Festus Tornadoes

The Bottle Rockets rediscover themselves -- by covering their longtime idol, Doug Sahm

Although Sahm is obviously the album's inspiration, the band also has Scott Taylor, Ortmann's high-school English teacher, to thank. Without Taylor, who turned them on to Sahm's music and later wrote some of the Bottle Rockets' best lyrics, the whole late-'80s Midwestern alt-country phenomenon might have taken a decidedly different course. "Scott just opened our ears," Ortmann says. "We were raised on basically classic rock and maybe some country as well. He played the Replacements' 'Bastards of Young' -- he freed my mind to like music that wasn't on the radio."

"It was funny," Henneman says, "Scott came to town in 1988, when we got our first gig in St. Louis opening up for Uncle Tupelo. I think at our first show ever, we played Sahm's 'She's About a Mover.' Uncle Tupelo at that time were all about the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, that kind of stuff. They were, like, 'Hey, what's that song?' and the next thing you know, Scott's making Jeff Tweedy a tape. Jay [Farrar] was really influenced by his tapes, too. Scott Taylor, I think, is the most influential roots rocker there is."

Well, at least one of them. Ortmann and Henneman vividly remember the first time they met Sahm, at a concert in Nashville. (Henneman still carries the ticket stub, dated April 7, 1992, in his wallet.) "It was nothing he would have remembered," Henneman admits. "I was so thrilled I pretty much was about to poop my pants -- in fact, so was he. We walked into the club, and then, all of a sudden, my idol walked right in front of me and said, 'Man, I've got to take a shit!'"

The Bottle Rockets (from left): Brian Henneman, Robert Kearns, Tom Parr and Mark Ortmann
Bob Reuter
The Bottle Rockets (from left): Brian Henneman, Robert Kearns, Tom Parr and Mark Ortmann

"It was the best show, absolutely fantastic," Ortmann adds. "The club held maybe 1,000 people, but when we got there, it was just this sea of folding chairs and a handful of people at the back of the bar."

"I think [Mark, Jay Farrar and I] were the only people who actually bought tickets," Henneman says. "It was mostly guest-list people from Warner Bros. The three of us stood front-row center; everybody else just stayed by the bar."

Of course, Henneman didn't know at the time that Sahm had only seven years left to live or that the Bottle Rockets' sixth album would be a tribute to him. He just stood in front of the stage, bellowing out requests and basking in Sahm's greatness. He fingers his ticket stub and reminisces: "The thing I loved about his records when I first heard them was they just sounded like the guy was having the frigging time of his life. Even if you didn't know what he was saying -- and half the time you can't understand what he's saying -- it sounds like something you want to do. It feels like it, sounds like it. He just seemed to be so full of love, no bitterness. That's the attitude I lost along the way. Doug loved music, he loved life, he loved everything -- you can just hear it. The music business never got Doug down. He was, like, 'Fuck the music business -- I'm playing music!' I'm not that cool; I wish I could be. On Songs of Sahm, we were trying to be that cool. As time wears on, people will see that we're not nearly as cool as Doug. Making the album was a reaffirmation: 'Fuck! We're making music! What's cooler than that?' So Doug, once again, saved the day.

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