The Long Road Home

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

In the rural east Texas graveyard where my father and his parents are buried, just a stone's throw from a black church built on land donated by my father's father, I embrace my country-and-western roots. On yearly visits to the ancestral homestead, I drive long flat highways between Longview, Marshall, and Shreveport, where I temporarily shed my native Yankee persona to blend into a very different world. It's not easy.

Misleading stereotypes about the South and Southwest are so deeply ingrained in the received wisdom of outsiders that average native New Yorkers know as little about the region's contemporary sociology as they know about the quotidian reality of most Islamic nations. In truth, the lucky landed families usually farm their land or lease it; families who've lost or sold their land also lose cohesion and identity as they're forced into itinerant labor markets both legal and illegal. They might truck timber, take seasonal work on gas pipelines, become roving ranch hands or carnival roustabouts, or move to larger cities for factory work. But the nostalgia for landed security always remains, enshrined in lyrics of country songs.

As Leadbelly could have told you, this area used to be plantation country, and despite the presence of two historically black colleges, the economic gap between local whites and blacks remains. But Southern blacks and whites still share a sensibility. I learned about east Texas via channel flipping between dinosaur rock, southern hip-hop, and country, but it's the local country station that commands my attention, by mirroring the reality around me: shiny pickup trucks with rooftop gun racks, people sporting Western boots as much to ward off invading fire ants as for style. Here were avid odes to church socials, massive bales of summer hay, ratty pawn shops, and rustic honky-tonks. And in looking for the authentic source of these Teflon cowboy anthems, I discovered the music of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn.

From their first album as a duo in 1991 the pair wore a natural eclecticism on their sleeves. Dunn's vocal tendency to slide from hillbilly yodel to blues moan and back paired well with Brooks's obvious affection for Memphis soul melodicism and Crescent City swing. All the songs they wrote, from the paniolo-styled ballad "Neon Moon" to the Pentecostal love song "Brand New Man," revealed two good ol' boys who seemed to accept and actually revel in America's thoroughly mongrelized heritage. But their best album tracks didn't always get to be singles.

In the 1990s, the club-driven line-dancing craze helped lock the sound and thematic emphasis of country radio on manic beer-fueled boogie and nostalgic love songs, with a virtual ban on anything with a whiff of pathological brooding or "un-Christian attitude." This was the musical climate into which Brooks & Dunn debuted their synergistic mix, thereby becoming the top-selling country duo of the decade. They could sing about divorce, or cheating, or outlaw behavior, but only with shame or regret and a desire for redemption. This resulted in a string of singles not bland so much as relentlessly good-humored. Bad girls and wild boys got lots of play in B&D's songs, but always with a subtly fundamentalist spin on their probable comeuppance. Brutally frank Steve Earle couplets like "they draft the white trash first/'round here anyway" would never make it onto a B&D album.

That's largely why Red Dirt Road, B&D's eighth studio album on Arista, is such a provocative surprise. These crown princes of country radio, who've played Republican conventions and aggressively recast Lollapalooza freakiness into a travelling rodeo circus featuring multiple headliners and seven hours of wholesome family fun, have made a record aimed at the midsize venues and more demanding audiences they gave up when they became radio darlings and began headlining huge arena shows. Ronnie told Billboard: "This is the most honest record we've made since Brand New Man. . . . And I think the undercurrent that triggered this reflection is what's going on in the world. It's the first time we perceived us as Americans, as being threatened." Galvanized by 9-11, these fortysomething singer-songwriters soberly reassessed how they grew up, then recorded 15 sociological portraits of unvarnished Americana.

Kix Brooks was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, while his partner, Ronnie, is a failed divinity student from Coleman, Texas, who earned his musical spurs playing the boogie bars of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both claim diverse influences, from the Eagles to Earl Scruggs, from Cajun dance tunes to Leon Russell's hippie gospel rock. When first introduced to Ronnie by an Arista executive in Nashville, Kix had already placed a few charting singles with other acts and released a solo LP, while Ronnie had just finished the demos on some songs that would end up on the duo's 1991 debut, Brand New Man. Chances are they would never have thought about teaming up had Arista not offered them a recording contract. So the question is: Were Brooks & Dunn fabricated by Arista Nashville's a&r department? Did Tim DuBois envision Kix and Ronnie as the Mick and Keith of country music, and manipulate fate to make these two hungry songwriters conform to this vision? Given the collaborative standards of Nashville's Tin Pan Alley, the point is moot. Kix was obviously born to reinvent the progressive country ballad, while Ronnie is synergistically called to sing redemptive parables rather than bitter rants.

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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