There’s a tendency among music critics to try to slice today’s sounds into ever-shrinking slivers of genre specification. In the Americana world, that desire is even stronger, with certain subsets appealing to a mainstream audience as others entice only a purist crowd. Well, The Bottle Rockets have no use for such gradations. This long-running St. Louis outfit has heard it all (outlaw country, rootsy blue-collar rock, cowpunk, ad nauseam) while being there and doing that (lead singer and guitarist Brian Henneman once roadied for alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo). Yet what matters to them—drummer Mark Ortmann, bassman Keith Voegele and guitarist John Horton—is writing and recording good music (12 albums in 25-plus years) and putting on immensely enjoyable live shows in all manner of venues. “We set out to just be a rock ’n’ roll band, and that’s all we’ve ever considered ourselves to be,” Henneman says. “Along the way, other people sub-divided things. If they can find a place to stick us, fine—do it.”
Folio Weekly: When The Bottle Rockets played their first co-headlining show with Chuck Prophet last year, you guys called it a collaboration “23 years in the making.” What makes it so special?
Brian Henneman: It’s a fantastic double bill. Chuck thought of it—it was all his idea. I didn’t even think he was aware of our band. But he actually cold-cocked me with a Facebook message about wanting to move up a club size in New York City. He was selling out the small rooms but not filling up the big rooms. It was so genius I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. But even if I had, I wouldn’t have asked him because I didn’t think he knew who we were. We play two completely different styles of rock ’n’ roll; ours is straightforward, no frills, nothing fancy, and then he ups it with a little more showmanship. It’s like having CCR and Bruce Springsteen on the same bill. What you end up with is a whole night of rock ’n’ roll, from start to finish. It’s hard to keep people interested in a rock show for three hours, but the two of us together manage to do it.
You just came off a string of living room shows before and after the Outlaw Cruise. Now you’re playing theaters. Is that variety necessary for The Bottle Rockets?
It really is. If you do too much of one thing for too long, you’ll get burnt out on it. This last run to the cruise and back, we played a mansion, a church basement, a cruise ship, a cabin in the woods and a real estate office. And every one of them was a great show.
Are you all still focusing on 2015’s South Broadway Athletic Club, the most recent album?
We’re mixing it up now with anything from the discography. When South Broadway Athletic Club came out, we were playing the whole album in its entirety. Now, the set list changes every night. By the time we get to Ponte Vedra, we’ll have played a few shows, so there’s no telling what we’ll be playing. We try to change it every night.
You went through a well-publicized bout of writer’s block after 2009’s Lean Forward. Have you experienced that anymore since then?
Oh, no. I’m good to go. We’ve already started recording a new album, doing it exactly the same as last time: splitting it up into three different sessions of four days each in February, March and April. It’s going to be a whole different thing—more of a ’70s, outlaw country, Americana-style album. That’s where the inspiration’s coming from these days.
That should satisfy the critics who’ve tried to cram The Bottle Rockets into the alt-country box for decades.
We set out to just be a rock ’n’ roll band, and that’s all we’ve ever considered ourselves to be. But rock ’n’ roll had a much wider range of parameters back when I was young. In 1974, you would hear Black Sabbath right next to The Charlie Daniels Band. Now, those are two entirely different genres. To us, CCR is rock ’n’ roll. Along the way, other people sub-divided things. If they can find a place to stick us, fine—do it.
I hate to do a comparison, but I like to think of The Bottle Rockets as a more revved-up John Prine, someone you cite as a seminal influence.
When I get stuck, John Prine works every time. He’s like a laxative for my brain. Given that effectiveness, I would have to say he’s my most influential songwriter, even though I don’t necessarily do things exactly like him. That would be stupid anyway—he’s a better John Prine than I’ll ever be. [Laughs.] But the way he tells a story totally appeals to me. His songs can sound like comedy, even if they’re really not. That’s how I am. He’s not a total bummer. He sounds like a human being. I can relate to his ups and downs. What sticks is the way he ties words around that.