When we last discussed Brian Henneman, it was during his stint as roadie, second guitarist, and piss-taker-outer for Uncle Tupelo*, just prior to him forming The Bottle Rockets. He’s a great rock ‘n’ roll singer, songwriter, and guitarist, but Henneman is also a hilarious frontman and perceptive observer of the human experience. Those latter talents were on full display in a recent podcast with folk singer and fellow raconteur, Otis Gibbs. But, before we get to that part of the itinerary, let’s establish why Brian Henneman has a lifetime +1 to the Adios Lounge.
*By the way, if you haven’t yet read There Was a Time: The History of Uncle Tupelo, you might wanna give that a visit after you’re done here.
Henneman isn’t just A Bottle Rocket, he’s THE Bottle Rocket, starting the group 20 years ago after his “Indianapolis” single had a small measure of success for Rockville Records. That 7″ may have gone out of print within 6 hours of its first (and presumably only) pressing, but it’s historically significant for two main reasons. 1) The songwriting is brilliant. These songs would be top shelf if it was just Henneman and an acoustic guitar. 2) The band is pretty good. Some people might even say legendary. And I’d be one of those people.
- Brian Henneman – vocals, electric & acoustic guitar, banjo
- Jay Farrar – 6 & 12-string acoustic guitar, harmonica
- Jeff Tweedy – bass, harmony vocals
- Mark Ortmann – drums, tambourine
Yeah, I guess those guys are OK, if you like music. Of course, UT was on Rockville at the time, which is undoubtedly why they agreed to release the single. Fun fact: Credited as producer for this recording was the Uncle Tupelo side project, Coffee Creek, one of only two recordings made by that fabled lineup.
Brian Henneman – Indianapolis
Rockville A-side, 1993
“Sittin’ in this bar is gettin’ more than I can stand
If I could catch a ride I really think I’d ditch this band
Who knows what this repair’ll cost, scared to spend a dime
I’ll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time”
Classic tune in the Neil Young country-rock wheelhouse that anticipates the Bottle Rockets and contemporaries Blue Mountain and longtime Adios Lounge faves, Slobberbone. This also has to be one of the best songs about the reality of touring, at least how the bands contemporaneous with me have experienced it. It isn’t so much that “ridin’ 16 hours and there’s nothin’ much to do” (Seger) is inaccurate, it’s that “stuck in Indianapolis with a fuel pump that’s deceased” hits WAY closer to home. The titular city is also relevant because in his podcast, Gibbs asks Henneman to compare Indianapolis (Otis hometown, sorta) with St. Louis (Henneman’s hometown, sorta, but it is four hours away).
Brian Henneman – Get Down
Rockville B-side, 1993
How is this song not 45 years old and originally sung by Levon Helm??? As brilliant a lyricist as Jay Farrar was in 1992, even he had to be wowed by Henneman’s poignant soulfulness on this track. “Get Down” — later released as “Get Down River” — is a flood tale every bit the equal of “Louisiana 1927” and “When The Levee Breaks.” Musically speaking, it’s also a clear precursor to “Kerosene,” Henneman’s touchingly sympathetic ballad on the following year’s BoRox debut.
Brian Henneman – Wave That Flag
Rockville B-side, 1993
“Wave that flag, hoss, wave it high
Do you know what it means, do you know why?
Baby, being a rebel ain’t no big deal
But if somebody owned your ass
How would you feel?”
Or this couplet:
“That good old boy’s a-wavin’ the stars and bars
It’s a red, white, and blue flag, it ain’t ours”
So, I included both. Incidentally, sorry about the vinyl pops, but that’s authenticity. Deal with it.
We’ll get into the Gibbs-Henneman podcast in a moment, but first I’d like to share two of my favorite BoRox songs from my favorite album. If you wanna understand the appeal of both Henneman and his band, these songs will go a long way. The Brooklyn Side was initially released on East Side Digital in 1994, then reissued the following year when they jumped to Atlantic. The big time, right? For awhile there it looked like the Bottle Rockets might actually become a decent-sized touring band, like a midwest version of The Black Crowes. Unfortunately, that level of fame didn’t materialize, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of quality songwriting.
