Thursday, January 08, 2004

It's Brooks & Dunn's "Red Dirt Road"!

How It Works

by Wayne Robins

I'd always liked Brooks & Dunn, more clever by half and a rocking step beyond most country hat duos. I thought I still had a vinyl copy of their first album, "Brand New Man," (I must have a cassette in a box somewhere) and also thought it was older, that somehow it was from the mid-1980's rather than 1991. (Well, okay, 1991 is still 13 years ago).

I hadn't heard much of their repertory since then, though their cover of B.W. Stevenson's "My Maria" was such a brilliant stroke that somebody ought to do it again. (I long to hear Raul Malo and/or the Mavericks record that tune: It's crossover chart-guaranteed). With no country radio here in New York that I am aware of (fill me in if I'm wrong), and not willing to submit myself to CMT anymore than I am to MTV, the Spike Network, or Fox News, I hadn't even caught a glimpse of them in years.

What happened was: in late December I received the January-February 2004 issue of No Depression, one of my favorite magazines to read and for which to write. (Co-editor Grant Alden laughs, e-mailically, when I tell him I've gone too long without being in ND...But if you miss three issues, half a year's gone by, and it's the only music magazine I know done with spunk, spirit, and style...Grant and co-editor Peter Blackstock have such such je ne se quois, doncha think?).

But I did contribute my top twenty CD's of 2003 to the No Depression poll (you can see the list on the ND web site by scrolling down the alphabetical order of contributors). Since deadline was Thanksgiving weekend, it's a little different than the list you'll find on this page a little lower down.

Anyway, I read the mini-essay in the year end wrap up by Bill Friskics-Warren. I don't know Bill, but what I've read of his shows impeccable taste and well-proportioned insights (he makes his points while avoiding extremes), and in ND he writes: "Best of all, though, was Brooks & Dunn's "Red Dirt Road," Music Row's answer to the Drive-By Truckers' "Decoration Day" except this time both Dunn and Brooks sing with enough country soul to make Buddy Miller proud." Later, after making the case for some records I didn't hear ("Decoration Day," the Bottle Rockets "Blue Sky"), and one I didn't like (The Jayhawks ineffably bland and derivative "Rainy Day Music" which, by the way, topped the ND critics poll), Bill added: "None were better than Brooks & Dunn." Allusions to Skynyrd and Springsteen--the double-dynamite and not incompatible spirits in the southern suburban night of the 1970's and 1980's. I understood.

Now simultaneous to reading Bill's essay, I got an e-mail from Geoffrey Himes, another writer I'd much admired for many years, having mostly seen his smart, lean take on rootsy music in the Washington Post whenever I was lucky enough to stumble across it. Geoff was compiling a country music critics poll that was hoping to be definitive, and it was going to run in the Nashville Scene, the alt-weekly of which Bill Friskics-Warren is the music editor.

So I went to the iTunes store and bought "Red Dirt Road," at the very good iTunes store price of $9.99. It really is a great record. The first song, "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl" borrows the meaty Rolling Stones' riff with sublime taste and tremendous brazenness. "When We Were Kings" recalls the innocence of teen years stopped short by the death of a buddy who went to Vietnam: They make you take your prejudices about a male country singer's politics and shove it.

"I Used to Know This Song By Heart" features a lot of keyboards, churchy organ and bluesy piano, and it carries off its big arena rock arrangement (a chip off Billy Joel's "Baby Grand") with skill and gall. It could be the U.S. breakthrough hit for which British pop king Robbie Williams is still wandering the desert looking under all the wrong cactuses.

And the title song, "Red Dirt Road," is a beautifully rocking rumination on ricocheting off extremes on the difficult road to manhood: It's all about going mad with cars, beer, and Jesus, and finally, the acceptance that "Happiness on earth ain't just for high-achievers." Brooks & Dunn aren't reinventing the wheel here. Or on "She Was Born to Run." (Gentle cough). But they made a really nice set of wheels, crafted the chassis and body with care, and the way this motor hums, this one will run for a good long time.

(c) 2004 by Wayne Robins. E-mail me. (Look to your left and click where it tells you).

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