In the house in Blair, NE, where I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, our next door neighbors had a son named Sammy. He was maybe 8 years older than me, so we weren’t exactly pals, but we were friendly and he’d occasionally come over and slum it with the younger kid; the two things I particularly remember were him helping me build an elaborate Ewok village on the side of a tree for max DIY Star Wars guy fun, and him proudly showing off the new set of nunchucks he’d just gotten.
(Look, I recognize that it’s confusing that this is the one where the song title is the same as the series title; sorry)
We kick off with twisting, insidious guitar parts that weave
into each other for several bars before the rest of the band comes in. The
narrator—and it feels very much like this one is Henneman is speaking as
himself—is somewhere in town and sees something he doesn’t like:
“Trailer Mama” takes a baton handoff from “Gas Girl,” almost
sounding like it’s picking up a beat the latter had dropped. An interesting
thing happens with the chords between the two songs, too; “Gas Girl” moves
between E, D, and A, while the main riff in “Trailer Mama” is an extremely
hepped-up guitar moving through D, F, and A. So, similar enough to almost sound
like it’s the same song being continued, but different enough to sound kind of wrong if that’s the case. Which is a neat
trick, because if “Gas Girl” is a fun and lighthearted song about a crush,
“Trailer Mama” is an urgent, throbbing song about
And then, after two minutes of quiet rumination with a
banjo, the entire band takes the stage and the amps are turned on. The
expectation that this was going to be a quiet, folky album gets tossed on its
ass. These guys are here to rock.
The Bottle Rockets’ eponymous first album kicks off modestly, almost seeming like a direct continuation of Brian Henneman’s work on Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992. Henneman had served as an all-purpose utility string player on that album (which was engineered and mixed by John Keane); he opens up this album (engineered and produced by John Keane) with a quiet song consisting of nothing more than a Tupeloid banjo* part and a solo vocal. It’s a one-man piece fronting a full-band album.
*update: a few weeks after the initial post, I’ve spent a lot of time messing with a resonator guitar, and now I’m not sure if the string part for this song is a banjo or a resonator; they can sound an awful lot alike. Discogs does credit Henneman with banjo on the record though, and I’m not sure where else it’d be. Anyway. It’s definitely Brian Henneman playing something with at least 5 strings.
The tenor of the album will change shortly, but this quiet moment is enjoyable on its own merits and a nice marriage of form and content in a song, musing about how much it sucks to get up early. An ongoing question with Henneman’s first-person songs will be which ones are being voiced by a character and which are direct statements of his own feelings; to me, this one feels straight from the heart (this might be because I *also* hate getting up early, and am looking for kindred spirits). The sensory details are immediate, for one thing. For another, the lines about knowing dark and night and neon lights certainly sound like the lived experience of a touring musician. Anyway, why bother inventing a character just to gripe about.
Several ongoing Bottle Rockets themes present themselves already here at the beginning: coffee, rural signifiers (there’s a rooster crowing before the first line is even over). Henneman’s Missouri accent, which will eventually step directly onstage for discussion in “Idiot’s Revenge,” adds to the country atmosphere; he leans into this with his idiosyncratic rendering of “early” as “err-lie.”
Over the course of We’ve Been Had, Chad and I have marveled consistently at how well Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar sequenced songs on Uncle Tupelo’s albums. Their high-water mark for this came with 1993’s Anodyne, which starts out sounding like a quiet country follow-up to March 16-20, 1992 before morphing into a squalling guitar attack. The similar trick pulled with the first few songs of The Bottle Rockets (also recorded in 1993, and featuring cameos by both Tweedy and Farrar) leads one to think that Henneman was paying a lot of attention to what worked while he was serving as Tupelo’s guitar tech.