By Daniel Hill
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By Roy Kasten
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Until late last year, things were really sucking for the Bottle Rockets. Their last release, 1999's Brand New Year (Doolittle/Universal), had sporadic moments of brilliance, but its shiny hard-rock licks and greasy power-boogie jams couldn't hide the uneven songwriting and production. The band was warring with Doolittle (its third label in less than a decade), which was pushing for a glossier, more "radio-friendly" sound. Before signing with Doolittle, they'd been picked up and summarily dropped by Atlantic, which had more or less ignored them anyway. "We were bound and determined to sign with every bad label in America," singer/guitarist Brian Henneman says drily.
Burned out, bummed out and officially jaded, the Bottle Rockets faced an uncertain future. Two years after the release of Brand New Year, the Festus natives had about half-an-album's worth of new songs but no record deal and no real direction. Then, suddenly last summer, inspiration struck.
"I was sitting on the porch with Tom [Parr], our guitarist, and we were bitching about all the tribute albums that had come out," Henneman recalls. "We were, like, 'Where's Doug Sahm's?' We're waiting, waiting, waiting, and it never happened -- or if it did, it wasn't to any level that we ever heard of it. We thought, 'This is insane!' Then we realized, holy crap, if they did make a Doug Sahm tribute album, they'd never ask us to be on it because our love of Doug is pretty stealthy, compared with what we've put out; you couldn't really tell that he was one of our top five influences. So we thought, well, maybe we could do it. Of course, we'd been drinking."
A couple of nights later, drummer Mark Ortmann called Henneman, who recounted the drunken conversation on the porch. To his surprise, Ortmann ran with the idea. "Mark is the guy in the band who makes shit happen," Henneman explains. "We would have been content to just laugh it off, but then Mark started making phone calls. The amazing part of this whole deal is that from the time we dreamed it up to the time we completed it and turned it in was a month-and-a-half. That includes securing the record deal. By record-industry standards, that's like being shot out of a slingshot."
Bloodshot Records released Songs of Sahm on Feb. 19. Despite its speedy turnaround, the album sounds as if the band lingered over it for years. Recorded and mixed by Lou Whitney in his Springfield, Mo., studio, the 13 tracks reveal not only a genuine love for Sahm's music but an experimental ease, an inspired looseness that captures the spirit of the songs without copying them. Following the idiosyncratic Texan's example, the band shifts deftly from effervescent Tex-Mex shuffles to cosmic-cowboy meanderings, Southern-fried roots rock and psychedelic country-blues. Henneman's never sung better than he does on the majestic Southern-soul anthem "At the Crossroads," his plaintive growl dipping and curling around Robert Kearns' stately Wurlitzer. Who would have imagined that the Bottle Rockets would ever make use of a clarinet, as they do on the psychedelic freak-out "Song of Everything"? Vintage organs, cowbells, bongos and maracas aren't instruments we're accustomed to hearing in the Bottle Rockets' John Prine-meets-Lynyrd Skynyrd blue-collar roots-rock. But by stretching themselves to encompass Sahm's crazy, generous, genre-hopping music, the Bottle Rockets somehow tap into their true sound, a sound that's always been in them, patiently waiting for the chance to emerge.
Too many tribute albums devolve into rank one-upsmanship as the participants fall all over themselves trying to improve on or update the originals, add their own stamp, somehow distinguish themselves from their betters. On Songs of Sahm, the Bottle Rockets just played the songs the way they remembered them, basing their renditions on a 20-year love affair with Sahm's music. "We weren't trying to reinvent the songs," Ortmann says. "We just wanted to approach them like they were ours."
Adds Henneman: "The attitude going into this wasn't that we were going to do a Doug Sahm tribute. It was just 'Let's pick our favorite songs and do them like we wrote them.' And as far as I'm concerned, if you don't like Doug's songs, you can kiss my ass."
Choosing an album's worth of songs was the real challenge. "We narrowed it down to the songs we couldn't live without, and it was still, like, 27 or 28 songs," Henneman says. "I'm really proud of the ones we picked because it turned out to be a great mix. But we had to divide it into genres because Doug played every style of music there was. We had to get the psychedelic Doug, the blues Doug, the Tex-Mex Doug -- and we had to make sure that he wrote the songs, because he did a lot of covers as well.
"My first inclination was 'Let's do obscure Doug,'" Henneman continues. "Then we thought, 'Well, what the fuck is a Doug hit? Doug's most blatantly commercial moment was still about as obscure as you can get."
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!'"
"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.