By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

Brian Henneman, John Horton,
Robert Kearns and Mark Ortmann

October 30, 2003

After a two-year break prompted by personal and personnel changes, the Bottle Rockets have broken through to "Blue Sky."

That's the title of the Festus band's first album of new material in four years, and it signals a return to the national stage of singer-guitarist Brian Henneman, singer-bassist Robert Kearns and drummer Mark Ortmann.

Henneman jokes that "it's an old guys album made by old guys," and it's true that, alongside the rockers and blue-collar tales, "Blue Sky" deals with some mature themes, including the issue of wisdom: the fight to get it and the value of having it.

That wisdom came at a price: In November and December 1999, Henneman's parents died within six weeks of each other; and on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States.

Out of that came two of the CD's strongest songs: Henneman's "Mom & Dad"; and "Baggage Claim," written by Ortmann and Henneman.

For a year after his parents died, Henneman, 41, did little with his music, spending much of his time commuting between St. Louis and Festus to take care of their home and "cleaning up all of the financial stuff and all the bullcrap that goes with that."

"Mom & Dad" is a simple, acoustic, countrified account of those months, in which Henneman wonders, "Mom and Dad, where have you gone/I'm here at your house/I just mowed your lawn." He took in their mail and fed their cat, feeling their presence in their absence.

"Mom & Dad" was "the first song I wrote when I came back to music," he says. "I wrote it pretty quickly. Normally, when I write a song, I come up with the first lyrics and then tweak them and make them better, but that one I just let stay like it was."

Ortmann wrote the lyrics to "Baggage Claim," and "I thought they were pretty cool," Henneman says. "He sent me an e-mail with the lyrics and said, 'It's probably a piece of (junk), what do you think?' I said, 'Damn, dude, it's the best one you ever wrote.' "

In fact, "Baggage Claim" became the centerpiece of the album, and all of the other songs flowed from it. The song, drenched in Mark Spencer's steel guitar, uses "a little picture" -- lovers having to find each other in the crush of the baggage carousels rather than at the gates -- to tell the big story of how America changed after Sept. 11.

Ortmann says in an e-mail that "Baggage Claim" "isn't about just one specific experience of mine, but rather is about the general loss of romance at the airport due to increased security. However, it's largely a look at the effects of Sept. 11 from a different viewpoint.

"I've been in some long-distance relationships and have always been something of a dumb romantic who feels that airports are surrounded by a certain romance. I guess that's an old-fashioned notion, but I enjoy the anticipation of meeting a girlfriend at the airport. However, heightened security has added a new degree of complication to air travel and has forced some of the old glamour out of it. That's a shame."

Ortmann says he's a "bad judge" of his lyrics and expected Henneman to change the romantic/frantic rhyme of the song's bridge "because I thought it might be too goofy. But to my surprise, it stayed. Brian set the lyrics to some great music."

"Blue Sky," the band's seventh album, was released Tuesday by Sanctuary Records, marking yet another label for the Rockets. It's an odd alliance, coming after last year's "Songs of Sahm" tribute to Cosmic Cowboy Doug "Sir Douglas" Sahm. That CD was released by alt-country powerhouse Bloodshot Records, which would seem a better fit for the band.

But Sanctuary has "a real diverse thing going on," Henneman says. "They've got old classic-rock bands, and Ministry, and all kinds of crazy stuff. I don't know why they were interested in us -- but yay!"

One attraction for Sanctuary undoubtedly was being presented with "Blue Sky" on a platter: a fully recorded CD. It was produced by Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, engineer Michael Barbiero and the band, and recorded in April at Walter Music Studios in Hoboken, N.J.

And it was recorded with no pressure and no expectations: At the time, the Bottle Rockets were without a recording deal and had become a trio with the departure of rhythm guitarist Tom Parr.

Henneman had sent some demo tapes of the new songs to the band's manager, Stefani Scamardo, who is the wife of Haynes.

When Haynes heard the demo tapes, Henneman says, he said, 'Wow, let's make a record out of it and figure out how to pay for it later.' He put the money up, and we recorded it before we had a deal.

"We came in (to Sanctuary) fully paid up. Of course, they'll be deducting for advertising and all of those other mysterious things. But it was just a simple case of it was the best deal to go with. If it all blows up tomorrow, it'll still be good."

The Sanctuary deal is for four records, but Henneman laughs at the notion that that gives the band security.

"I don't consider it security," he says. "We've had multirecord deals before that go bad right after you sign them."

Parr left the Rockets during the tour supporting the Sahm CD, and the band finished those dates and recorded "Blue Sky" as a trio. For the "Blue Sky" tour, which begins tonight and Friday night at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, the band has added guitarist John Horton, a veteran St. Louis musician who can play pretty much anything with strings.

Horton "can just do so many things," Henneman says. "When we made the record, we were a three-piece band" augmented by Haynes' slide guitar, Spencer's pedal steel and Gov't Mule's Danny Louis on keyboards.

Henneman says there was no way the Rockets could play that record as a trio, "not without having to change the songs into something they were not supposed to be. The quest was to keep it low-key, and with three (musicians) it turns into a power trio.

"(Horton gives the band) a lot more versatility in our live show. The dynamics are just all over the place -- it's not just pedal to the metal from start to finish. It's what we've wanted to do for years."

The Bottle Rockets' future is full of, well, "Blue Sky," Henneman says.

"Even though we're older and whatever, we're over that whole pop-star thing," he says. "Now we can concentrate on making music. I've quit drinking, so I can be counted on. That's made me enjoy music a million times more.

"We're not just partying around the country now, we're actually making music and finding satisfaction in pulling it off. We were supposed to do that from the start, but it took us 10 years to figure that out. We feel we can do anything these days. We're more optimistic than ever."