Box Full of Letters from Issue #24
Ugliest band in rock ‘n’ roll:
Defending the Bottle Rockets
I have never felt compelled to respond to a music review, but Grant Alden’s spin on the Bottle Rockets’ latest effort [ND #23, Sept.-Oct. ’99] left me very confused. I don’t understand what he doesn’t get about Brand New Year. Exactly what expectations did he have for this album?
Okay, I am not in love with the bleak inside cover photo of a woman puking, but as a longtime member of the minority of female fans crazy for the self-proclaimed “ugliest band in rock ‘n’ roll,” the Bottle Rockets have never been about aesthetics for me.
As far as appearances go, anyone who has ever been to one of their bar gigs knows they are, and always have been, an extremely loud rock ‘n’ roll band. During live shows, even an impassioned, heartfelt song about a fateful fire in a double-wide (“Kerosene”) can become a rock anthem. For every “Get Down River” or “Smokin’ 100s Alone” there is, and always has been, a “Sunday Sports”, “Radar Gun”, or even a Cheap Trick cover thrown in.
Must the fact that Brian Henneman was once a roadie for Uncle Tupelo define the rest of his musical career? Uncle Tupelo isn’t around anymore — Wilco has gone pure pop and Son Volt spends their time perfecting an imitation of themselves. (I have trouble remembering which track is which on Wide Swing Tremolo because they all sound exactly the same.) Bands change, most artists try new things, and just because Henneman and his cohorts in crime opted to celebrate the hard rockin’ musicians they loved growing up doesn’t signal the group’s demise.
As for the lack of Henneman’s signature “blue collar poetry” on Brand New Year, I don’t think there’s a danger of him becoming too callous or cosmopolitan anytime soon. Last time I checked, he hadn’t left his family and friends behind in Festus for an apartment in Soho, and the band wasn’t slated to appear on the next episode of “Dawson’s Creek”. The Bottle Rockets are still living their roots, still working hard, and still serving as “messengers from the Heartland.” While there isn’t any welfare music on the album, there is an ingeniously simple and relevant song (“Gotta Get Up”), some self-reflective lyrics (“Another Brand New Year”), and social criticism (“White Boys Blues”).
Commercial success has been elusive for the Bottle Rockets. As several record labels and even more years pass by, I imagine it becomes increasingly important their voices be heard. We No Depression subscribers don’t like to face this, but there are countless rock ‘n’ roll consumers out there compared to we thousands of roots-rock enthusiasts. If this CD picks up some new followers for the group, more power to it. Brand New Year still delivers everything true fans have come to expect.
— Ann Kirchner
Uncle Walt’s Band:
Ahead of their time
Thank you so much for the article on David Ball [ND #23, Sept.-Oct. ’99] and especially for alerting your readers to Ball’s early involvement with Uncle Walt’s Band. Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood and David Ball were doing something original in the 1970s. I think they just absolutely left everyone else behind, and now, decades later, everyone is slowly catching up.
What David didn’t mention in his interview is that, in addition to performing outstanding original material (written not just by Walter but by Champ and David as well), Uncle Walt’s Band was playing and recording acoustic covers of Southern blues artists, such as Robert Johnson, and other traditional material, this only a few years after Clapton, Page, et al. popularized the Delta blues for a young audience as a strictly electric experience. Electric blues was in; acoustic blues was out.
It may well be, as David stated in his interview, that the big label auditions performed by Uncle Walt did not always go as well as planned. However, I think it is much more important that since the war to “plug in” folk music had only so recently been won (remember Newport ’65?), the industry and the listening audience were not yet ready to “unplug.” That didn’t happen for twenty more years — on MTV, no less.
While Uncle Walt had a growing local following for its live shows in Nashville, it is understandable that country music industry executives were not yet ready to unleash on the early ’70s white country audience a band that closed its shows with a cover of “Gimme Some Skin” as performed by the Delta Rhythm Boys. Add to all of this that unlike, say, Dan Hicks or Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen, or even (especially?) Beefheart, all of this was done with a great deal of reverence for the original material. It sounded authentic. It wasn’t a send-up.
Was the Uncle Walt’s Band approach naive? Yes. But Walter Hyatt and Uncle Walt’s Band was also the most underrated and ahead-of-its-time thing to happen musically in the South in the 1970s. The mainstream of the record industry has just caught up in the past few years, with the release, on CD, of original country blues recordings by the likes of Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson on Columbia Legacy, or the RCA Bluebird reissues of Tommy McClennan and Robert Lee McCoy. Uncle Walt performed a high-flying leapfrog into this prewar troubadour tradition and attempted to weld onto it the Texas swing, hillbilly roots of Nashville’s commercial country sound. It was an act that makes a whole lot more sense in today’s multicultural world-music arena.
— Michael O’Connell
From the Fold:
No Depression in heaven
Appreciate your article on Anita Carter [ND #23, Sept.-Oct. ’99]. We’ll all miss her a lot. You are right, she could sing.
The article “Hello Stranger” by Grant Alden got my attention. I live in the Bible Belt and appreciate your reference to God. Am sure he is there for all of us. Keep up the good work.
— Flo Wolfe
Keeping up with the Millers and Jones
The postman delivered the latest ND [#23, Sept.-Oct. ’99] to my door yesterday. For what it’s worth, it impresses me as the strongest issue you guys have done. Bill Friskics-Warren on the Millers and David Cantwell on George Jones (arriving just as I’ve been driving the wife and kid crazy playing “Choices” over repeatedly) are so good they’re enough to make me want to forget I ever pretended I could write. Congratulations on your fourth anniversary.
— Mitchell Moore
The Drifters, uncovered
Thanks for the long overdue story on the Continental Drifters [ND #23, Sept.-Oct. ’99], the unknown supergroup.
While in my biased opinion you should have given them the cover, at least you could have given them a cover line. If I weren’t a subscriber, I wouldn’t have even known the piece was in the mag.
While I’m not sure of the likelihood of the Drifters becoming another Fleetwood Mac, their talent should grab a big piece of the spotlight for them.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it often works. Talent alone isn’t enough; consider Jim Lauderdale, also in this issue.
— Steven Marsh
Well, here I am doing some email and listening to NPR on Sunday morning and this story about country music comes on with you guys as guests [“Weekend Edition Sunday”, Sept. 12, 1999]. I punched up your site on the Web while listening and sure enough there you were! I gotta tell you that it is a breath of real fresh air to see someone separate themselves from the noise that calls itself “country” music and put out a publication to boot!
I remember seeing Ernest Tubb in Baton Rouge High School Auditorium in 1940-something and going to the Louisiana Hayride on my first wedding trip in ’49, and the music I heard then bears little resemblance to the plastic overproduced noise that passes for entertainment these days and is called country! ‘Scuse me.
I am not a full-time country fan. I listen to many kinds of music, but I grew up on what has sadly become alternative country, a music most of us could relate to in some non-strained fashion. I thank you for recognizing this fact and giving a voice to the people’s country music.
— Jerry Henderson
I heard your spot on NPR this morning and accessed your site. I just started listening to Country music after I saw Martina McBride’s performance on the Country Music Awards (hers was the only one I liked, but I liked it a lot). So far I like her and Shania Twain (sorry, if this might turn your stomach) and was wondering if your magazine has ever reviewed their music. I was first attracted to their uplifting and energetic melodies, but I also like their “proactive” lyrics. Are either of them considered “no depression”?
— Noel Collamer
[Ed. note: Sorry Noel, but you apparently have us confused with stuff that depresses us.]