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Bottle Rockets fly the friendly blue skies

By Brian Baker, December 2003

By all logical rights, the Bottle Rockets should have been reading eulogies written about them rather than the glowing reviews and feature articles documenting their contentious existence. At any number of points along the band's decade-long history (and the 20 year association between various members), the Bottle Rockets could very easily have imploded, regarded enough to pique curiosity about the band's absence, but not renowned enough to inspire VH1 inquiries into their whereabouts.

But through all of the trials and tribulations both internal and external, the Bottle Rockets (guitarist/vocalist Brian Henneman, bassist Robert Kearns, drummer Mark Ortmann) have not only endured, but ultimately triumphed.

Nearly from the beginning, the band has been subjected to a litany of soul sucking problems that wouldn't be out of place in a Greek tragedy. Broken label deals, long stretches of inactivity, personnel defections and personal upheaval have all conspired to retire the band, and yet the Bottle Rockets have defied the odds and weathered every storm.

"I wish I knew. I'm probably better off not knowing," says Henneman of his bandmates' fortitude from his St. Louis home. "I've played with Mark since 1981. I've never played with anyone else. He's like the ass of my pants. I give him credit for sticking around. Lord knows there were times when I was drunk as a man could get, screwing things up. He's like the foundation. He's the dude. Robert and Mark, God bless 'em, they always knew the band would stay together."

The latest example of the Bottle Rockets' tenacity is their incredibly diverse new album, "Blue Sky," their first studio album of all new material in four years. The album comes on the heels of one of the most fractious and difficult periods the band has ever known. And that's saying something.

The roots of the Bottle Rockets go back to the early '80s when Henneman and Ortmann found themselves together in a succession of cover bands in their native St. Louis.

By decade's end, Henneman had turned to songwriting, which led him to form Chicken Truck, his first original band. Henneman also found himself inextricably linked to Uncle Tupelo as opening act, session guitarist (he played on "March 16-20, 1992") and touring guitar tech. The link was strong enough to survive Uncle Tupelo's contentious demise, as Henneman sessioned with Wilco on their debut "A.M." album and still offers his services to Jay Farrar as a solo opener.

By the early '90s, Chicken Truck had broken up and eventually reformed as Bottle Rockets, and shortly thereafter Minneapolis indie East Side Digital released the band's first two albums, 1993's "Bottle Rockets" and 1994's "The Brooklyn Side."

Both albums were prime examples of midwestern barroom rock shot through with liberal doses of authentic country, which the Bottle Rockets further honed with the social conscience and cultural observations of contemporary folk.

The great notices generated by "The Brooklyn Side" attracted the interest of Atlantic subsidiary TAG, which contracted the band for a new album while reissuing "The Brooklyn Side" to wider distribution and even greater acclaim.

But by the time the Rockets finished their third album, the potential-laden "24 Hours a Day," changes at the label and then the shuttering of the TAG division altogether spelled doom for the album. Almost simultaneously, bassist Tom Ray split, replaced by Kearns.

The Rockets' next move proved almost more disastrous as they signed with indie Doolittle Records, a deal that seemed like a winner at the outset with the stopgap odds-and-sods "Leftovers" album, but one that devolved into bitterness and recrimination following the release of the hopefully titled but ultimately botched "Brand New Year."

"That was as bad as it can possibly get in the music business as far as fights between us and the record company," says Henneman. "They were too involved. They were involved in ways they had no business being involved in."

1999 may have been the year that the Bottle Rockets came closest to packing it in. Henneman's parents both began to suffer the effects of failing health (they both passed away within five weeks of each other before the end of the year), the Doolittle deal dissolved, and the pressure from all of it came to a head.

Henneman called for a band hiatus, which led to Kearns to Austin where he played with Jack Ingram and Chris Duarte while Ortmann toured as a drum tech for Shelby Lynne.

"In my mind, there were times when I would think, 'Piss on it. I'm through,'" says Henneman of the hiatus. "But I wouldn't tell anybody. I'd just let it sit in my head for a couple of days. Then I'd think, 'It can't be through. What else can I do?'" Meanwhile, Henneman and guitarist Tom Parr were reflecting on the recent passing of Texas legend and Henneman's musical hero Doug Sahm. Over a few beers, the pair decided that no one had yet succeeded in appropriately tributing Sahm's contributions to modern music and as such, maybe they should just go ahead and handle the job themselves.

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