Before March 14, neither the group nor its publicists had ever heard of William Hogeland, but now members of the Bottle Rockets suddenly are big fans of the freelance journalist.
There it was, in all its Sunday New York Times glory, an effusive opinion piece on the Bottle Rockets’ latest album, “Blue Sky” (released last October on Sanctuary –Hear here). Hogeland praised the group for emulating the “real” Woody Guthrie – “a small and wired man who embraced irreverent satire, stark lyricism, spiritual aspiration and unpredictable silliness” – instead of revering the singer-songwriter-activist as a saint, as some artists do.
“Treating guitar-drenched bar rock as a kind of American tradition,” Hogeland wrote, “the Bottle Rockets’ songwriting makes them the keepers of his idiosyncratic legacy. Boring they are not.”
Drummer Mark Ortmann says after the group came off a recent tour with Lucinda Williams, he came home to an avalanche of phone messages from family, friends and fans who had read the Times piece.
“After I read it, I called our press agent and said, ‘What’s the story behind this story?’ ” Ortmann said, with a hearty laugh. “They said they wished they could take credit for it, but the writer did it on his own. Who saw it coming? We’re flabbergasted, dumbstruck.”
More importantly, Ortmann and company – singer-guitarist Brian Henneman, bassist Robert Kearns and guitarist-multi-instrumentalist John Horton – feel vindicated after all these years.
“The writer touched on subjects that have always been there, but no one ever brought it to light,” Ortmann said. “It’s like, ‘About fucking time someone gets it!’ ”
The Bottle Rockets have never laid claim to Guthrie’s inheritance, Ortmann says, but “the writer makes a strong case, comparing the spirit of the music, the attitude of it.”
“The disturbing part about being compared to Woody Guthrie,” he said, “is that he died poor and homeless and in a hospital. Is that where we’re headed? Thanks a lot!
“But, seriously, the beauty of it is that the guy recognized it on his own and articulated it for the public.”
The Bottle Rockets formed in 1993 and quickly won over the music media, who dubbed them “the Greatest Bar Band in America.” But all the press attention didn’t translate into big album sales; for all its cult-status popularity, the group has never charted on Billboard.
A combination of bad timing, previously missed opportunities, mismanagement and record companies not delivering on promises held back the group over the years, Ortmann says.
“One of our albums came out during the UPS strike and the album sat on the shipping dock and couldn’t be sent to the stores,” Ortmann said. “It’s stuff like that we’ve been up against.”
That’s why he and his band mates aren’t banking on the unsolicited Sunday Times spotlight for bigger and better things.
“Good reviews never translate into increased sales,” Ortmann said. “We’ve always been brushed off as ‘that drunken bar band,’ and people didn’t take the time to listen deeper … until now.”
Fresh off the Times article and the group’s SXSW appearance, its New West albums – “Leftovers” (1998) and “Brand New Year” (1999) – are being reissued on April 6.
ON THE WEB: www.bottle-rockets.net.
BWF (before we forget): The Bottle Rockets album discography – “Bottle Rockets” (East Side Digital, 1993); “The Brooklyn Side” (Atlantic, 1995); “24 Hours a Day” (1997); “Leftovers” (New West, 1998); “Brand New Year” (1999); “Songs of Sahm” (Bloodshot, 2002); “Blue Sky” (Sanctuary, 2003).
Upcoming tour dates – June 18, Lawrence, Kan., Clinton Lake, Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival.