A GUEST POSTING by HSP
The Bottle Rockets – A Slice of Sliced-up and Ground Down Americana
Your “Even When I Studied Agriculture, I Wasn’t a Rural Sociologist”
Hybrid Soc Prof
There’s a very old joke among some portions of the American population about a young man – presumably a gap-toothed rural rube – who says: “Aah lahk BOTH kinds of music, country and western.” I have no idea if my dad really had much of a relationship at all with country or western swing growing up in central Pennsylvania or, if he did. He played a violin a bit when he was quite young, but I’m sure that was oriented to classical rather than fiddlin’. I’d be stunned, given my mom’s more patrician upbringing if my mom had any connection to either at all… for that matter I can’t imagine my mom listening to rock n roll in the 50s, her younger siblings surely but… my mom, yeah, probably not..
I do know that there wasn’t any country or rock in our house until I got a little transistor radio at eight or nine, and even then – as far as I knew, there was no country music on the radio in greater New York City. We had folk records and both classical LPs and reel to reel tapes, but that was about it. Even when I stayed with my hippy aunt in Havertown, PA, for a couple weeks when I was 11, all I remember is Carol King’s Tapestry though there’s a good likelihood that a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young record, and probably Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, or something, on the shelves. I’d imagine the first quasi-pop/folk/half-rock album in the house was Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, but I don’t know. What I do know is that rock was introduced in the form of the (US only?) red and blue double albums of the Beatles’ Greatest Hits… just as/after they broke up.
I remember The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, from the transistor radio, but of the genres of pop music in the late 60s, WABC in NYC played straight up country – even Johnny Cash – less than everything else. The first record I bought because I wanted to, other than Frampton Comes Alive! fiasco, was Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush… but that’s way more folk and folk rock than country. And, in a world of Album Oriented Rock, giant ass arena shows, punk, disco, and reggae nothing, and I mean NOTHING, was less cool that 1970s country. There was southern rock which had a blues-southern soul-country thing going on, but Duane Allman and half of Lynyrd Skynyrd died and we were left with “Green Grass and High Tides,” by The Outlaws, and Molly Hatchet, shudder. In the early 80s, when John Travolta starred in Urban Cowboy and the Gatlin Brothers showed up with their Member’s Only jackets, there was no way country was getting a listen – at least not from me. And, of course, The Vandals had released “Urban Struggle” and ripped every poser into country in half.
Forewarned is forearmed, this ICA is a certain version of Americana that not all folks are going to like – and that’s fine with me, I more than get it.
The Uncle Tupelo ICA (#211) made it clear that I learned there was more to country than I knew on the basis of Green on Red, The Long Ryders, Dwight Yoakum, and Steve Earle… but I probably left out The Bottle Rockets. Where Uncle Tupelo looked back to the intersection of folk and country in their punked- and rocked-up version, their neighbors just south on the Mississippi River, The Bottle Rockets, seemed to have the elements of country swimming in the roots of rock n roll in their bones. Uncle Tupelo and the Bottle Rockets were core members of the small St Louis music scene in the mid-to-late-80s and played on the same bills and in various permutations and combinations. Not that I was there.
And they hated Reaganism (and New Wave) with a left populist passion. All of their best songs are about how fucked up the lives of blue collar working and poor people are. The songs I loved when I first heard the band all illustrate the conditions – and presage the deep resentment – that produced the blue and pink collar working class’s receptivity to reactionary far right demagoguery in the 90s and 00s. It didn’t have to go this way but, to my mind, the center, center-left and liberal-left effectively abandoned union, working, farm, rural and poor people once the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party took it over.
It’s simple music with lyrics that demand little interpretation but awash with images. done. Even though I spent most of the 60s in St Louis, and live in Michigan, I am culturally coastal so the depth of the twang and drawl here took some getting used to. And reinforcing and not-terribly-off-base stereotype, If you want to understand sentiments in the southcentral regions of the rural Midwest, this band’s not a bad place to start.
I’ve done two things I rarely do in these ICAs; I’ve placed two songs from the same album back to back – I had to accept that they’re simply too perfect together – and ended with a song about which I feel some level of ambivalence… The Bottle Rockets, even when they write about lost jobs, trucks, women leaving them and their dogs, usually transcend the genre and I don’t know if this one about a dog transcends anything… but it’s how we feel about our dog so there it is.
Cross on the Highway (from Blue Sky, 2003)… Does this happen elsewhere? People placing crosses and leaving little shrines – sometimes very elaborate shrines – where loved ones died in car crashes/accidents?
Another Brand New Year (from Brand New Year, 1999)… I don’t like New Year’s Eve and haven’t had a vision of the future that’s been attractive enough in long enough to look forward with joyous anticipation to new ones for quite some time. There’s joy in my life, just the wider context, ick.
Got What I Wanted (from Bottle Rockets, 1993)… masculinity makes men stupid, so does covetousness
Welfare Music (from The Brooklyn Side, 1994)… way too much grinding poverty in the US
1000 Dollar Car (from The Brooklyn Side, 1994)… when I first heard this, I was driving exactly what they describe, a $2000 1000 dollar car, given the cost of the work necessary to get/keep that beater running.
Indianapolis (from 24 Hours a Day, 1997)… look, just don’t break down in a city designed for cars not people, especially if you hardly know anyone there
Truck Drivin’ Man (Give it All I Can) (From the Rig Rock Deluxe collection, 1996) – a classic, and great cover version
Hard Times (from Lean Forward, 2009) – the sort of country song country singers neither making nor aspiring to making tens of millions of dollars write
Perfect Far Away (from 24 Hours a Day, 1997)… it’s kinda like sex, only really different, a lot of folks have fantasies they don’t ever want to actually do, sometimes the perfect image of someone only works if you never meet ‘em.
Dog (from South Broadway Athletic Club, 2015)… he loves his dog, and we love ours.