The Long Road Home

The World’s Biggest Country Duo Risk Backlash With a Great Rock Album

On Red Dirt Road these predilections lend themselves to some of the best country rock in over a decade. "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk" opens the album by teasing us with power chords straight out of the Stones' "Start Me Up." Flowing into "Caroline," the duo lay a bluegrass-tinged vocal over riffs you used to hear coming from Creedence or Lynyrd Skynyrd. This acoustic bricolage is a digital hip-hop trick deftly transplanted into the live-country context. They pull off witty maneuvers like quoting "Lady Madonna" on the verses and Country Joe and the Fish on the choruses of "Good Day to Be Me." Several songs—notably "Feels Good Don't It" and "She Was Born to Run"—offer a stylistic hat-tip to the E Street Band.

But throughout such flashy displays, what's profoundly clear is that B&D are contemporary folk musicians, borrowing backideas once appropriated from blues and bluegrass to create rock 'n' roll. Accordingly, the Dobros, fiddles, and Hammond organs are each deployed with flawless skill and authority. When the material veers toward more straitlaced covers like "I Used to Know This Song by Heart," Ronnie Dunn intentionally sounds like the missing link between Ray Charles and Hank Williams. Brooks & Dunn's confidence in this approach even extends to their lyrics. "When We Were Kings" is the first of the duo's unabashedly political tunes to even come close to questioning America's foreign and domestic policies. Even riskier is an untitled bonus cut at the end of the CD, which may or may not be a slap at the Christian right for televangelizing the notion of a "holy war."

Over a scary gospel choir of fire-baptized wailing, Ronnie intones: "They say a holy war is comin'/Gonna be the end of mortal man/ Got the TV preachers saying Armageddon is at hand . . . " Since he seems to be quoting television transcripts, his own POV remains ambiguous until he sings: "False prophets lead while the blind sheep they follow/A path to damnation with no future, no tomorrow." Stepping away from their previous noncommittal stance, B&D finally take a position against religious bigotry—by taking to task the church leaders closest to home. It remains to be seen how much flak they'll catch for it—going soft on "the Jews, the gays, the junkies/the politicians, the infidels" isn't exactly on the Republicans' main agenda. But thus far, country radio has pushed the album and its title track to No. 1 on the genre's chart, with no sign of backlash yet. And if Red Dirt Road generates as much positive word of mouth as the Dixie Chicks' Home, America's pop and adult contemporary outlets might make this album invulnerable to any possible threat from sectarian boycotts.

After 25 million albums sold, Brooks & Dunn may have thought there were no more career mountains to climb, no more battles to win. But that could change if they set themselves the task of gently diversifying the content and political discourse of mainstream country radio. It's a worthy, truly epic undertaking for two golden Teflon cowboys like them. And I for one will be listening for the results, every time I ride the rural roads of east Texas.

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