Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Bands @ Return of the Byrne: Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann

Return of the Byrne: A St. Louis Fundraiser for Burn Your Bookes at the Schalfly Tap Room is only a few days away. (Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.)

In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing
. Today it's our Special Guests Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann.

* * * * *

In the life-changing moments department, few dates for me will rival New Year's Eve 1988.

As usual with such things, it was an accident. I had just become the music writer at The Riverfront Times a month or so before. Pissed off an advertiser with my first column: a fact made clear to me by one of the associate publishers at the office holiday party.

As a graduate student on the edge of my bank account, I was enjoying the extra cash. But I was really worried about what I was going to do to fill a column on the local music scene every freaking week. The town seemed completely dead on the surface, with only a few bright spots here and there. I was particularly interested in bands that were playing their own songs. That's the real fuel of a music scene.

Club owners quickly had the new columnist in town on their radar. And that New Year's Eve, I was planning to head downtown to a swanky new nightclub and dance the night away. Maybe score a column out of that.

The weather turned incredibly shitty as darkness fell. The St. Louis mix of snow/freezing rain that makes driving a risky business, let alone trying to score a taxi. My girlfriend at the time and I decided to go out but stay much close to University City. Cicero's Basement Bar -- a place I'd enjoyed since I'd arrived in town 18 months earlier -- was hosting a New Year's Eve party with local scenesters Rugburn. That was the ticket.

As we descended the stairs into the basement bar, the opening band was just starting to crank up. They literally blew my head off with these loud, brazen (and most important, self-penned) country songs, as if Neil Young had made love to Lynyrd Skynyrd and to David Allen Coe in a field of stone and glass.

It was love at first sight. It was Chicken Truck. And suddenly the idea of doing a weekly music column in St. Louis seemed much more promising. I can't say for sure that I never would have found Chicken Truck and through them Uncle Tupelo and so on and so forth. But I know for a fact the particular and fortuitous crappy weather and change of plans that night definitely accelerated the process.

Ninety percent of the people reading this know at least some of the story after that point. Three of the members of that band -- Brian Henneman (guitar/vocals) and Mark Ortmann (drums) and Tom Parr (guitar) went on to form the Bottle Rockets after Chicken Truck called it a day. And that band has had incredible critical success not only against the odds of launching a band of high songwriting and performative chops in the sea of crap that is popular music, but also in navigating a seemingly never ending obstacle course of personnel changes (including a few new guitarists -- and a period as a trio -- and a few new bassists), bad luck, bad labels and bad manners.

The good thing is that the Bottle Rockets story has turned out just fine. The Bottle Rockets are with the good people at Bloodshot Records and are touring behind a terrific new record called Lean Forward.

But in the lead up to Return of the Byrne, I don't want to tell an oft-told story. I want to delve back a bit into the Chicken Truck story, just to point out how important that band was to the entire 90s wave of the alt-country genre.

The other day, as I was rummaging around in my parents' basement for door prizes for the benefit, I happened across the typewritten lyric sheet for Chicken Truck's legendary 90 Minute Tape.

The 90 Minute Tape is what academics call an "Ur-Text." So many good things sprang from those 30 songs, including a good number of Bottle Rockets songs which Brian eventually reworked: "Rural Route," "Every Kinda Everything," Dead Dog Memories," "I Got What I Wanted (But I Lost What I Had)," "Young Lovers in Town," "Gas Girl," "Lonely Cowboy," "Waiting on a Train," "Perfect Far Away," and "Get Down."

Below the list of songs and their times are some typewritten notes on the recording, which I reproduce here:

Brian Henneman: Vocals, Fender Esquire, Gibson EH-150, Guild D-35
Bob Parr: Vocals, Fender Telecaster Bass, Hohner Harmonics
Tom Parr: Gretsch Tennessean, Guild D-25
Mark Ortmann: Pearl Drums (Because he wants the best!)

Recorded by Chicken Truck on a TASCAM Porta-One cassette recorder, from January 9, 1986 through November 5, 1986. (Behind the green door!)

The 90 Minute Tape isn't only important as a treasure trove of songs later repurposed to great effect by one of the best American bands of the last 25 years. The versions on the tape are integral works of art in themselves.

But for me, the tape is important because it represented the emergence of a major American songwriter. With the occasional lyrical assist from fifth Trucker/Rocket Scott Taylor (and a few songs by other band members), Brian Henneman had the desire and the talent to renovate the American country song from its moribund state in 1986.

You can't listen to "Young Lovers in Town" or "Perfect Far Away" on the 90 Minute Tape and not be blown away by the simplicity, the word play, and the genuine emotion married to an astonishing tunefulness. The shock of that recognition is why people get into writing about music.

Past all the many moments and memories I have had with Brian and Mark -- the Festus Chainsaw Massacres and watching them open for John Fogerty and the countless other journeys -- I go back to that first New Year's Eve and the first time Mark handed me the 90 Minute Tape. Brian's songwriting has had an incredible and continuing influence on the genre.

I am honored and delighted that they'll play at Return of the Byrne. And for Bottle Rocket completists, I can promise a door prize from the 90 Minute Tape era will be up for grabs. Hint in the image above. And a couple other awesome collector's prizes as well.

(Image: Chicken Truck, "Drag My Butt/Every Kinda Everything" 45 single; Rural Route Records.)

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