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Recession-strapped America mirrored in band's music

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
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Bottle Rockets shoot for grassroots vibe
  • The Bottle Rockets are based in St. Louis and have made 10 albums
  • The band will be performing gigs across the Midwest with singer Marshall Crenshaw
  • Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman: "We're not writing songs from the mansion on the hill"

Atlanta (CNN) -- In certain circles, Brian Henneman has been a living legend for almost two decades.

Henneman fronts the alternative-country pioneers The Bottle Rockets, a St. Louis-based band with 10 albums under its belt, including the seminal "The Brooklyn Side," from 1994.

But these days, when the singer-guitarist isn't touring with the BRox, as fans affectionately call the band, he takes the public bus to work at a part-time job, much like the protagonist in "Get on the Bus," off the Bottle Rockets' latest album "Lean Forward."

Henneman says when it comes to the Springsteenesque hard-luck characters in the band's songs, "We're right there with them. We're not writing songs from the mansion on the hill."

The Bottle Rockets have plenty of tunes about typical rock 'n' roll fare such as love and cars. But they also write about welfare moms, workers' comp recipients, delinquent bill payers and the like. It's not orthodox, but it resonates for recession-strapped Americans, some of whom can see themselves in the songs.

"For better or for worse, it's like that all over the country," guitarist John Horton says.

Henneman adds, "We're just writing about what we know. Basically, you're just looking at a snapshot of our personalities. I guess there's other people out there with personalities like ours, and it connects with them."

The band takes pains to ensure those snapshots don't get in the way of a good time.

"The real trick with stuff like that is not to get preachy," drummer Mark Ortmann points out. "You don't want to preach at people. It's more observational than anything."

While the Bottle Rockets produce their share of populist ballads, the band also can rock out, with music as diverse as the lyrics' subject matter.

"People who've never heard the band, go 'Oh. What's the band like?'" Horton says. "I tell people it basically sounds like one-third Cheap Trick, one-third John Prine and one-third Neil Young. That'll sort of get you in the ballpark."

That diverse sound is due, in part, to all four band members, including bassist Keith Voegele, writing songs.

The band sees that versatility as a blessing and a curse.

"It's really wide-ranging. If we could rein it in and make it be something, it'd be a lot easier to sell it," quips Henneman.

"I love pop music. We would probably sound like Marshall Crenshaw if I had the voice to sing that kind of stuff. My voice has kind of been a restriction," he says, with his Missouri twang.

CNN caught up with the band at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta, just a couple of weeks before a series of gigs across the Midwest with Crenshaw, another critical favorite with middling album sales in recent years.

The band members are excited to play with someone they idolized growing up. Henneman and Ortmann, the only other original Bottle Rocket, say their lives changed in 1983 when cable TV, especially MTV, first became available in their small towns about 40 miles south of St. Louis.

"If you're on MTV, you're huge in my eyes. Whoa, look at this magic stuff," Henneman recalls. "And I totally remember (Crenshaw) from that. 'Someday Someway' and all that stuff and so, to me, he's a big deal. It's like, 'Marshall Crenshaw? Hell, yeah!'"

While pairing an NPR favorite best known for his skinny-tie days with a blue-collar country-rock band may seem odd, the artists form a mutual admiration society.

Crenshaw's manager suggested the collaboration, and Crenshaw says after sleeping on it, he woke up in love with the idea.

"Their stuff has some elegance to it, you know. Their lyrics are really great and their storytelling is really great. There's some intelligence going on with what they do, and I've always been struck by that," Crenshaw says by phone from New York.

"I just like to play with people who really dig the music and really understand it and have some life experience behind how they do it," Crenshaw says. "These guys have a lot of skill, too."

The Bottle Rockets are going to open for Crenshaw, then play as his backing band at each of their joint shows. Crenshaw sent the BRox about 17 of his songs to learn, including a new single, "I Don't See You Laughing Now," that he plans on releasing on vinyl as part of a series.

The band says it has been fun, but challenging, to nail the vibe of Crenshaw's tunes.

"We're to where it's pretty much second nature now, which is remarkable compared to the first time I heard the songs," Henneman says.

"I'd be ... listening to it and I'd be like, 'Ha! Yeah, right buddy.' And it's like, 'I can't possibly play that,' he says. "But you get into it and you figure it out."

Both Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets agree that if the concerts go well, the partnership could continue.