Musicians typically regard day jobs as a necessary evil, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. And as usual, Bottle Rockets singer/guitarist/guiding light Brian Henneman is the exception that proves the rule. Ask about his day job (as a driver for a shop that installs automotive accessories), and he's positively effusive.
"Oh, it's awesome, man," Henneman says by phone from his homestead in the vicinity of St. Louis. "All I do is drive cars from the dealer to the shop and back, which is killer because I work within about a 200-mile radius around St. Louis. So some days, it's just one car -- which means I'm sittin' in a Cadillac listening to satellite radio all day.
"The job is like a miniature version of what the traveling musician goes through," he adds. "The dispatcher guy who sends me out is like the booking agent, then I spend most of my time traveling, just like in the band. When I hand the car off, that's like the little bit of time onstage. And then I'm traveling again. It's the same as touring, just on a smaller scale. And I get to be at home every night."
It should come as no surprise that Henneman doesn't mind working for a living, because his band has always been simpatico with the realities of blue-collar life. In a career closing in on two decades, the Bottle Rockets have been renowned for meat-and-potatoes odes to broken-down cars, radar guns, cheap spirits and tragicomic lives. There's plenty of that on "Lean Forward" (Bloodshot Records), the Bottle Rockets' latest album -- including an ode to Henneman's day job, "Nothin' But a Driver," which describes a typical working day over a thunderous Bo Diddley backbeat:
"I'm nothin' but a driver
That's all I wanna be
Pick up and deliver
Well, it's good enough for me!"
Throw in an excellent non-didactic protest song ("Kid Next Door," about a young soldier who won't be coming home) and a couple of surprisingly effective forays into funk ("Hard Times," "Give Me Room"), and "Lean Forward" is another solid addition to the Bottle Rockets canon. The album reunites the group with producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, who handled the board work on the 1990s-era signposts "The Brooklyn Side" and "24 Hours a Day." But Henneman says that hiring Ambel was less a matter of reconnecting with past glories than pure practicality.
"We had a situation, and hiring him was addressing the situation," says Henneman. "We wanted to make the best album we could on the small budget we had, and there was only one guy who could make it happen. Roscoe can make a record in 10 days that sounds like it took a lot longer. And having worked with us for so long during our 'Wonder Years,' he had a pretty good idea of what the hell we're supposed to sound like. Probably more than we do."
This sense of pragmatism also extends to touring. The Bottle Rockets spent plenty of years playing one-nighters all over the country during their major-label days, when Atlantic Records was trying to turn this scruffy bunch into pop stars. But nowadays, they mostly just play weekends -- including tonight at Raleigh's Berkeley Cafe -- and leave it at that.
"We're making an effort in this modern world to spare our fans the 11 o'clock Monday night start time," Henneman says. "There are all sorts of issues for our fans with that, which I understand because I'm no spring chicken myself. There's baby-sitter vibes, work vibes, all that to deal with. So we'll keep it to Thursday through Saturday with the occasional Sunday, and try to keep Monday-Tuesday out of there because it does nobody any favors. We've done everything there is to do a hundred times already, so we're not missing out on any 'Experiences of the Road.' We just distill it down to doing what we came for, which is to play a rock show."
If the Bottle Rockets are in no danger of scaling the pop charts, at least they've stuck around long enough to amass a following big enough to make it worth their while to keep at it. Just that much is more than most bands manage anymore.
"You know, it's amazing to me that people still get out and do it," Henneman says. "Nobody could possibly be getting into this now thinking they'll be rich and famous. So they do it for honest reasons. That old gatekeeper thing of 'attaining a record deal' is all out the window, so it's now just a bunch of free-range chickens on the Internet. I'm sure Benny Goodman felt the same way when Elvis came out.
"But we made it through the swing resurgence, past alternative country," Henneman concludes. "We even outlived Hootie. And now we're just hanging in there. Nothing to do but play on weekends and work a really cool day job. Hey, this is the closest I've felt to success in a long time."
david.menconi@newsobserver. com or blogs.newsobserver. com/beat or 919-829-4759