Wave That Flag

Disc 1 Track 4

(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:

Look, here comes another one
4-wheel drive
Look there in the window, man
Sakes alive!
That good ol’ boy’s waving
The stars & bars
It’s a red, white and blue flag
But it ain’t ours

Writing in 2019, it’s hard to express how impressive time has rendered this song. Nobody was talking about the problem of Confederate iconography in the early 1990s (Tony Horwitz’s Confederates In the Attic was published five years after this song was recorded), much less guitarists for southern-tinged bar bands whose preceding three songs were about being tired, having a crush, and being horny.

“Wave That Flag” is a work of empathy. Recognizing how hurtful the Confederate flag is, the song’s argument culminates in a pair of lines that asks the neo-Confederate to make an empathetic jump: “if somebody owned your ass, how would you feel?” The concerns of the song elevate everything around it. If The Bottle Rockets’ story-songs add up to a composite portrait of small-town Midwestern life, “Flag” makes it clear that not everyone in town is a boorish redneck.

I grew up poor in a small town in Nebraska, and briefly lived in one in Missouri. The world the Bottle Rockets describe is one that’s very familiar to me; pickups flying Confederate flags were hardly out of the ordinary, especially in Missouri. The first time I heard this song, it was inspiring to know that I wasn’t the only small-town Midwesterner who didn’t like it (and the song did a better job than I could have at that point of articulating why); this concern, paired with something similar voiced in The Brooklyn Side’s “Idiot’s Revenge” was the beginning of my firm conviction that Brian Henneman seems like a pretty cool guy.

I mentioned the interweaving guitar parts before, and, as usual for the Bottle Rockets, I think there’s some form-mirrors-content action happening there. Racism and Confederate revisionism are insidious problems; that adjective is exactly the way I would describe the guitar parts on this song. Moreover, they sound extremely Neil Young-y (listen to this song and “Ohio” back to back), and calling out Southern racism has long been a big part of the Neil Young agenda.

The ending of the song also works thematically. While most Bottle Rockets songs have emphatic tight-bar-band endings, “Wave That Flag” just sort of peters out. American racism is never going to emphatically be defeated, either; experience teaches us it’s just going to linger on in the background.

Which is a bummer, so let me close on a high note: “Wave That Flag” is proof that any song that repeatedly uses the word “hoss” is a good song.

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