04 July 2010

Brooks & Dunn: A Fan's Reflections

People who learn my socio-political leanings first tend to be surprised that I love country music.  I try to argue that, like any genre of music, there are some artists whose music is artificial and vapid, but that there's some authentic and solid material to be found, too.  I grew up listening to country music in the 1980s, and by the time I entered middle school in the early 90s, I'd grown tired of it.  I was still exposed to it, so I was aware of Brooks & Dunn from the beginning of their career, but I wasn't interested in exploring their music at the time.  In fact, the first time I heard a song of theirs that I really liked was "How Long Gone" in 1998 or 1999, I guess it was.  It wasn't until 2001, though, that they really grabbed my attention.

Steers & Stripes

B&D released a monster album, Steers & Stripes on 17 April 2001.  The lead single, "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," opens with some very striking guitar work and the rest of the song juxtaposes a completely masculine sound with lyrics that confess the narrator is unequivocally overwhelmed by a woman.  I couldn't get enough of that song in 2001, and I can listen to it over and over still to this day without getting tired of it.

By this point, my brother and our friends had gotten into the habit of attending concerts so we were on the lookout for a tour that year.  They launched one, alright; the Neon Circus and Wild West Show, easily the most memorable concert I've ever seen.  The bill featured then-budding star Keith Urban, working off his eponymous American debut album; Montgomery Gentry, riding high on "She Couldn't Change Me" from their sophomore album; and Toby Keith, who'd finally had his breakout year in 2000 off his How Do You Like Me Now?! album.  Keith Urban seemed out of place on paper, but his wicked guitar work--restricted to a mere six songs in the set--made believers of a lot of fans that year.

My 4/29/01 Ticket Stub
My brother, his then-girlfriend and I drove down to Bowling Green, picked up a friend of ours and headed to AmSouth Amphitheater in Antioch, TN on Sunday, 29 April 2001 for the second show of the tour.  My friend and I had previously seen a couple of shows in Chicago, but it was still thrilling to see a show out of town.  I remember balking at the over-priced bottled water (which I bought anyway, because the gates opened at 3:00, and we were in line before then; I knew better than to drink beer the whole time, no matter how convincing those ubiquitous Coors Light banners were).  Outside the actual stage area, they had all kinds of carnival acts roaming, from fire-breathers to jugglers and a guy on stilts.  There were face-painters, the standard artist merchandise vendors and the over-priced concessionaires to whom I have already alluded.  And to carry over the carnival atmosphere, comedian Cledus T. Judd served as the master of ceremonies on stage, performing between each artist and introducing them.

I was impressed by Keith Urban (even though his adaptation of the Charlie Daniels Band hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" as "The Devil Went Down to Nashville"--in which Johnny plays guitar, complete with the line "rosin up your pick," was awkward and clunky), and I'd already seen Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith, so I knew what to expect from them.  Finally, the sun had yielded to night and Brooks & Dunn opened their set with a wicked, Hendrix-style guitar performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" which segued into "Only in America."  The eventual music video perfectly captured not only the stage performance from the tour, but the hopeful, pre-9/11 patriotism that makes the song so special.

Maybe it's because it was the last new song I remember hearing about our country before that terrible day, but every time I hear "Only in America" it puts me back in touch with those feelings that used to be common before a decade of fear and divisiveness came to dominate our political discussions and patriotism was supplanted by nationalism in song.  Younger fans may not understand what the song felt like at the time, and that breaks my heart because there used to be a time when we could praise America without having to make sacrifices at the altar of the military just to prove we really mean it.  (No offense to our brave men and women in uniform here is intended; surely even they've grown tired of all the shoddy lyrics from songs into which they've been shoehorned over the last several years.)

I still maintain that the greatest crime in music is that "Go West," featuring lead vocals by Kix Brooks, was never issued as a single from Steers & Stripes.  It features everything I look for in a song: an ear-catching sound, well-crafted lyrics that create a world into which the listener can easily identify and to which the song offers to take him or her.  I picture this frustrated, young couple daydreaming about just hopping in their car, chasing the sun across the western sky in hopes of finding their hopes and dreams somewhere other than their stifling small town.  In a lot of ways, it's everything I love about "Only in America," but without name-dropping "The American Dream."  I sincerely hope that Kix considers re-recording this song and releasing it as a single as he takes his stand as a solo artist.

I'd heard "Neon Moon" for years before hearing Ronnie Dunn sing it live.  In my younger days, I thought it was a pretty good story song with clear descriptions of the bar scene that had a good sound.  Now, I'm convinced it's one of the greatest songs ever written, and his live performance just kills.  I highly recommend fans check out their iTunes Essentials digital album, which features a performance of the song that reflects the live arrangement.  Dunn's vocals deftly navigate the tenuous waters between drowning in apathy and trying to find some solace in the old adage that misery loves company.  It gets me every time I hear it, though it doesn't always mean the same thing to me each time.  It's a brilliant song.

I've bought every Brooks & Dunn album since Steers & Stripes and I enthusiastically made the trek out of state to catch a show on each of the subsequent Neon Circus and Wild West Show tours (28 June 2002 in Indianapolis and 21 June 2003 in Maryland Heights, MO) before they finally came to Louisville as part of the 2004 Kentucky State Fair.  In four years, I saw Brooks & Dunn four times in four different states.  I enjoyed them all for different reasons, but I have to confess that there was something kind of empty about that last appearance.  The Kentucky State Fair was a poor substitute for the Neon Circus and Wild West Show.

Red Dirt Road
Red Dirt Road disappointed me at first, because it wasn't Steers & Stripes II.  It took me a while to get on board with the album, but once I did I fell in love with it, too.  There's a much more organic aesthetic throughout that album.  Its predecessor was the album to drive a macho tour like the '01 Neon Circus and Wild West Show; Red Dirt Road was a more mature, reflective work of two men who'd reached a point in their lives where they didn't have to prove anything to anyone anymore.

It's funny; I recently rated all their songs in my iTunes library, and the only song I gave 5 stars to was the unlisted bonus track, "Holy War."  I even gave a mere 3 stars to three of the songs ("Believer," "Good Day to Be Me" and "Good Cowboy"), but I wouldn't hesitate to give the album itself 5 stars.  Every now and again, an album comes along that is greater than the sum of its parts, and for my money, Red Dirt Road is such an album.  Its sequencing and production bring the listener from a raucous bar to a lonely dirt road "off of Rural Route 3" to the brink of Armageddon.  It's hard to imagine a universal experience not touched on somewhere among these fifteen songs.

I haven't loved everything they've done, of course; neither have they (which is why not one song from their 1999 Tight Rope album appears on any of their compilation releases).  But man, I'm here to tell you that when they hit the floor running, they delivered the goods.  Whether you're limping off a heartache or letting the good times roll, their discography is a very welcome friend.  Right now, they're still on the road for their Last Rodeo tour.  Once the first of their respective individual releases surfaces, it will introduce a new layer of nostalgia to "Only in America" for me.  Not sure how I feel about that yet.  The good news is, if it sucks, I can sulk along with "Neon Moon."