The Bottle Rockets w/ Hugh Masterson
Big Grove Brewery & Taproom — Thursday, Nov. 15 at 8:30 p.m.
For over 25 years, the Bottle Rockets have made music steeped in gas station coffee, weeknights at honkytonks and rearview mirror Midwestern miscellany.
Brian Henneman is 57 and confesses he’s “old enough to know better.” His voice is trailed closely by his Festus, Missouri accent. Since 1992, he has been the lead singer and primary songwriter for the Bottle Rockets, a band that reimagined country music — along with alternative country legends Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo — in the early ‘90s . (Henneman even played lead guitar and sang backup vocals on Wilco’s debut album, A.M.)
The Bottle Rockets — Henneman, John Horton on guitar, Mark Ortmann on drums and Keith Voegele on bass — play Thursday, Nov. 15 at Big Grove Brewery & Taproom. The show kicks off at 8:30 p.m. with Hugh Masterson; tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Henneman says that Iowa City is usually the start or the end of a run from their headquarters in St. Louis. This time it is a start, and Henneman remembers clearly the band’s last visit.
“The last time we were in Iowa, I think it was Des Moines, we loaded out in 50 degrees below wind chill. I do remember that,” he says, laughing.
This time they are touring behind their latest studio album, Bit Logic, which was released a month ago on Bloodshot Records.
“This is the most immediate album we’ve ever made,” Henneman says. The band booked the studio time a few months in advance, before they had even written any songs to record.
“We figured if we book the time, then we will have to get something together,” he says. “It happened, luckily.”
Bit Logic, their 13th album, is a record philosophizing the modern world, albeit it in familiar Bottle Rockets fashion. There’s a dirge to modern traffic in “Highway 70 Blues;” an ode to “Stovall’s Grove,” St. Louis’ premier honky tonk establishment where the band hangs out and occasionally performs “phase-shifter” country music covers; and even a “Doomsday Letter.”
“That song is my break up song to Facebook,” he says. “I was just going through life sort of feeling depressed all the time, and I couldn’t figure out why and then I figured out why: It was friggin’ Facebook. You get on there and Doomsday permeates every inch of that place. Maybe it is the end, you know? Maybe we are hours away from Armageddon. But you know what, I want to spend those last few hours not worrying about it.”
He’s speaking this morning from Knotty Pine, the spare bedroom in his St. Louis home where the basis of this record was scribbled out. He even wrote a namesake hymn for it included on Bit Logic. The opening lines: “Knotty pine, knotty pine / In that spare room of mine / That sits at the top of the stairs / It’s where I convene / With guitar and caffeine / To work on my worries and cares”
“I sat up in the ol’ Knotty Pine with an acoustic guitar and recorded [the songs] into voice memos on the phone and emailed them around,” Henneman says.
He says it’s the only place he can write. When the band is out on the road, you will always find him behind the steering wheel.
“I don’t write any songs on the road. I’m thinking about everything else in the world than that when I’m on the road,” he says. “I can’t do anything but think about my dirty laundry or think about what I’m going to get from the vending machine when I get back to the hotel.”
The title track, co-written by Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann, remembers a “technicolor childhood” fueled by “incandescent dreams.” It’s unquestionably a modern song by any measure, but still grounded in three chords and a phase shifter.
“It’s basically a song about old dogs learning new tricks. It’s about trying not to bum out about the whole world being complete different than you ever realized it was for years,” Henneman says. “It’s an adjustment song: being as open-minded as your old closed-mindedness will allow.”
After over two decades together, the Bottle Rockets carry their own musical flag stitched by a hodgepodge of country, rock and even punk legends. You can hear the outlaw presence of Waylon Jennings, the diesel drive of the Ramones and the left-field lyrics of Roger Miller, sometimes all within the same song. Above all, they are an honest band with a Midwestern charm tied largely to Henneman’s everyman lyrics. They’ve endured over 25 years despite their band name, the Bottle Rockets, which births images of ineffectual one-and-done short flashes of brilliance.
About that name:
“We were recording our first album and had no band name whatsoever. We had reels of tape and had nothing to label them as. On the first album, we were recording in Athens, Georgia. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy came down just to sing on the record and to hang out while we were recording it. They were trying to help us come up with band names, and they were just jotting stuff down as they were driving down to Georgia. That was one of the names they jotted down because they saw the big fireworks stand at the Georgia-Tennessee border.
“We said, ‘Hey, there you go. Bottle Rockets. That’s good, cheap entertainment. It fits. We’ll use that.’”
That logic, bit logic if you like, guides them to this day. The Bottle Rockets are still cheap, and to steal from Henneman, real “friggin’” good.