Not So Loud, the Bottle Rockets new acoustic live album, begins with the song "Early In The Morning" which not so coincidentally is the first song on their debut, self-titled album. It is not a coincidence because Not So Loud subtlely reminds those that have followed the career of this fine Missouri band where they came from and where they've been.
Although he has been generous with the spotlight and has shared the occasional lead vocal and songwriting chores with others, Brian Henneman, a proud son of Festus, MO, is the voice of the Bottle Rockets. For those not familiar with the journey, Henneman was in bar bands in and around the St Louis area before he hooked up as part of Uncle Tupelo's touring crew. Henneman soon became part of that band's creative circle.
By the time Uncle Tupelo recorded its seminal third album March 16-20 1992, which was produced in Athens, GA by REM's Peter Buck and engineered by John Keane, Henneman was part of the recording process as a multi-instrumentalist. At these same sessions, Henneman started to cut some of his own songs with Uncle Tupelo backing him up. This lead to the release of the three-song single featuring "Get Down" "Wave The Flag" and "Indianapolis" which got Henneman a deal with an indie label. Henneman went back to Missouri to re-form his old band Chicken Truck re-naming them the Bottle Rockets.
The Bottle Rockets self-titled debut got immediate raves and notice. The band traveled similar punk-tinged Americana paths as Uncle Tupelo, but Henneman's songwriting brought more humor and often more heart into the mix. Soon Uncle Tupelo was in ashes, and the Bottle Rockets were getting a major label deal with Atlantic. Unfortunately, the Bottle Rockets were one of many great bands who fell apart under the weight of major label expectations for the alt.country movement that label execs wrongly assumed would be the new grunge music.
Since Atlantic dropped the Bottle Rockets after 1997's 24 Hours A Day, the band has bounced from indie to indie before settling comfortably with Bloodshot Records. Many have compared them to the Drive-By Truckers since both bands have a deep affection for classic/southern rock-styled guitar play. Perhaps one could say that Henneman helped pave the path for DBT even though they stand more as contemporaries. Certainly, it is not hard to imagine DBT fans rocking out to most of the Bottle Rockets catalog.
This brings us back to this album's opening song which mirrors on their first album. Since this live version is nearly a note for note version of "Early In The Morning" from their debut, it serves as a reminder that the Bottle Rockets weren't always about guitars turned up to 11. The earthy roughness of Henneman's voice paired with a simple banjo gives his songs power without the need for amplification.
Few bands have been as ill-served by album production as the Bottle Rockets since their debut. On their first, John Keane captured them pretty clean, but after that each successive producer seemed to be searching for a compromise, one that would help cross the band to a larger audience. This is no knock on the producers since fine names like Eric Ambel and Warren Haynes have tried to shape the Bottle Rockets sound over the years, but somehow each record just slightly missed the mark.
The problems likely lie in Henneman's own duality. On one hand, he's a great rock guitarist who understands the power of the instrument. On the other, Henneman's a great songwriter. These great songs have perhaps too often been subject to Henneman's guitar playing rather than letting the playing serve the songs.
By stripping things down, Not So Loud allows Henneman's songs to shine through and shine they do. Most of the songs on Not So Loud come from the band's first three albums (ie when they were on their way up, before they were dropped). By putting them all on even ground, one can hear how strong Henneman's songwriting was during that period.
One of the best examples of how stripping a song down brings it back to life is "Perfect Far Away" which originally appeared on 24 Hours A Day. On that album the song sounded a little too much like a Georgia Satellites outtake. On Not So Loud, Henneman tells a funny and touching story about the inspiration behind the song before allowing it to be fully revealed in its acoustic setting capturing that thin line where humor is used to cover up just a bit of spite and anger.
Henneman's songs have humor and fun, but the most important thing is the heart behind them. His songs often tell stories of the rural working class, but he doesn't try to honor them through epic songtales like Bruce Springsteen. Instead, Henneman understands the people in his songs. Whether it is the old man who has been left to contemplate his loneliness ("Kit Kat Clock"), the guy caught needing a car without being able to afford one that works ("1000 Dollar Car"), or the local man trying to make sense of his neighbor who accidentally burned his family to death by using gasoline in his kerosene heater ("Kerosene"), Henneman captures the sadness and the reality of these people's lives.
At its core, Not So Loud reveals the crucial difference between Patterson Hood and Brian Henneman. Although their sound is similar, Hood's foundation is built on punk rock while Henneman's is built on classic country. Not So Loud shows that Henneman's calling is writing songs for artists like Merle Haggard. In fact, any smart Nashville country singer looking to tap into the classic country sound should be looking to cover his songs.
Although the Bottle Rockets are more than two decades and many albums into a career, one can only hope that Not So Loud marks a new chapter for the band. Certainly, Henneman's songwriting remains strong, and it should only become stronger if it stays the focus wisely putting his guitar chops in second position.
- Jim Markel