Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Welfare Music

By Bill Friskics-Warren

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  In a recent review for the Los Angeles newspaper New Times, Robert Wilonsky dubbed the Bottle Rockets' new album 24 Hours a Day "music for white people--fat white people, drunk white people, unemployed white people, white people who play air guitar with their eyes squeezed shut, white people who hang kitty cat clocks on their walls, white people who go to Dolly Parton concerts on the Fourth of July and get bummed out when they can't get close to the stage, white people proud of their $1,000 cars and their speeding tickets, white people who go to Skynyrd concerts and know their screams for 'Free Bird' will be rewarded and then some."

Wilonsky's disdainful tone, whether intended to be inflammatory or not, betrays a cultural elitism not uncommon among critics on both coasts--a dismissal of everything west of New York and east of Hollywood as a wasteland of trailer parks, stock-car racing, and rebel flags. The assumption is that the inhabitants of this benighted realm aren't worth writing about (which in turn makes dismissing anyone who does easier than spearing fish in a barrel). But in some respects, Wilonsky's depiction of the Bottle Rockets' social and moral universe is spot-on. He's wrong, however, to say that 24 Hours a Day is music for white people; more correctly, it's music about white people.

The group sets many of its songs in its uniquely rural and Southern hometown of Festus, Mo. A predominantly white community of 15,000 located a half-hour outside St. Louis, Festus is culturally impoverished and economically depressed--and not without its share of dysfunction. It's easy to imagine how a sense of stagnation might pervade life there. And it's certainly easy to understand why such mind-numbing pursuits as beer-guzzling, blaring the car radio, and cruising the strip figure prominently in the Bottle Rockets' lyrics.

Empathy for how this stuckness plays itself out has been chief songwriter Brian Henneman's stock-in-trade from the beginning (no less a stock-in-trade, in fact, than the band's meat-and-potatoes Southern rock). A good example is "Wave That Flag," which takes an insider's look at the heritage-or-hate debate over the Confederate flag. "I'm a different kind, but I'm a rebel too," Henneman sings. "Like to do my own thing, man, how 'bout you?/You can whistle 'Dixie' all day long/If the tables turned wouldn't you hate that song?"

As these lines suggest, the Bottle Rockets are unwilling to reduce anyone to a caricature--not the flag-wavers, nor the protesters. No matter how one-dimensional couch potato in "Sunday Sports" may seem, he's still a human being; in the Bottle Rockets' eyes, that alone makes his alienation worthy of consideration, if not compassion.

"Welfare Music," the lead track on the band's last album, The Brooklyn Side, illustrates this liberality as well as anything in the group's catalog. Here Henneman sings of a young woman who "buys cassette tapes in the bargain bin/Loves Carlene Carter and Loretta Lynn/Tries to have fun on a Saturday night/Sunday morning don't shine so bright." The song may be about institutionalized poverty, yet, except for a thinly veiled swipe at Rush Limbaugh, there's hardly a whiff of politics in the lyrics. By sharing the merest detail about the protagonist--her taste in country music--Henneman not only makes listeners want to know more about the woman, he enlists their concern for her struggle.

Our town
The Bottle Rockets, taking a sympathetic, if penetrating, look at their own community. Photo by Brad Miller.

Wilonsky's condescension might seem warranted if the Bottle Rockets simply glorified the rural South--or if they merely appropriated it as kitschy song-fodder, as many a Southern-lit major with a guitar and a clutch of Gram Parsons records has done. But Henneman's particular gift--and that of the band's other songwriters--is for using the clichd stuff of everyday life, be it cracker barrel witticisms or flea market finds, to expose the chinks in a regional idealism that many Southerners still embrace. On the group's new album, "Perfect Far Away" demythologizes Dolly Parton and the Big Rock Candy Mountain, while "Smokin' 100's Alone" looks with compassion at the cost of standing by your man. In "Waitin' on a Train," the most overburdened image in the country-music lexicon carries the freight of intergenerational family dysfunction; in "Kit Kat Clock," a curio on the kitchen wall prompts reflection on faith and fatalism.

In positive reviews of the Bottle Rockets' music--of which there have been many--writers often compare the group's contemporary Americana to that of Merle Haggard, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Band. The group also shares the Southern humanism of Joe South, especially as expressed in South compositions like "Redneck," "These Are Not My People," and "Walk a Mile in My Shoes." The Bottle Rockets believe that all people--no matter how flawed or unsympathetic--are worth caring about. And, not surprisingly, the more concretely Henneman and company tell a particular character's story, the more they illuminate broader social issues--the need for racial justice on the one hand, and for economic justice on the other. What's more, these songs prove that the Bottle Rockets' records aren't just music for white Middle-Americans, they're music for a larger community--including the culturally elite.

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