The time has come for Ronnie Dunn to step aside. Not from Brooks & Dunn, mind you, but as the default lead singer of the duo. For the past sixteen years, Kix Brooks has been all but a backup singer in his own headlining act, as nearly all of the singles released by this duo featured Ronnie Dunn on lead.
It’s easy to understand why. Dunn is virtually peerless among male country vocalists. If he’d been a solo act with the same level of success, he’d probably be a staple in the Male Vocalist category. But as a songwriter, he’s treading the same ground repeatedly. Dunn dominates the proceedings for the first half of this album, and my eyes glazed over by the third cowboy song to surface in four tracks. I suppose that if you truly believe that when you get to heaven, Saint Peter is going to tip his hat and welcome you to Cowboy Town, you’ll be happy to indulge him, but it isn’t until Kix Brooks takes the reins – see, I can do cowboy metaphors, too! – that this album starts to get interesting.
The first great song on the record is “The Ballad of Jerry Jeff Walker”, and it’s a personal remembrance of Brooks’ early days in Texas honky-tonks. It’s the type of song you’d expect to hear from a Todd Snider or a Charlie Robison, a pure celebration of the underground country subculture. Walker himself shows up to share his hazy recollections of that era, noting that they were “trying to get paid, trying to get laid” and working to get as high as their crowd by the end of the set. The attention to detail radiates authenticity, a stark contrast to the throwaway “Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)” that Dunn had turned in a few tracks earlier.
Brooks can’t approach Dunn as a vocal stylist, but his sincerity is undeniable, and his songwriting is in peak form. Songs like “Drop in the Bucket” and “Chance of a Lifetime” have a pulsing energy, and not the fake kind that Nashville hacks try to force with big guitars and loud drums. The latter has a brilliantly funny subplot involving the cat a woman leaves behind when she leaves Brooks for the Bahamas. Even better is “American Dreamer”, which is a more believable take on “Only in America”, where the true American spirit is captured: it’s not that we dream as big as we want to, as that big hit claimed, but rather that we persevere in the face of obstacles that should be insurmountable.
Thankfully, when Dunn returns to the lead vocalist spot for the final track, “God Must Be Busy”, he’s paired with material that’s worthy of his talents. It’s a more interesting exploration of faith than the widely praised “Believe.”
Perhaps their upcoming solo albums are just what these two need. Brooks deserves an entire project to showcase his songwriting and unique style, and Dunn could do wonders with a solo album if he’s wise enough to stack it with outside material. As for this album, Cowboy Town shows both an aging formula and the potential for some new musical directions to shake things up for Brooks & Dunn.
Buy: Cowboy Town