Interview: The Bottle Rockets Find the Downsides (and Perks) of Being Outlaws on ‘Bit Logic’
Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets knows exactly what it means to be the kind of outlaw the group sings about in "Bad Time to Be an Outlaw," a song on their new album, Bit Logic (out Oct. 12), and he's got the evidence to back up that claim.
"Literally, I've got the pictures in my phone to prove it," Henneman told The Boot during a recent interview. "All the things that happened in that song happened to me. My phone quit working. My air conditioner went out. My car broke down."
However, the impetus for "Bad Time to Be an Outlaw" didn't come from any one of those real-life stories. "That song is funny because it was actually written to order," Henneman explains. "Eric Ambel, our producer, had the idea. He was like, 'You know, the whole outlaw thing, what if you wrote a song that was just about it being a bad time for it, instead of the [normal] trope.'"
"Carrie Underwood don't make country sound / But she can afford when s--t breaks down," goes one verse. Quips another, "Glad I ain't no Thomas Rhett / Just 'cause those bills ain't come in yet." However, Henneman is quick to point out that the song -- and his choice to stick to his traditional guns -- doesn't mean he doesn't respect artists who make more radio-friendly, lucrative music.
"It's not a slam on new country. It's more of a forced jealousy, in a way," he says. "I'm supposedly outlaw country, which is awesome, and I'm proud of it. But, man, this is a bad time to be doing that, because there's not a whole s--tton of money in it."
"Country is sort of an obtuse thing in the modern world, because there's kind of no such thing anymore." -- Brian Henneman
Henneman doesn't split hairs over the much-griped-about notion of authenticity in country music, and he doesn't count it as a reason to dislike the new stuff. "I'm not one of those guys that's like, 'Ah, piss on new country,' because there's good songs in there -- not a lot, but there are some," he explains. "And it's not like I go buy new country albums, so I don't know, there might be fantastic songs that aren't radio hits."
Plus, it's not as though there are many "outlaw" artists who spend their spare time roping steers and riding the plains these days. "I mean, every hillbilly's got an iPhone now," Henneman continues. "They know as much about the world as everybody else does, and they're just as influenced by it. You go out in the middle of ... well, I was in South Carolina, at this tiny gas station with live bait and ammo and everything you could need in the middle of the country, and in the parking lot, sitting on her tailgate, was a girl blasting Lady Gaga. So that's where country is in 2018.
"Country is sort of an obtuse thing in the modern world," he adds, "because there's kind of no such thing anymore."
In true outlaw fashion, once the genre ceased to exist, Henneman and the Bottle Rockets took a hard left back into a country sound for their new project. "We actually made a plan -- which is unusual in itself, but we made a plan -- that we were gonna intentionally steer [Bit Logic] a little more on the country side," he relates. "Because myself and John [Horton], our guitarist, are both in competing country cover bands in St. Louis. That's our other gig ... So we had been playing that style, and we just love it, so we made an effort to bring that."
"I think we're actually heading towards doing stuff that we're comfortable in our skin with."
Henneman says part of the reason transitioning into a more traditional country sound felt like the right thing to do is because of the style's potential for longevity. "It's more exciting than it's been for a while, and I think that's just about us latching onto our elderly status," he muses. "Like, I don't care how good of a melody I could sing or how poppy I could get. There's just something inherently wrong about seeing a damn near 60-year-old man do that."
While the kind of country the Bottle Rockets make may not make much money, Henneman says, it's music they can play indefinitely. "There's something that can go on forever about seeing an older guy doing a certain thing," he explains. "For example, I don't wanna see Billy Joe Shaver sing Keith Urban songs. I'd love to see Keith Urban sing Billy Joe Shaver songs, but there's something about it that doesn't work the other way around. So I think we're actually heading towards doing stuff that we're comfortable in our skin with."
Ultimately, this longevity might be one of the greatest perks of being an outlaw. "It's a good way to keep a band together for 25 years," Henneman admits. "When you don't reach a super-high high, you can maintain. You can lay low, go steady and play long ball."
That's why, after over two decades as a band, the Bottle Rockets are still discovering new musical frontiers and making exciting musical shifts. "There are some albums where you feel like they could be your 'last word' album -- like, if it ended now, you'd be okay with that. This isn't one of those for me," Henneman goes on to say. "This feels like the debut album of something different."