Keeping Things Simple Works For Rock’s Bottle Rockets

For a songwriter – for anyone, really – there’s a big difference between simple and simple-minded.

Brian Henneman, leader of the Missouri-based roots rock band The Bottle Rockets, has always been a direct writer. He pares things down even more to their essence on the album South Broadway Athletic Club, named for the St. Louis location where Henneman took his wife to a wrestling match on their first date.

Photo: Todd Fox/Bloodshot Records via AP
In this undated image, from left, Keith Voegele, John Horton, Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann pose in St. Louis, Mo.

On his new song “Dog,” Henneman sings: “I love my dog. He’s my dog. If you don’t love my dog that’s OK. I don’t want you to. He’s my dog.”

“Sometimes it’s just this simple,” he sings. “Sometimes life is just this simple.”

In the agreeable set of meat-and-potatoes songs, Henneman sings about the passage of time, building Chryslers, lost and found love, and the joy of an evening spent doing absolutely nothing.

“I grew up in the radio age,” said Henneman, 54. “Pop records were the thing – don’t bore us, get to the chorus. I’m also a big fan of ‘if you can say it with less, say it with less.’“

Henneman has ties to roots rock royalty, as a former roadie for Uncle Tupelo and guitarist on Wilco’s first album. The Bottle Rockets have worked for more than two decades, with a sound guitarist John Horton describes as one-third John Prine, one-third Neil Young and one-third Cheap Trick.

It’s a style that’s both classic and woefully out of fashion. Not only have music sales been crumbling in general in the Spotify age, the Rockets are fighting a fading concert business. When they started booking their current tour, they found three clubs they used to play in Boston had closed.

They push on despite the brutal realities of the business.

“We worked through the bitterness,” said drummer Mark Ortmann.

“We’re on the other side of the bitterness,” Henneman agreed.

Ortmann and Henneman are childhood friends. The addition of Horton and bass player Keith Voegele a decade ago made the band more melodic and freed Henneman to concentrate more on singing, since Horton took over lead guitar duties. No longer do they get by on sheer volume.

“Now all the old songs are very hard to sing,” Henneman said. “They always were, but I was just drunk back then.”

They’re clearly proud of South Broadway Athletic Club, and played the disc in its entirety during a recent studio visit at SiriusXM.

“We made an album that’s fun to play,” Henneman said. “It’s very satisfying. People are loving it. That bought me another five years. If we had made a clunker that nobody liked, or we didn’t like, it could have been the end.”