The 2004 RFT Music Awards

Over the past seven years, the Bottle Rockets' initial momentum has given way to fairly constant tumult. After losing both bass player Ray and their first major-label deal in 1997, the band's first record for a new joint, Doolittle, should have provided the fresh start hinted at in the title. But 1999's Brand New Year presaged only further confusion and frustration: Henneman's parents died late that year, the band soon fled Doolittle and, for the next three years, the Bottle Rockets gigged sporadically. The band's 2002 tribute to Doug Sahm seemed to herald a full-bore comeback; instead, a month after Songs of Sahm hit the streets, guitarist Tom Parr left after a notorious fight at the South by Southwest festival in Austin.

Blue Sky, the record that followed that chaos, is far more focused, resilient and hopeful than we had any right to expect. Even in the record's bluest moments, "Mom & Dad" (about losing one's parents) and "Baggage Claim" (about losing romantic innocence after 9/11), a sense of resolve and confidence runs through the melodies and through Henneman's voice. In its own way, that voice is as authoritative as Woody Guthrie's or even Chuck D's. He makes every word count, no matter if the subject is as trashy as "Gas Girl" or as stinging as "Smokin' 100's Alone." That's how the best rock & roll, from its roots to its wildest branchings, has always been sung and played. The Bottle Rockets have been making every song count for some twelve years. Here's to twelve more. -- Roy Kasten

Best Singer/Songwriter

Top: Chingy  Bottom: The Sex Robots: (left to right) Tracey John 
Morrissey, Mario Viele and Maysam Attaran
Jennifer Silverberg
Top: Chingy
Bottom: The Sex Robots: (left to right) Tracey John Morrissey, Mario Viele and Maysam Attaran
Top: Steve-O  Bottom: Soulard Blues Band: (left to right) John Wolf, 
Bob Kamoske, Kirk Grice, John Mondin and Art Dwyer
Jennifer Silverberg
Top: Steve-O
Bottom: Soulard Blues Band: (left to right) John Wolf, Bob Kamoske, Kirk Grice, John Mondin and Art Dwyer

Jay Farrar

"Caught between, between two worlds -- don't want to be, don't want to be fenced in." It's easy to believe Jay Farrar when he sings these, the opening lyrics of "Voodoo Candle." The song, nested in Farrar's 2002 solo debut Sebastopol, weights the album's middle like a fat crow on a wire. But the callused sound of truth is typical coming from Farrar. Friends, fans and casual listeners have long come to expect storytelling from Farrar, to hear from the strings of his guitar a tale of nonfiction concerning the best -- and worst -- of our sepia Midwest. Farrar pens a poetry that can be as lonely as it is full of life. Somehow, for more than a decade, he has managed to distill in song a people, an air and an ethic, to preserve in audible amber a sense of modern reminiscence, as if he possesses a Petri dish containing culture samples from both sides of the Mississippi.

Jay Farrar's canon of work is as evocative as it is sparse: a snapshot of squinting eyes deeply set in a head turned, sun glinting off the small hairs of a hand raised against the glare, a shadow cast over a freckled face. This is the sound of home, the sound of a place that is caught between two worlds, caught between the legacy of its history and the obvious necessity of an unflinching move forward. While the two worlds Farrar is caught between could be his natal Midwest versus the stylized daguerreotype of his songwriting, they could just as easily be his sense of self and art versus the soap-operatic schism of his former band, Uncle Tupelo, which birthed Wilco, Son Volt and a little thing called alt-country.

A strain of pride resides in Jay Farrar's voice, the voice of a second son claiming his own, stamping a path through twine and chicken wire, through plots of corn and soybean that maze through rural Illinois and Missouri. His songs also mark the literal path from band to band to solo career to founding his own label. Perhaps the two worlds resident in Farrar's songs are a small past and a big present, two plates with shifting tectonics strong and loud enough to reach beyond the experience of one man and speak for a people and a way of life, for a stretch of land that looks to St. Louis as its Big City. Perhaps his pride is not only understandable but laudable, a way for everyone who hears a Jay Farrar song to relate. Though we may build fences to distinguish our world and our place in it, none of us want to be fenced in. And at times it takes someone like Farrar, with words and music enough to overturn all of our wood, wire and brick, to remind us. -- Jess Minnen

Best Reggae/World Music

Murder City Players

The Murder City Players have been plying their trade for 21 years now. Oh, musicians have come and gone, though some, such as keyboardist Jeff Schneider and singer Mark Condellire, have been in for the entire run. Still, children have been born and legally purchased alcohol since the day the Murder City Players began bringing reggae grooves to local bars and clubs on a regular basis.

The history? Back in the early 1980s, there weren't very many American reggae bands anywhere. Every once in a while, you'd hear a punk or new-wave rock band try its hand at the Jamaican rhythms for a song or two, but these were few and far between -- until one such St. Louis band, the Felons, started playing more and more covers from singer Mark Condellire's extensive collection of reggae. Eventually the band split in two, with Condellire, Schneider and bassist Pete Sikich deciding to abandon the frantic rock approach entirely and cool down with deeper beats. They chose their ironic name after a newspaper headline declared St. Louis the murder capitol of the country the year before.

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