Brian Henneman is an alt-country/roots rock musician best known as the frontman for the Bottle Rockets, as a songwriter, lead singer, and guitarist. Artists such as John Prine, Neil Young and Merle Haggard have influenced his songwriting style. Henneman began his musical career in the mid-1980s forming the bands The Blue Moons and Chicken Truck. He also spent time as the guitar tech/additional musician with peers Uncle Tupelo from 1990 to 1992, prior to forming the Bottle Rockets in late 1992.
Some time in late 1985, Henneman's band The Blue Moons played on a triple bill in Millstadt, Illinois, that included (Uncle Tupelo precursor) The Primitives. A few years later, Jeff Tweedy was instrumental in getting Henneman's next band, Chicken Truck, an original outlaw country rock band, an opening slot for Uncle Tupelo at Cicero's in St. Louis, Missouri. Chicken Truck released several cassettes in the 1980s, including "The 90 Minute Tape" and "Loud Music" that had so many songs that Henneman's bands were still using songs from it for their albums over a dozen years later. Some of the songs from that collection were written by or with Scott Taylor, a friend from Festus, Missouri who still collaborates with Brian. Chicken Truck and Uncle Tupelo remained good friends and a frequent double bill until Chicken Truck broke up in 1990. Chicken Truck was Henneman, Mark Ortmann, and brothers Bob and Tom Parr.
After Chicken Truck (1986–1990) disbanded, Henneman played occasional shows as a solo acoustic act, and sometime in late 1990 he began working as a roadie for Uncle Tupelo, occasionally playing extra guitar or mandolin with them. He became a staple during their encores, coming out to play lead guitar on "Cortez the Killer," "Moonshiner," and many other covers. He played on Still Feel Gone, extensively on March 16–20, 1992, and also on a couple of the UT tracks that ended up on various compilations ("Blue Eyes," "Movin' On").
Brian Henneman, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn formed a band called Coffee Creek, playing country covers in small clubs and bars between Uncle Tupelo tours. In late December 1991, Coffee Creek played at Cicero's for the first time. In March 1992 Uncle Tupelo, including Brian Henneman, went to Athens, Georgia, to record their third LP at John Keane's studio, this time with Peter Buck of R.E.M. producing. Henneman plays guitar, mandolin, and bouzouki on the third Uncle Tupelo album March 16–20, 1992.
In 1992 Henneman recorded the solo 45rpm single "Indianapolis," an autobiographical song which he had written about Uncle Tupelo's van breaking down on tour. It was released on Rockville Records backed with two more originals, "Get Down River" and "Wave That Flag", featuring vocal and instrumental back-up by Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mark Ortmann. Meanwhile, manager Tony Margherita shopped demos made by Brian Henneman, which had been recorded with leftover studio time from the Still Feel Gone sessions. When those demos garnered a record deal with East Side Digital records, Brian Henneman formed the Bottle Rockets with drummer Mark Ortmann (Chicken Truck, Blue Moons) in 1992.
Throughout 1993-94, during Uncle Tupelo's slow dissolution, these bands continued to be closely interconnected. In addition to Farrar and Tweedy appearing on the Bottle Rockets' debut album, Henneman and the two bands also shared the same management and frequently performed together. When Uncle Tupelo disbanded in 1994, Henneman played lead guitar on Wilco's debut, A.M.. That same year, the Bottle Rockets released their critically acclaimed album The Brooklyn Side and toured with Wilco and with Son Volt in 1995.
"But the late '90s exacted a heavy toll on the band," Peter Blackstock wrote in No Depression issue No. 48, in a feature aptly titled, "Hell of a Spell: What Hasn't Killed The Bottle Rockets Has Made Them Stronger." Besides having their career held hostage to a staggering series of record companies they'd had contracts with that folded and/or floundered, a UPS strike holding up distribution of one of their new records, and band personnel changes, Henneman's parents both died within 6 weeks of each other. The band had been touring with Lucinda Williams and had to leave the tour prematurely.
Despite those struggles, in 2005 the Bottle Rockets stabilized from the upheavals with their good nature and trailblazing edge intact. Founders Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann got the band back on course, along with the newest additions John Horton and Keith Voegele, the current line-up of band members. The band also re-hired their manager from the early days, Bob Andrews.
As noted in the New York Times by William Hogeland, the Bottle Rockets' songwriting has been likened to Woody Guthrie's folk style in spirit, smarts, and satire. Henneman's, Ortmann's, and contributor Scott Taylor's lyrics succinctly and endearingly encapsulate the common experiences of the everyman, and are set to stirring, rousing, searing rock 'n' roll.
The Bottle Rockets' first live album Live in Heilbronn Germany was released in February 2006. The double-disc set was recorded on July 17, 2005 at the Burgerhaus, Heilbronn-Bockingen, Germany, which also happens to be Henneman's birthday. It was released in Europe on CD and vinyl by Blue Rose Records.
Bloodshot Records released the band's next album, Zoysia, recorded in Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer Jeff Powell, in June 2006. Zoysia (zoy-zhuh), a metaphor for tolerance and centered values and common ground, is a hardy grass, plentiful in Festus/Crystal City and Saint Louis, Missouri, where these hardworking musicians grew up. After years of misleading portrayals of the band's music as "hillbilly", the band's catalog proves otherwise with themes of maturity, generosity of spirit, neighborliness, insightful self-reflection, personal roots and modern society, individualism, pride of place, slow-mending hearts, and post-9/11 reality through the filter of a couple’s romance.
In 2006, Jeff Tweedy joined Henneman and the Bottle Rockets onstage in Chicago for reunion renditions of "Passenger Side" and "Casino Queen" (both from A.M.), and a cover of Neil Young's "Walk On".
Late 2000s and 2010s
The band celebrated its 15th anniversary throughout 2008 with a series of 15 special shows and a contest to win the Creston Electric Instruments custom guitar Henneman played at each of the shows.
The Bottle Rockets teamed up again with producer Eric Ambel (Brooklyn Side, 24 Hours A Day, Leftovers, Brand New Year) at his Cowboy Technical Services Recording Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York to record their new album Lean Forward that was released by Bloodshot Records on August 11, 2009.
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