Ortmann spent some of the down time on the road as a drum tech for Shelby Lynne, working the tours for her I Am Shelby Lynne and Love, Shelby records. Kearns — a North Carolinian who had joined the band in 1997 after the departure of original bassist Tom Ray — moved to Austin and pursued other gigs, first with blues guitarist Chris Duarte and then with country-rocker Jack Ingram (he still plays with Ingram when it doesn’t conflict with Bottle Rockets dates).
The band’s business affairs, meanwhile, went to shit. Things had been bad almost from the start with Doolittle, an Austin indie label that signed the group in 1998 after a two-album stint with Atlantic failed to break them on a major-label level (though those two records — 1997′s 24 Hours A Day and 1995′s The Brooklyn Side, originally issued in ’94 on East Side Digital — remain arguably the band’s best work).
“We had this terrible, terrible thing going on with Doolittle Records,” Henneman says. “It was like we got married and beat each other up on the honeymoon. That thing went bad like that.”
Their first release on the label, in late 1998, was Leftovers, an aptly titled housecleaning of tracks that hadn’t made the cut for 24 Hours A Day. Other than a solid new version of “Get Down River” — which had previously appeared on Bloodshot Records’ influential Hell-Bent: Insurgent Country Vol. 2 in 1995 — the disc contained little that was vital to the Bottle Rockets oeuvre.
That wasn’t so much a problem — Leftovers was intended as merely a low-profile stopgap — but things deteriorated during the sessions for Brand New Year, the band’s first proper recording for the label. Henneman lays the blame largely on “one particular guy” at Doolittle (though he doesn’t name names) who he says caused considerable consternation with producer Eric Ambel, a guiding force behind the band’s two stellar Atlantic releases.
It didn’t help that “we didn’t have any management at this time,” Henneman admits, “so we were in the middle of all this stuff. And it just turned into this big stinky thing. The record-label guy wanted to get it remixed for modern rock radio, and finally we just gave up, let them fight it out, and let it come out however it did.”
Though Brand New Year, released in August of ’99, had some memorable moments — notably the anthemic Henneman/Ambel co-write “White Boy Blues” and the Ramones-inspired rocker “Gotta Get Up” — it didn’t meet the Bottle Rockets’ previous standards. As the year wound down and family concerns called Henneman and Kearns home, the band was determined to ditch things with Doolittle as well.
Which turned out to be kind of a shame, because in 2000, burgeoning Los Angeles label New West Records rode into Austin and took over Doolittle’s operations, retaining some of the label’s roster and letting others go. New West has since become one of the most prominent independent labels in the alt-country/roots-music realm, home to such artists as the Flatlanders, Jon Dee Graham, Vic Chesnutt and the Drive-By Truckers.
At that time, however, it was too early to tell how the transition would unfold, Henneman explains. “Basically, we were sitting at the table with the very company that just did us the worst experience we’ve ever had, and then they’re trying to tell us, look, here’s the new guys,” he says, recalling a meeting they had to discuss the transfer. “I guess we must have presented kind of a dissatisfied, surly vibe at the meeting, because then they decided they didn’t want us anymore after that, too. We were just looking to bail the hell outta that whole thing. We needed to get out.”