The Bottle Rockets
For The Bottle Rockets, the Songs Are All From Sahm
For their first album in three years, the Festus, Missouri-based Bottle Rockets decided to record an entire collection of songs by one of their favorite artists, Doug Sahm, the man often called the godfather of the Texas music scene who died in 1999. During a career that spanned almost fifty years, Sahm incorporated blues, rock and roll, country, Western swing, and Cajun sounds into his music. He saw his greatest success with the Sir Douglas Quintet, who recorded classic sides like “Mendocino” and “She’s About a Mover.” But Sahm’s entire career is full of overlooked gems, which are showcased to good effect on The Bottle Rockets’ Songs Of Sahm. The record allowed the band to dip a boot back into the water after an extended hiatus precipitated by a label change during which band members experienced personal loss. As the band prepared for a tour to support the disc, Sean Slone spoke with Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann about the project, the band’s future, and Sahm’s legacy to music:
So how did the idea come about to do an album of Doug Sahm songs?
We’ve been fans of his going on 20 years now. A friend of ours turned us on to Doug’s music back in 1981, and it just connected with us… And last summer I guess it was, [vocalist/guitarist] Brian [Henneman] and [guitarist] Tom [Parr] were just tinkering around the house and they were just joking about, y’know, we should do some Doug Sahm songs, do an album for Doug. Y’know, Doug’s gone and he kind of came and went with little fanfare and he deserves more… And the more they talked about it, the more they thought well yeah, we should do it. So it just kind of came from a simple idea and it turned around really fast.
I read that you guys don’t really think of Songs Of Sahm as a tribute record, per se. Why not?
In a way we grew up with this stuff for so long, it feels so second nature. It just feels like its something we did. And at the same time when you think about it, y’know, Merle Haggard did an entire album of Jimmie Rodgers songs and didn’t call it a tribute. And whenever Frank Sinatra would do an album entirely of Cole Porter songs, it wasn’t a tribute to Cole Porter, it was just the next Frank Sinatra album. That’s kinda how we were approaching this, just as the next Bottle Rockets record. We just happen to be doing Doug Sahm songs.
What impact did Sahm’s music have on The Bottle Rockets?
It’s really funny, because it’s not really obvious in our music. But he’s such a common focal point for the band that we would all pick him as an influence even though you can’t really hear it. I think more or less it was his approach towards music. He has just this real natural approach, y’know. This is music, it’s here to be enjoyed, life’s a groove, everyone follow the vibration.
I read that when you guys went in to record the record, you didn’t really need to go back and listen to any of Sahm’s music. You just essentially played the songs from memory. Does that say something about how ingrained his music is for you guys?
We didn’t really have to study the records. The hardest part was really just picking out the songs that we wanted to record. We wanted to record so many of them but there’s only room for a few. So we had to kinda go through and study the songs and see which ones were going to work together, the ones that meant the most to us and that made sense fitting together. And then once we had those picked out, we just did them from memory.
Do you think Sahm’s music hasn’t gotten enough respect and attention over the years, and what’s his legacy to music, do you think?
I think by and large, he’s kind of an overlooked artist. He’s kind of under the radar. So yes, he didn’t get the respect. But he also has a very strong cult following that totally understands and respects him. As for his influence, y’know, it’s hard to put a finger on it. He’s out of Texas. We’re a band from the Midwest influenced by him. I think it’s more far-reaching than people realize, and maybe it connects with music-minded people even though the public at large isn’t aware of Doug Sahm.
Did you guys ever get to meet him or play with him?
For a couple of years I was living in Nashville. Doug was coming to town in 1992. And I told Brian that the Sir Douglas Quintet’s coming to Nashville. Brian’s like “I want tickets. Buy tickets for me and Jay Farrar wants to go to.” So I bought tickets for all three of us and after I got the tickets, I didn’t call them. I just figured, y’know, they’re gonna show up and I’ll give them to them then. So they’re driving down to Nashville and the entire time they’re just kind of worried sick about it. “Well, we never heard from Mark. I wonder if he got tickets. Oh man, I bet it’s sold out. I bet we can’t get in.” So we all meet up, we go to the venue, we walk in and there’s not a soul there! It’s a huge warehouse. They must have had a sea of folding chairs. I bet it held a thousand people. And we three sat in the front row, dead center and had like this private show by the Sir Douglas Quintet. There may have been twelve more people at the back of the room at the bar who obviously were like label people who got in for free. So there were three paying customers there: myself, Brian, and Jay Farrar. And Doug did two sets. He did the first set. It was amazing. He took a break, came back and was so stoned. The entire band was stoned. Their eyes were just glazed over and they did a full second set. It was amazing. They had Augie Meyers on keyboard. Doug Clifford from Credence Clearwater Revival was on drums. And it was billed as the Sir Douglas Quintet. It was so cool. So Brian and I have these souvenir ticket stubs from the show that no one went to and we were worried sick was sold out. So during the break, we met Doug and got to shake his hand and tell him we’re fans, stuff like that.
Listening to the record, I got the feeling that you guys are newly inspired by Sahm’s creativity and versatility and eclecticism. Has doing this project in some way revitalized the band?
