Formed nearly 30 years ago, the Bottle Rockets helped forge a now-popular subgenre — small-town, middle-class, Midwest American roots rock — part right-to-the-gut poetry, part rock ’n’ roll, all truth.
The St. Louis band, which released its 13th album, “Bit Logic” last fall, will perform on the Pepsi Main Stage at the Washington Town & Country Fair Friday night, Aug. 9, at 6:30 p.m.
The four-member band includes Franklin County native John Horton, who grew up in Lonedell and Washington and graduated from St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in 1986.
As a child, Horton went to the Washington Town & Country Fair quite a bit and has a vague memory of watching Merle Haggard play on the main stage sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s. Knowing that he’s going to be performing on the same stage some 40 years later “feels pretty good,” said Horton.
He started playing guitar in high school and began playing in a band when he was 18. He was a member of the New Patrons of Husbandry, which included several other local musicians.
Although Horton hasn’t been to the fair in 10 or more years — the last concert he saw there was Heart — he’s excited for this unique opportunity. However, there won’t be much time for reflection until after the show. The band is playing in Madison, Wis., the day before and will spend much of Friday driving down to Washington.
Once the Bottle Rockets’ performance is over, Horton hopes to be able to stick around, maybe even have a drink and visit with old friends.
Earlier this summer, Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman spoke with Ethan Busse, The Missourian’s Currents Arts and Entertainment editor, about the group and what fans can expect to hear at the show here.
Following is an edited transcipt of that conversation:
MISSOURIAN: Thanks for taking time to talk with me before you come out to play our Washington Town & Country Fair. We’re all excited to have you guys out here.
HENNEMAN: Yeah, that ought to be something . . . I’ve been to that Fair many times myself, just as a fairgoer.
MISSOURIAN: Are you going to partake in any Fair activities before or after the show?
HENNEMAN: I’m sure I will. There’s a funnel cake in my future.
MISSOURIAN: We are excited to have you guys out here, especially since you guys are a St. Louis band that’s made it big. That’s a big deal . . . What is new and exciting with the Bottle Rockets?
HENNEMAN: Nothing new right now. Just in traveling, playing mode. Still doing the same thing we were doing when the record came out in October. That’s about it. There’s nothing in the works yet.
MISSOURIAN: I have some questions here from our readers. First, what are some of your biggest musical influences?
HENNEMAN: Oh, jeez. This is a question that’s never ending. I’ll name three and forget three very important ones. But going way back, Lynyrd Skynyrd at the start. They were huge. They were the band that made me want to be a rock star. I was like 13 and 14 years old.
Then later when punk rock hit, which was a relief kind of thing, because I was trying to learn to play guitar, and Skynyrd was a daunting task, then punk rock came along and made me think I could get a band together. So the Ramones, stuff like that, were instrumental in giving me the thought that I could play guitar and get a band going.
Then a huge band, the turning point band that forced me to start a band because I wanted to do it so bad, was Jason and the Scorchers. That would have been mid-’80s I guess. That was like punk rock, Synyrd and country all at the same time.
That worked for me. Then as the ’80s rolled on and MTV got more (popular) . . . I quit watching. That’s when I started exploring country music . . . I guess the turning point guy for that was John Anderson. Then I started going in all directions from there.
But one of the big songwriting influences would have been Merle Haggard. Waylon Jennings was a huge one for how to make a band be really cool. And when I got into songwriting, there was Hank Williams Sr., John Prine, it never ends.
Those are big ones. Skynyrd, John Prine, Haggard, John Anderson. I can’t ever make that a short list.
I just now forgot to say that my favorite songwriter is Tom Petty.
MISSOURIAN: How do you guys feel about playing fairs compared to intimate inside venues?
HENNEMAN: It’s different for sure. And since we are generally the opening act at fairs, we are going on in broad daylight, which makes it hard to see your tuner on stage. It’s basically a battle of the elements. It’s on a bigger stage, you are set farther apart from each other. When you are going first, people are not all there yet. So the little venues are more fun for sure. But there’s a fun to the fairs and things as well. I would choose the intimate venue over the big outdoor, but I’m perfectly happy with both.
MISSOURIAN: Where has been your most important place to play?
HENNEMAN: That happened early in my career even before we had the Bottle Rockets together, when I was with Uncle Tupelo. I have actually performed at Carnegie Hall. That is one of my great fun facts. I was playing mandolin with those guys. So we did one gig at Carnegie Hall on this crazy Michelle Shocked tour in the early ’90s.
My favorite thing about that was we got in a cab to go to Carnegie Hall and the driver asked where our stage clothes were, and we said, “These are our stage clothes.” And he just laughed.
That was the most impressive place I’ve ever played. But there have been amazing gigs — like the Bottle Rockets played the Smithsonian Institution at 9 a.m. That was a weird gig. But we did it. It was whenever they did that “River of Song” movie that was put out by PBS.
We have played some interesting places for sure.
MISSOURIAN: Favorite fair food?
HENNEMAN: It’s an eternal tossup for me between the funnel cake and the giant corn dog. I generally don’t choose. I just get one of each, and I’m perfectly happy for 10 minutes.
MISSOURIAN: Who is on your playlist right now? When you’re not playing your own music and your listening to somebody else, who are you listening to?
HENNEMAN: Right now, what I’m listening to is this radical radio station on AM radio across the river from St. Louis. It’s called KQQZ . . . he plays this totally obscure country music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I could never find or collect all of these records, and hear these things he’s playing, because I don’t know where he gets it from.
So it has kind of taken over my life. I’m hearing songs I’ve never heard in my life by people I’ve never heard of in my life. So that really is the prominent thing these days.
I listen to it on the AM radio . . . I’m sure they probably stream too.
MISSOURIAN: Do you want to tell the fans what kind of show you’re going to give ’em?
HENNEMAN: What we’ve been doing for shows like these where it’s a shorter set list, being an opening act, whether it’s 45 minutes or an hour or whatever time we get, we’ve been calling it 26 years in 45 minutes. Because we have been playing something off of every album, starting with the new one and going back to the very first one. It’s a 26-year retrospective in whatever time we are allotted.
MISSOURIAN: That’s awesome! Good to know! I’ve always liked the way you guys sound. It’s that little niche that doesn’t get the air play.
HENNEMAN: Well thanks! A 45-minute set works out perfectly because that is one song from each album, but an hour set is easy too, because we just add a couple more. So it’s very easy to make a set list for that.
It works good, it actually makes into a good set list every time and it gives people an idea of what we’ve been doing for the past 26 years.
MISSOURIAN: That’s a great idea. Are you going to bring the trash guitar?
HENNEMAN: No, I have that one at home. It’ll either be a Telecaster or a Gibson Maurader. Probably a Telecaster. I’m switching back to that these days. I go back and forth.
Right now the Telecasters are close to the front of the closet, so those are the ones I’m playing.
MISSOURIAN: Waylon always liked the Telecaster, so there isn’t anything wrong with that.
HENNEMAN: That’s right! And I would not say, it wouldn’t be far fetched for me to say listening to that wild radio station is what steered me back toward it too. Because you are hearing all those kind of guys. Waylon is one of my favorites, I love him. So anything I can do to be sort of like him is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.
It’s Telecaster season!