THE Bottle Rockets are an alternative-country band in the same sense that Lynyrd Skynyrd is. Both bands grew up in an Old South where storytelling and twangy guitars are part of the warm, humid air. But they also grew up in a New South where the local mall has a parking lot full of souped-up cars.
Florida's Lynyrd Skynyrd summed up this collision of old and new by taking country music's sing-along melodies and down-to-earth tales and marrying them torock 'n' roll's industrial-strength guitars. Missouri's Bottle Rockets, who appear Wednesday at Fletcher's and Thursday at IOTA, have done much the same on their five albums.
"Lynyrd Skynyrd is a rock band with a country singer," says the Bottle Rockets' lead singer Brian Henneman, "which is the same kind of deal as what we're doing. It's like putting Merle Haggard in front of Bad Company; Haggard and [Lynyrd Skynyrd's] Ronnie Van Zant have always seemed pretty much the same to me. A singer like that makes a rock band more interesting than just having your traditional rock singer strutting around doing the traditional rock thing.
"At least it's more interesting to me. Van Zant or Haggard is like someone I might meet at the gas station -- what a thrill it is to see someone like that up on stage. I didn't know anyone like Robert Plant or Stephen Tyler when I was growing up, but Van Zant and Springsteen seemed like guys I went to school with. Maybe they're not; maybe they're bigger rock stars offstage than Robert Plant, but onstage they seemed that way. And that's what counts, because I don't know them offstage."
The title track of the Bottle Rockets' latest album, "Brand New Year" (Doolittle), is drenched in enough guitar distortion to make you believe you're listening to an old Black Sabbath record. But there's a hillbilly drawl in Henneman's voice as he sings of a romantic losing streak so stubborn that it's unlikely to change in the new year. And when he wants to ease the pain, he reaches for a drink and some old records by Haggard, Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams.
"That song is about `Oops, I screwed up again,' which happens a lot around here," Henneman explains. "You swear stuff is going to change, but it doesn't change. You wish it would change, but it doesn't change. Maybe the answer is further down the road. And when you're in that kind of mood and you're looking for advice, you're not going to listen to Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. You're going to listen to your Haggards and Sinatras.
"If it's the right story, though, the loud guitars can make the story more urgent, more modern. That has always appealed to me, putting a real personal lyric with a real noisy guitar or putting a happy lyric with a sad tune. I like mixing things up just to be a smartass. Maybe that's why we're not selling millions of units."
The Bottle Rockets sold 16,000 copies of their one major-label album, 1996's "24 Hours a Day" (Atlantic/Tag), but they're critics' favorites just the same. That's because they've evoked their hometown in such vivid detail, in such an inspired mix of wise-guy humor and ruthless realism that the local peculiarities acquire a universality. Much as Bruce Springsteen did with the Jersey Shore, much as Los Lobos did with East L.A., the Bottle Rockets have made all their listeners residents of Festus, Mo.
"Festus used to be a classic small town," Henneman recalls, "with cobblestone on Main Street and all the little shops. But since Wal-Mart came in, they're all gone. There used to be industry, but that's all gone, too. Now it's just a highway stop on the way to St. Louis, all fast food and gas stations. These subdivisions are coming in for people who don't want to live in the city.
"So it's not some big romantic thing; it's just where we're from. It's the only thing I know, so that's what I write about. The songs on the first two albums [1993's "Bottle Rockets" and 1994's "The Brooklyn Side"] were about specific incidents in town. But we told all the stories we knew on those albums, so we stopped doing that. But it's all still Festus; all the women in the songs are gauged to Festus women; all the bars are Festus bars."
The new album contains broad comedy about saving the beer from a burning bar and nursing a distant crush on Nancy Sinatra as well as vicious satires aimed at suburban blues singers and Internet addicts. But it also contains "Let Me Know," a fast-and-furious plea to a woman to provide some advance warning before leaving. On "Alone in Bad Company," she's already gone, and Henneman finds himself and all his worldly possessions inside a Festus phone booth as he tells her, "Go ahead put all the blame on me; just don't hang up the phone."
Not only are the lyrics rooted in Festus, but the music's combination of '80s hard rock and '50s honky-tonk could only come together in a place like Missouri where the South and the Midwest overlap, where Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cheap Trick eight-tracks provided the parking-lot soundtrack. Henneman and his partners are trying to write songs that might make sense to their hometown pals.
"I gauge everything by my friend Rick, who is Mr. Normal Midwest Dude," Henneman says. "He's the most regular guy I know, with the wife and a house and the real job. We've known each other forever; we used to work together installing tombstones in the cemetery. I don't think of him when I'm writing, but when I'm finished I ask myself, `Will this work for Rick?' I've done that since the start. I'd never know what I'd be writing for if I didn't think of him.
"I refuse to sing about subjects I don't know anything about, so the only things I can write about are Festus and the road. I don't want to write about the road, because what does Rick or my other friends care about the road? When I write, I think about people at home and what they might or might not understand."
Founding a band in Festus proved a blessing in one sense. Because there's no music scene there, the Bottle Rockets had no preset model to follow. They just sounded like themselves, which meant they sounded like no one else.
"You look at bands from New York or L.A.," Henneman says, "and very rarely does anything original pop up, because everyone has an eye on everyone else. Coming from Festus, we were so isolated we had no idea how it was done, so we just did it the best way we knew how.
"I never understood bands from the Midwest in the '80s that sang with fake British accents. Why were they doing that? But they sold a lot more records than we have. Honesty may be the best policy, but not necessarily in rock 'n' roll."
BOTTLE ROCKETS -- Appearing Wednesday at Fletcher's and Thursday at IOTA. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Bottle Rockets, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8110. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)