I think it has kinda kick started some energy again. We kind of had a difficult last couple of years due to a lot of personal losses. Brian lost both of his parents over six weeks and right before the holidays as well. And at the same time [bassist] Robert [Kearns’] father was in the hospital in critical condition. So, there were a lot of personal difficulties going on and the band just wanted to take a break and just clear our heads and give Brian time to mop up the details from inheriting his parents’ estate. And luckily, Robert’s father pulled out. He is healthy and strong to this day, so we’re very thankful for that. But with that kind of setup you can understand where our heads were and we just wanted to get out and get a break. And when this idea came up, it was like the perfect idea to just get our juices going again. At the time we were demoing original songs. We have about a half an album demoed right now. But then this just kinda popped up out of nowhere and we just jumped on the idea and it’s really given us more energy now to keep moving forward.
Was the hiatus also precipitated by being without a label at that point?
We were with Doolittle Records in Austin and that whole deal went sour. They merged with a different label [Atlantic] and we weren’t happy there and there wasn’t a lot of love, so we just said “hey we want out” and they let us out. And after that we just said “it’s time for a break.” We’ve been so snakebit by labels at large though, that we’re not in any hurry to rush into a new deal. Basically record labels all work pretty much the same, just some at bigger levels than others. On Atlantic Records, for instance, it was so huge it was like working for the government. Everything is in triplicate, it takes three times longer than it should to get anything done. And unless you sell a million units of whatever the first week of its release, you’re not going to show up on their radar, so you’re a waste of their time and they’re just wasting your time. So we just learned that our place is on a strong independent label, someone that we can approach directly, someone who doesn’t have false expectations of the band and all work within the realistic parameters of the band.
So you guys are enjoying being on Bloodshot Records now?
This is just a one-off right now, just for this project. Because we’re so snakebit by labels, we didn’t want to sign on for a long-term contract. And they were very cool letting us do a one-off plus a couple of extra bonus tracks. And it’s been such a great experience right now. They have a leg up on the competition when it comes time to sign on a fresh deal.
The Bottle Rockets have always been associated with the alt-country genre. Has that been a double-edged sword as you’ve tried to make a name for yourselves and develop your own sound?
I think any band at large gets put in a category. Our category was the roots rock, alternative country, whatever that is. And it’s so funny because we’ve always just considered ourselves just a traditional rock band in the sense that, to me traditional rock and roll — it incorporated rock and folk and country and R&B, just a big mix of things, much like Doug Sahm. And that’s where we were coming from. But obviously from the neck of the woods we’re from, there’s a heavy country influence and it shows up in many ways, the songs’ subject matter as well as Brian’s voice has a twang in it. So the combination of all that just kind of put us in the alt-country thing. And it’s very limited. Other people don’t see a big market for that. You’re instantly just kind of brushed aside in many cases. So we’re doing our best with what we have and trying to make the most of it.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of the alt-country bands moving more and more away from a twangy sound and going in different directions. Conversely, we’ve also seen a resurgence in popularity of traditional music with things like the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. How do you see the future of this music and its commercial viability?
Well, y’know, a band like Wilco for instance. They re-invent themselves. They’re always doing something interesting and they’re a lot different than when they started. And that’s an example of someone changing along the way. My theory has always been when you’re a kid, you hate country music or you say “I don’t relate, I don’t like that.” When you get older you appreciate it a bit more so you start your band. At that point, your interest in country is up a little bit. You’re doing this alterna-country thing but at the same time you grew up listening to rock or pop radio. So it’s no surprise to me that people who like country music for instance also like Thin Lizzy or Foghat, because that’s what they grew up on. But then they grew old enough to realize it’s okay to like country and suddenly the two start mixing. So then later on in life when they start moving further in their music development, the previous influences start showing up, the rock stuff shows up.
Brian Henneman is obviously the band’s familiar voice and always does a great job, but some of the biggest highlights on Songs Of Sahm for me, and what may surprise some folks, are the songs that [bassist] Robert Kearns sings lead on. Can you talk about what he has brought to the band since taking over after [original bassist] Tom Ray left?
Robert’s brought a lot, most notably his singing. He sings great harmonies and he always sings the high part. And he also sings good lead vocals if you find the song in the right key for him. And there were certain songs on this record that he just had to sing just because they were like perfect for him. They fit his personality, his character. He had to be the person to sing “Lawd, I’m Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City.” That song was written for him. And his singing’s amazing, his bass playing is amazing. He has a real positive outlook and positive energy that helps the band. And all of this really adds up, y’know?
How do you see the future of The Bottle Rockets going forward? Are you guys committed to keep plugging away?
I think it’s pretty healthy. Y’know, the band takes its lumps along the way. And we’ve threatened that this year is going to be our last year. We’ve been doing that for the last ten years, right. We just keep moving on. Either we’re too dumb to stop or it’s just a sign of something strong. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger… We have tour dates set up. We’re going to hit the road supporting Songs Of Sahm. At the same time, we’re working on just continuing writing and home demoing our own stuff. And hopefully we’ll have a new original album in the not so distant future.