Bottle Rockets – Idiot’s Revenge
The Brooklyn Side, 1994
A co-write between Henneman and longtime collaborator, Scott Taylor, “Idiot’s Revenge” mocks secretly racist leftists cloaking themselves in fake liberalism, a perfect inversion of “Wave That Flag,” which mocks overtly racist rednecks cloaking themselves in fake conservatism. How’s that for a bullseye political sensibility? Henneman is willing to piss off assholes on either side of the political spectrum and is correct in both cases. That he pulls this off in the guise of self-deprecation — remember, the “idiot” here is Henneman — is pure fucking genius. If nothing else, I doubt any other song in rock history will contain both a Dinosaur Jr. reference and an N-bomb. Musically, the song is almost rockabilly, with original member, Tom Ray, slapping the doghouse bass, and Henneman himself throwing down some sweet country leads that butt up against Chuck Berry riffs. Speaking of which, when you listen to the Otis Gibbs podcast, you’ll learn about Brian meeting Chuck at a photo shoot in St. Louis. Fun times … except if you’re a photographer.
Bottle Rockets – Welfare Music
The Brooklyn Side, 1994
It’s welfare music
Watch the baby dance
To the welfare music
Well she ever stand a chance?”
Another Henneman/Taylor collaboration, “Welfare Music” would be a dismal, condescending failure from 99.5% of songwriters. That it might be the Bottle Rockets’ finest moment reveals Henneman’s (and Taylor’s) talent for investing their characters with humanity and not reaching a simple, convenient conclusion. This sense of pathos is where you can hear Henneman’s love of John Prine coming out. Really, if he wasn’t such a shit-hot rock guitarist, Brian Henneman could’ve been one helluva folk singer. That said, thank God he’s a killer guitar player because now we get the great musician and the sensitive singer/songwriter … a description that would probably make Henneman chuckle.
Otis Gibbs Podcast with Brian Henneman
And now for the main event. This podcast isn’t so much Q&A as it is A, which says a lot about Gibbs. He’s smart enough to know that aside from an occasional interjection, he’s only gonna get in Brian Henneman’s way, so he effectively gives him the floor for better part of 45 minutes. To help you follow along, I’ve included a handy timeline when specific subjects come up, along with a handful of choice quotes. Enjoy!
0:00 – Intro
0:40 – Letter from “Pig Farmer.”
1:47 – Great quote by Gibbs about his podcasts. “This is a personal journal, this is a bit of an experiment. I’d like to say right up front that I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m doing, but I decided to do it anyway. The show was founded with the idea that there are only two people in art who matter. There’s the creative individual and the person experiencing it, everything else is an artificial filter.”
2:33 – Otis sees The Bottle Rockets for the first time, opening for Uncle Tupelo at The Patio in Indianapolis (10/14/93).
3:10 – Otis on Brian: “He’s actually the first person that I thought of when I wanted to do this show and he was the first person I contacted.”
3:48 – Brian gets his first guitar, a Telstar, age 9.
5:00 – Brian gets his first acoustic guitar in 1976, age 15.
5:55 – Brian and Mark Ortmann battle at the high school talent show. “We were totally into the punk rock thing. It was helping us with our self-esteem.” Scott Hollywood and The Blue Moons > The Blue Moons.
7:58 – Scott Taylor recommends Mark as drummer.
8:53 – Mark joins The Blue Moons, around 1981. “We couldn’t figure out why he wanted to play with us, ’cause if he was that good, why would he wanna play with us? And we still don’t know why. Anyway, that was like 1981 and he just drummed behind me tonight in 2013! So, it’s kinda like he walked in and stayed. I never wanted him to leave and I will never quit until he does.”
10:30 – Joe Camel And The Caucasians get The Blue Moons a gig in Belleville, Illinois, at The Leiderkranz, probably December 31, 1985. Headlining that bill was a local band called The Primatives, 3/4ths of whom would later become Uncle Tupelo.
11:20 – Brian meets Jo Ann Tweedy taking money at the door. She introduces her son, Jeff, to Brian.
12:45 – Brian sees The Primatives for the first time: “They were friggin’ fantastic! They were way better than we were. Maybe not necessarily in the technical end, but as far as scope and vision and what they were doing, they were a friggin’ knock down, drag out friggin’ experience. We hadn’t quite had anything to ramp us up. There was no competition that we’d ever met up with at that point. So, these guys came out and kinda blew us away.”
14:40 – Brian learns about Uncle Tupelo from St. Louis newspaper. Had to be mid-1987 as they opened for UT in August 1987 and the discovery was obviously prior to this gig.
