Within six weeks, Henneman reassembled the band and recorded the exuberant and passionate "Songs of Sahm," released by Bloodshot in early 2002 to almost universal acclaim.
"There was no pressure," says Henneman. "We were back in the studio, but we're doing somebody else's songs, and we think they're great songs. It was one of those deals where if you try to tell that song sucks I'll argue that it doesn't, where I wouldn't necessarily do that with one of my own. It took all that kind of pressure off."
The month after "Songs of Sahm" was released, the Rockets were ready to showcase at Austin's musical mecca, South by Southwest. In a display of timing that can only be labeled as Bottle Rocketesque, Henneman and Parr got into an alleged fistfight on the way to the gig, after which Parr, a member of the band from the Chicken Truck days, returned to St. Louis, and the Bottle Rockets played that show and the subsequent year as a trio.
With the Rockets pared to a threesome, the band was forced to look at their catalog from a new perspective, one that Henneman is ultimately glad about pursuing.
"There was a real going-to-school vibe for a month or two," he says. "We learned to adapt and change things a little bit - drum parts and guitar parts. Once we got the three-piece thing nailed down, it was cool to go back and looking at the old songs. It was also frustrating in that a lot of the old songs didn't sound as good, so we ended up taking the ones that did sound good and getting almost Gov't Mule with them. It was like the reset button for the band. The power trio era taught us how to play songs differently, and it also taught us we didn't want to remain a three-piece band. We didn't want to ride off into the sunset like that."
All during this time (and dating back to the band's hiatus before "Songs of Sahm"), Kearns, Ortmann and Henneman had been writing (alone and with longtime collaborator Scott Taylor) and recording demos. When Henneman had assembled a fair amount, he figured it might be worthwhile to give his manager, Stefani Scamardo, a listen to the material.
Either purposefully or environmentally, Scamardo exposed Henneman's demos to her husband, Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, who was so taken with the songs and their potential that he offered to take the Bottle Rockets into the studio and record a new album on his dime. His reasoning was that since the band had no label, they should record a complete album and then shop it around so the labels would know exactly what they would be buying.
"Out of nowhere, (Warren) had this whole plan in place," says Henneman with a laugh. "That's something we've never done before, just taken a really crazy chance. We had no financial obligation because here, because Warren was going to do it all himself."
Although Henneman was nervous about the budget, Haynes kept assuring him that everything was proceeding without a hitch. Given the band's history, it's not too difficult to understand his reticence.
"Blue Sky" was recorded by the Rockets as a trio (with assistance from Haynes and multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer), and the result of the band's freedom to do what they pleased combined with the insight gained during a year of playing in that configuration resulted in one of the best albums in the Bottle Rockets' catalog.
"Blue Sky" plays like a greatest hits album of all new material marking every musical strength the band has ever exhibited, from the wiseass alt.-country troubadouring of "Cartoon Wisdom" and "Man of Constant Anxiety" to the stripped down acoustic beauty of "The Last Time" and "Cross by the Highway" to the emotion laden "Mom & Dad" to the joyously raucous title track. Although the range is astonishing, Henneman is quick to note that it was not by any intentional design, but by the passion of the situation.
"They all came from a different place," he says. "We're older and wiser and been through a whole more stuff. We're not driven by the excitement of hopping in a van, driving around the country and having free beer every night. That stuff's long past. It almost feels like the first record we ever made that was truly, 100 percent about making music, rather than other things as inspiration points. We'd been through pretty much everything, and this was like nothing to lose."
Haynes' strategy proved successful, as nearly a half dozen labels maneuvered for the rights to "Blue Sky" with Sanctuary coming away with the album and buying the rights to the next couple as well. With Henneman's previous label experience, he has a new perspective to bring to the corporate table.
Since finishing "Blue Sky," the Bottle Rockets reverted to a quartet with the addition of guitarist John Horton, a local session legend around St. Louis.
For the first time in years, Brian Henneman is not only content with the present but looking forward to the future. He is clearly realistic about the Bottle Rockets' circumstances, but without the tainted cynicism that his previous bad experiences could have inspired. He might even be, dare we say, happy.
"This feels like our first record," he says with a smile in his voice. "Everybody's in a totally different mindset than ever before. There was always booze involved in the past. We don't even drink anymore. So this is for trying to say something and trying to make a good record. It feels like I'm a new guy in a different band."