Our FORGOTTEN ARTISTS series isn’t so much about bands and singers who’re no longer with us or who have completely disappeared from the scene. The core idea of this series is to remind our readers of bands that may have slipped from memory or to introduce them to an artist they may have missed when they first emerged.
The Bottle Rockets are the perfect example of an outfit that blazed brightly for a brief period but were always about the music, not the spotlight. As a result, they’ve built a near thirty-year career that’s been largely immune to the vaguaries of fashion and perceived commercial success. Over that time the band has released a string of albums, eleven in total, with 2018’s ‘Bit Logic’ being the most recent. All have sold steadily without setting the world on fire – except for their 1994 release ‘The Brooklyn Side’, their second album and the one that brought the full force of the media to bear on them.
When it was released, ‘The Brooklyn Side’ attracted a significant amount of critical acclaim, lauded for the gritty, blue-collar reality of frontman, singer and songwriter Brian Henneman’s songs about life in small-town America and for the solid musicality of the band, in particular the tight, “in-the-pocket” style of drummer Mark Ortmann. The album seemed to catch the zeitgeist of the time, but this was no posturing on the part of the band. The Bottle Rockets have always been about the common experiences of the everyman and their strong social commentary reflects the American folk tradition the band members grew up with, forming a direct link back to earlier socially aware American songwriters like Dylan and Woody Guthrie. The media attention they received in the wake of ‘The Brooklyn Side’ would’ve derailed a lot of bands, especially when that attention left them and moved on to the next “latest big thing”. The Rockets just carried on doing what they were doing and have continued to do so.
Formed in Festus, Missouri in 1992, the band’s founding members were Brian Henneman (guitar, vocals), Mark Ortmann (drums), Tom Parr (guitar, vocals) and Tom Ray ( bass guitar). The band were considered part of the new Alt-Country movement that also spawned bands like the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo, a band that Henneman had spent some time with as a member of the road crew. In fact, it was Uncle Tupelo’s manager at the time, Tony Margherita, who got Henneman his first recording contract as a solo artist and he cut his first single backed by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy – but Henneman is a band player and he put The Bottle Rockets together using players from his previous bands, most notably Chicken Truck (named after a John Anderson song). The Bottle Rockets are as much about good time rock and roll as they are about country songs, with one critic describing them as The Clash fronted by Roger Miller!! In fact, that’s not as silly a description as it might seem. The band can really rock and there’s the tightness that you’d expect from an experienced unit that’s been around the block a few times, but they have an edge that owes something to the punk ethos; and Henneman’s voice does have a deep, clear tone, underlaid with a world-weariness, that is reminiscent of Miller.
The band had a series of problems with their record labels, which may be another reason why they haven’t had as much commercial success as they clearly deserve. The band’s eleven albums to date have been released on some seven different labels, so building a commercial image and sustained marketing strategy has always proved elusive – not that it seems to bother the band that much; they just keep writing great songs, performing live and, every so often, they turn out another album. In all the time they’ve been together, the band have had just seven members, with Henneman and Ortmann being there all the way through. The current line up is completed by John Horton (guitar), who joined in 2003, effectively replacing original guitarist Tom Parr (though Parr left in 2002 and the band operated as a three-piece for a while) and Keith Voegele on bass. Voegele replaced Robert Kearns, who was in the band from ’97 until 2004. Kearns had replaced original bass player Tom Ray. So, even the newest member of the band has been with them for fifteen years, which makes it easy to explain why they’re such a tight unit.
For those who’ve never heard the Rockets, I would urge you to listen to them, starting with the selection offered here, the first from ‘The Brooklyn Side’, the second from 2015’s ‘South Broadway Athletic Club’ and the third from their most recent release, 2018’s ‘Bit Logic’. You’ll hear a consistency to their sound and quality of songs that makes them as fresh and interesting now as they were back at the height of their popularity. There’s a muscularity to their sound that’s comparable to Lynyrd Skynyrd or, for a more current comparison, the Drive By Truckers, but the lyrical content of their songs and the stories they tell is comparable to some of the best songwriting around.
The Bottle Rockets are still doing what they’ve done throughout their career, producing good songs that tell the stories of the American Everyman. It would be nice to see them have another major success with a record but it probably won’t make much difference to them whether they do or don’t, they’re a working band with a strong local following and a good audience throughout the States.
The Bottle Rockets are an outfit every bit as good as their more commercially successful contemporaries from the 90s Alt-Country scene and they deserve to be more widely appreciated.