14:57 – First mention of Chicken Truck.
15:35 – Brian sees Uncle Tupelo for the first time. “Once again, same thing. Their version of what we were doing was better! It just was.”
15:50 – Brian: “This time we were older, wiser, more angry, and more apt to retaliate. We kept the country thing, but we just decided that we will get the loudest amps and the craziest guitars and we’ll just do this shit stupid loud. We’re gonna take this music that nobody’s liking in the clubs as country music and we’re gonna be louder than Uncle Tupelo. They’re better than us, but they’re not gonna be louder than us!”
16:43 – “It was like performance art whenever Chicken Truck played.”
17:07 – Brian: “Finally, Jay started talking to me and everything was kinda friendly, so they got us our first Chicken Truck gig in St. Louis opening for them (at that August 1987 show). It was almost like this little music scene that only existed between us and them.”
17:34 – Brian: Nobody could really pair us with anybody but them. We were the odd ducks. We were the country bands that weren’t really country bands and that wasn’t really going on in St. Louis back then. We were … I wouldn’t say pioneers, but we were the only ones doing it.”
18:03 – Brian: “Once we got onto the gigs with Uncle Tupelo, it was this continual one-upsmanship. They weren’t really trying, we were just always trying to one-up them, which made us better. We were trying to be as good as they were and it was good. It was a good, friendly adversarial thing between two punk rockin’, loud-ass country bands.
18:37 – Uncle Tupelo gets record deal.
20:38 – Chicken Truck breaks up.
21:12 – Brian goes on the road with Uncle Tupelo. “I was kinda like a roadie, but I was more just a dude that came along with ’em. And that lasted from 1990 til ’93.”
22:00 – Brian and Uncle Tupelo hear Nevermind for the first time. Underwhelmed.
27:33 – Brian and Wilco hear Son Volt‘s Trace album for the first time. Scary time in Memphis. “We heard it and it was just like, ‘Oh fuck.’ That’s when I got nervous. I think I got more nervous about it than the other guys did really. Either that or they didn’t show it as well. But, I heard Jay’s (album) and was like, ‘Fuck man. We’re gonna have to step up.'”
29:00 – Brian on “The Coug.” “The one man I’ve never heard a good story about. From all walks of the music business, everybody has something bad to say about the guy.”
31:07 – Bottle Rockets tour with John Fogerty – “I wouldn’t necessarily call this a ‘fun fact,’ I would call it one of the most stunning things that ever happened to me in the music business. He actually made a point to pull me aside and tell me I was a great rock ‘n’ roll singer. I mean, JOHN FOGERTY. It blew my friggin’ mind. I still get willies thinking about it.”
33:48 – Brian on The Bottle Rockets’ worst gig ever. Mountain Aire ’99, Calaveras County Fairgrounds, Angels Camp, California, May 29, 1999. “We were the lamest looking, sickest looking band that you could’ve ever seen, we were fucking HORRIBLE! And then we go off the stage and Wilco come out and look like friggin’ Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers or something. They came out and BLEW US AWAY! We have never been more blown away than that. We looked pathetic.”
37:14 – Brian on St. Louis, which like Otis’ hometown of Indianapolis, is not exactly an arts town.
37:52 – Brian on Joe Edwards – “There’s one man in town, his name’s Joe Edwards. He basically owns University City, he owns The Duck Room and The Pageant and all those clubs. He bought up that whole strip. If it wasn’t for him, there would be no recognition of Chuck Berry in St. Louis whatsoever. I mean, NONE. This is Chuck Berry. He’s lived there his whole life. No recognition of him at all. Yet, Mark McGwire, who isn’t even from St. Louis, less than a week after he hit that 70th home run, they renamed Interstate 70 ‘Mark McGwire Highway.’ That’s how it is. That’s what you’re facing with music in St. Louis.”
39:07 – Brian and Jay Farrar meet Chuck Berry at a photo shoot. “He shook my hand, and I’m not exaggerating, the palm of his hand was the size of my whole hand. I mean, he had fingers that came out from that! It was the biggest human hand I’d ever seen in my life! No wonder he plays in like B-flat and all that shit on the guitar. It’s nothing. It’s like he’s playing mandolin when he’s playing guitar.”
41:30 – Brian tells Todd Snider‘s Chuck Berry story.
43:42 – Otis Gibbs outro.