Looking back on the music of the early ’90s, it’s easy to forget that there were popular forms other than grunge. The spectacular success and traumatic demise of Nirvana loom large in musical memory. But for a short time there, the broad genre known as No Depression (a reference, ultimately, to a Carter Family song), or alt-country, seemed as likely to become the next big thing.
It had a good run, even gaining its own bimonthly “bible,” also named No Depression. Arguably it produced at least one superstar, though Jeff Tweedy’s work has become considerably more eclectic over the years. But by the beginning of the 2000s, many of the bands who had been considered canonical had disappeared or evolved, and the tag just wasn’t very useful. From the start it had been pretty vague. Even No Depression itself claimed to cover “alternative-country (whatever that is).”
So, the double bill of Bottle Rockets and James McMurtry was both a kind of time travel and object lesson. Both acts have been at it for some time—Bottle Rockets’ debut release dropped in 1992, McMurtry’s in 1989—and both acts are remarkably consistent. If you liked what either were doing at first, there’s little to turn you off today. But while the bands are still true to their respective aesthetics, they also provided a good reminder of how broad the generic terms always were.
Bottle Rockets are an absolutely tremendous bar band. The subject matter of the songs—beer, bad relationships, crappy cars, etc.—tends toward the stereotypical, but is tweaked by a sly sense of humor and some really stellar musicianship. The rhythm section, bassist Keith Voegele and drummer Mark Ortmann, is flawless. The guitar interplay between frontman Brian Henneman and John Horton makes the distinction between rhythm and lead entirely irrelevant. They’ve been referred to as a blend of the Replacements and Buck Owens, and in their hourlong opening set they completely justified such comparisons.
McMurtry, the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, is considerably darker, his lyrics detailed and down-home literary. Where the Bottle Rockets’ hard-luck tales have the feel of tall tales told over cold beers, McMurty’s often feel like short stories from rock bottom. Where Henneman and company are extroverted and inviting, McMurtry is inward and intimidating. (Personal anecdote: An old trio of mine once opened for McMurtry and found that his onstage demeanor, reserved though it may be, is still considerably warmer than his offstage manner. He is not a very friendly dude.)
McMurty is, himself, an impressive player. His band, though, added little—to my ears. For most of the set, McMurtry was backed by a drummer and bassist, who also contributed back-up vocals; and for most the set it seemed to me just obligatory. They were not poor players, but the low end didn’t distinguish itself much from McMurtry’s deep, rolling voice. A second guitarist joined for a few numbers, and his competent leads seemed entirely pointless in the context of McMurtry’s compositions. By comparison, that same musician’s turn on accordion stood out, pleasantly. There is a sameness to much of McMurtry’s work, which is usually compensated for by the richness of his lyrics. Somehow, this backup formation overrode that for me and made it difficult for me to enter the songs fully, without offering either sonic differentiation or interest.
Or maybe I was just thirsting for another round of Bottle Rockets.