Welfare Music

Disc 2 Track 1

In 1994, Brian Henneman (probably) could have joined Wilco as it phoenixed it way out of the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. He chose not to (assuming it was actually a viable choice), and why not? His own band was really taking off.

The Brooklyn Side sounds exactly like what it is: a natural continuation of The Bottle Rockets, but with more budget to spend on studio time and better gear. Recorded at Coyote Recording Studio in Brooklyn (the album’s title appears to come from the climactic line of “Sunday Sports,” but there’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question lurking here) in 1994, Brooklyn catches the band in the same form as their first album, just a bit more polished and better produced. The collection of demos on the combined reissue makes it sound like many of the songs come from the same creative burst that populated the first album.

The Bottle Rockets opened with the quiet “Early in the Morning” before erupting into electric mayhem. Brooklyn repeats the pattern, kicking off with “Welfare Music,” a slow-build paean to small-town life that, like “Early” begins as just Henneman’s voice and a dobro. The song widens to bring in the entire band, including fiddle and mandolin parts by studio ringers Joe Flood and Jeremy Jacobsen. The improved recording facilities are apparent immediately—check out Tom Ray’s slippery bass part, which would have been inaudible mush if it showed up in the first album’s soundscape. The song bounces between a laid back but catchy riff and easy chording, situated to let Henneman sing-speak at the bottom of his register.

“Welfare” was co-written by Henneman and Scott Taylor, his frequent collaborator on the more quiet end of Bottle Rockets songs. The subject matter is familiar: a young woman is having a tough time living in a small town, this shithead who got her pregnant isn’t around much, she and her baby get by on what they can, and they bring some joy into their life with cheap country music cassettes from the bargain bin. And fuck Rush Limbaugh for looking down on them (as always, Brian Henneman is one of the unsung heroes of the 1990s for forcefully going on the record on the right side of history).

I grew up poor as dirt in a small town in the era bracketed by this song; and more than just about any other piece of music I know of, “Welfare Music” reads as reportage from front lines that I recognize. The woman in the song could be my little sister. When we were growing up, our parents were militant about reinforcing a hierarchy of the down and out: we were poor, but by god we were never on welfare. We also had alarmingly frequent days when there was no food in the house, and I never visited a dentist until after my 21st birthday. Things would have better if my parents had followed this song’s philosophy that it’s OK to get some help, and that it’s OK to try to have a good time after you’ve done so.

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