendly sound. And before that, the Rockets had been picked up and summarily dropped by Atlantic, which had more or less ignored them anyway. "We were bound and determined to sign with every bad label in America," singer-guitarist Brian Henneman says dryly.
Burned out and bummed out, the Rockets faced an uncertain future. Two years after the release of Brand New Year, the Festus, Missouri natives had about half an album's worth of new songs, but no record deal and no real direction. Then, suddenly last summer, inspiration struck.
"I was sitting on the porch with Tom [Parr], our guitarist, and we were bitching about all the tribute albums that had come out," Henneman recalls. "We were like 'Where's Doug Sahm's?' We're waiting, waiting, waiting, and it never happened.
"Then we realized, holy crap, if they did make a Doug Sahm tribute album, they'd never ask us to be on it, because our love of Doug is pretty stealthy; you couldn't really tell that he was one of our top five influences. So we thought, well, maybe we could do it. Of course, we'd been drinking."
A couple of nights later, Henneman recounted the drunken conversation on the porch to drummer Mark Ortmann, who immediately ran with the idea. "Mark is the guy in the band who makes shit happen," Henneman explains. "We would have been content to just laugh it off, but then [he] started making phone calls. The amazing part of this whole deal is that from the time we dreamed it up to the time we completed it and turned it in was a month and a half. That includes securing the record deal. By record-industry standards, that's like being shot out of a slingshot."
Bloodshot Records released Songs of Sahm on February 19. Despite its speedy turnaround, the album sounds as if the band lingered over it for years. Recorded and mixed by Lou Whitney in his Springfield, Missouri studio, the 13 tracks see the Rockets shift deftly from effervescent Tex-Mex shuffles to cosmic-cowboy meanderings, Southern-fried roots rock, and lysergic country-blues. Henneman has never sung better than he does on the majestic Dixie-soul anthem "At the Crossroads," his plaintive growl dipping and curling around Robert Kearns's stately Wurlitzer. And who would have ever imagined that the Bottle Rockets -- hitherto known for their John Prine-meets-Lynyrd Skynyrd blue-collar roots rock -- would make use of a clarinet, as they do on the psychedelic freakout "Song of Everything"? Thus the Rockets reveal not only a genuine love for Sahm's music on this disc, but an experimental ease, an inspired looseness that captures the spirit of the songs without copying them.
Too many tribute albums degenerate into rank one-upmanship, as the participants fall all over themselves trying to improve on or update the originals. On Songs of Sahm, the Bottle Rockets just played the songs the way they remembered them, basing their renditions on a 20-year love affair with Sahm's music. "We weren't trying to reinvent the songs," Ortmann says.
"It was just 'Let's pick our favorite songs and do them like we wrote them,'" Henneman adds. "And as far as I'm concerned, if you don't like Doug's songs, you can kiss my ass."
Although Sahm is obviously the album's inspiration, the band also has Scott Taylor, Ortmann's high school English teacher, to thank. Without Taylor -- a fixture on St. Louis's alt-country scene who turned the Bottle Rockets on to Sahm's music and later wrote some of the group's best lyrics -- the late-'80s Midwestern alt-country phenomenon might have taken a decidedly different course. "Scott just opened our ears," Ortmann says. "We were basically raised on classic rock and maybe some country as well. He played the Replacements' 'Bastards of Young' -- he freed my mind to music that wasn't on the radio."
"Scott came to town in 1988, when we got our first gig in St. Louis, opening up for Uncle Tupelo," Henneman recalls. "I think at our first show ever, we played Sahm's 'She's About a Mover.' Uncle Tupelo at that time were all about the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, that kind of stuff. They were like 'Hey, what's that song?', and the next thing you know, Scott's making Jeff Tweedy a tape. Jay [Farrar] was really influenced by his tapes too. Scott Taylor, I think, is the most influential roots rocker there is."
Well, at least one of them. Ortmann and Henneman both vividly remember the first time they met Sahm, at a concert in Nashville. (Henneman still carries the ticket stub, dated April 7, 1992, in his wallet.) "I was so thrilled, I pretty much was about to poop my pants," Henneman says. "In fact, so was he. We walked into the club, and then, all of a sudden, my idol walked right in front of me and said, 'Man, I've got to take a shit!'"
"It was the best show, absolutely fantastic," Ortmann adds. "The club held maybe 1,000 people, but when we got there, it was just this sea of folding chairs and a handful of people at the back of the bar."
"I think [Mark, Jay, and I] were the only people who actually bought tickets," Henneman says. "It was mostly guest-list people from Warner Bros. The three of us stood front-row center; everybody else just stayed by the bar."
Of course, Henneman didn't know at the time that Sahm had only seven years left to live. The Bottle Rockets frontman just stood in front of the stage, bellowing out requests. He fingers his ticket stub and reminisces: "The thing I loved about his records was, they just sounded like the guy was having the frigging time of his life. He was like 'Fuck the music business -- I'm playing music!' On Songs of Sahm, we were trying to be that cool. Making the album was a reaffirmation: 'Fuck! We're making music! What's cooler than that?'"
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