We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Whether you call it alt.country or No Depression, the latest hybrid of country and rock has finally splintered into all-too-predictable factions, divided between glum puritans and maypole-circling hedonists.
Count the Bottle Rockets and their latest record, Brand New Year, with the latter. The new offering is Midwestern guitar rock with deeper roots in Johnny Cougar (pre-Mellencamp) than in Johnny Cash. Tracks like the brazenly Tom Pettyish “Something Found,” the retro-swaggering “Nancy Sinatra,” and the Luddite guitar romp “Helpless” would blend easily into the ubiquitous classic-rock FM powerhouses that have dotted (and dominated) the heartland for 30 years.
“A lot of people have been wigged out by this album,” says guitarist Brian Henneman, who writes and sings most of the band’s songs. “There’s no fiddles, and there’s no social commentary. But even back in the days when people asked us what our influences were, we always said we wanted to be Aerosmith. They’d better learn to believe me.”
It’s not that the Rockets are alone in leaving the alt.country fair. Both of the main songwriters with the influential early-’90s outfit Uncle Tupelo (Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy) have eschewed country affectations and headed to the mainstream on their last recordings—Son Volt’s Wide Swing Tremolo and Wilco’s Summerteeth. And songwriter Robbie Fulks and Dallas’ Old 97s, who cut their teeth on Chicago’s pioneering insurgent country label Bloodshot Records, ditched that sound when they signed to Geffen and Elektra, respectively. Call it a trend.
Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann professes to be baffled. “The purists per se are confused,” he admits, “and I’m confused by them. Anyone who’s seen us live knows that what we play is loud rock. It was time for the big, dumb rock record.”
There is some disingenuity hidden in the Bottle Rockets’ complaints. Look back at the first two Uncle Tupelo records (1990’s No Depression and 1991’s Still Feel Gone), and you’ll find that the openers on both albums (Jay Farrar’s blazing “Graveyard Shift” and Jeff Tweedy’s rumbling heartbreaker “Gun”) were unabashed guitar rock. The first tracks on the Bottle Rockets’ eponymous 1993 debut for East Side Digital and 1994’s ESD/Tag/Atlantic follow-up, The Brooklyn Side, were the plaintive, banjo-driven “Early in the Morning” and the stone-country “Welfare Music.”
“Welfare Music,” in particular, is a touchstone for alt.country fans. The song was a stinging and tuneful political indictment, but it was also the high-water mark of the No Depression wave. With its dobro, mandolin, and fiddle pushed way up front, “Welfare Music” seized traditional music by the throat and forced it to spit up the poverty consciousness and Saturday night/Sunday morning divide of its roots. It was a move of genius and contempt, signaling an earnest devotion to roots that became scripture to the alt.country crowd and slapped country’s mainstream in the bargain. Critical acclaim and a sizeable bump in the Rockets’ audience followed.
Now, five years later, the band is publicly poking that same earnest section of the alt.country crowd in the eye. Brand New Year kicks off with Henneman growling the same words that
Shania Twain uses to start her mega-platinum crossover, Come on Over: “Let’s go, girls!” The Rockets haven’t been shy about their collective Shaniamania in recent interviews, and you might get hurt if you suggest that their admiration for Mrs. Mutt Lange is an ironic pose. When I visited the band during the recording of Brand New Year in Brooklyn last February, they had pasted up bits of masking tape on various walls of the studio at exactly 5 feet and 3 inches. Yep, that’s Twain’s height. “People who don’t like her because of her videos,” says Henneman, “are listening with their eyes. Listen to the songs.”
In retrospect, the Bottle Rockets’ third album, 24 Hours a Day, was a criminally ignored gem that should have prepared more discerning audience members for what’s on the plate today. 24 Hours had enough country-inflected moments (“Smokin’ 100s Alone,” “One of You,” “Indianapolis” “Turn for the Worse,” “Dohack Joe”) to satisfy the band’s fan base, but it also showcased a new turn to overt and slicker pop/rock motifs. The quick-hit sheen of “Kit Kat Clock” and the title track, the slow but crashing ’70s Southern rock of “Slo Toms,” and the lyrical midtempo yearnings of “When I Was Dumb” and “Things You Don’t Know” strained in a new direction.
If 24 Hours a Day was the band’s triangulation album, Brand New Year is its strangulation album. The Bottle Rockets left their previous baggage on a quickie 1998 EP for Doolittle called Leftovers, and that all-too-familiar big-label waltz (picked up, ignored, and dropped) left the band feeling a bit footloose and ornery. “We’d been on Atlantic,” Henneman observes, “and then came down. We decided that we were going to do this album just for kicks, and lighten it up a bit.”
Brand New Year is a hayseed-gone-bad-seed affair that rings with goofiness and spite. You can’t strip pop down any more than the corrupted Merseybeat of “Gotta Get Up,” or give a more obvious finger to wannabe Claptons and Knopflers than “White Boy Blues.” And bassist Robert Kearns’ tale about a blown Pittsburgh gig, “The Bar’s on Fire,” is the shaggiest of shaggy-dog stories.
There’s no denying that Brand New Year is big and crunchy and echt-rock, but it would be unfair to label the effort dumb. There are flashes of wit—both quick and mordant—studded throughout the album. “Headed for the Ditch” bashes influences and enemies with equal abandon, and songs like “Nancy Sinatra” (co-written with ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird) and “Dead Dog Memories” find the balance between simplicity and profundity that has always marked Henneman’s work.
There is one glancing backward nod to the old school on Brand New Year, in the form of “Love Like a Truck,” a chiming country-rocker that Henneman wrote with Patty Loveless in mind. Nashville has come so far toward pop and rock, claims Henneman, that he sees a definite future in his songs’ being covered by country artists like Loveless. The Rockets’ devotion to Shania Twain may not be an ironic pose, but the notion of artists like Alan Jackson or Travis Tritt moving Henneman’s rock songs up the country charts would be irony itself. CP