Brooks & Dunn were the most successful duo of all time, selling millions of records with each release and selling out arenas with each tour. They won more awards than any other country duo in the genre’s history. They became their own brand. They had a logo, a distinct musical quality and feel, and had the talent, skill, and showmanship to back it up. Ronnie Dunn has one of the best voices in not only country music, but all of popular music. Kix Brooks has an electric stage presence. Together they created memorable and meaningful songs, and put on a live show that was like the Rolling Stones with a Stetson.
Ronnie Dunn decided that all of that wasn’t good enough. He believed he could do more and should do more. Such a bold conviction and brave ambition is equally respectable, for its courage, and risky. The difference between calling Dunn arrogant and his independent command of himself absurd, and calling Dunn brilliant and his artistic adventurism inspired lies solely in the quality of his self-titled debut album as a solo artist. It turns out that he is brilliant, inspired, and triumphant.
On Ronnie Dunn, Ronnie Dunn sounds better, freer, and stronger than he ever did in the nearly 20 years he spent as the front man of a legendary duo. He navigates some familiar territory. The opening tune, “Singer in a Cowboy Band” and the blazing ZZ Top style throw down, “Let The Cowboy Rock”, sound like the beer joint boogie that Brooks & Dunn perfected. Dunn, however, puts a newfound energy into them. Suddenly, he’s not singing from the diaphragm. He’s singing from the gut. These tunes don’t sound like Brooks & Dunn fulfilling their contractual obligation to rock again, as great as that was, they sound like songs soaked in the sweat of the dance floor and bathed in the blood used for the outlaw oath of freedom.
As good as the up tempo tunes are, the Tex-Mex trumpet-driven “Waco” included, the ballads are what most effectively and intensely demonstrate Dunn’s vocal power, songwriting prowess, and newly acquired passion. The timely and tearful “Cost of Livin’” has Dunn softly singing over an acoustic guitar, telling the story of a returning Army veteran who is about to lose his home to foreclosure, can barely pay the bills stacking up, and is begging for any job he can find. Dunn applies a sadness equal to the level of anger Bruce Springsteen used to tell the same story in “Born in the U.S.A.”. “You Kind of Love” is a simple love song in every sense of the word and style, but Dunn’s voice, which is at its strongest here, lends almost an epic quality to its declaration of loyalty, joy, and commitment in marriage. The best of the ballads is “I Don’t Dance” – a song in which Dunn sings his heart out and leaves it on the floor, promising his wife that, despite past wandering, he’s done dancing and he’s going to bring it home to her.
The themes may seem familiar, but Dunn is able to enliven them with emotional dynamism by stretching his voice and exposing his sincerity. Ronnie Dunn sounds and feels big. On the album, the singer in a cowboy band is taking risks, bearing his soul, and confronting his audience with a ferocity that his duo, for all its spectacular achievements and moments, did not. He’s no longer just making albums. He’s running existential errands.
Nowhere is this more clear than on the standout single, “Bleed Red”, an anthem advocating forgiveness on both an intimate level and a global scale in which the piano, band, and orchestra builds, along with Dunn’s voice, to make something majestic. “Once” has a monster chorus in which Dunn cranks his lungs up full throttle to celebrate the emotionalism of ignoring the intellect to protect, preserve, and pursue the kind of love “you only find once”. The closing tune, “Love Owes Me One”, takes the opposite musical approach. Dunn is accompanied by only a piano and a Sunday morning organ. Its sentiment and sensibility, however, are equally large. In this song, Dunn tells the story of a man overcoming fear and doubt to “leave the sad” and “brave the lonely”. He’s through “getting by out of habit”.
Dunn, his audience, and his music all seem the better for his bravery. In fact, the album’s two weakest points are the songs that sound most like they were taken from a Brooks & Dunn album. The ballad, “I Can’t Help Myself”, sounds too much like the B&D hit, “I Can’t Get Over You”, which is a much better song. The mid-tempo track, “I Just Get Lonely”, has all the limitations associated with the Nashville machine and resembles some of the filler songs on later albums from the duo. These minor missteps are not nearly enough to deplete Dunn’s solo album of any of its power. Most country music and most popular music seem geared toward a niche market and for an audience aimlessly searching for something to ease their boredom on a commuter train. Dunn clearly believes that his art, and his newfound faith in it, has changed his life. More importantly, he seems to believe that it can change the lives of others, and he is convincing.
“I’ve waited 20 years to make this record,” he says in a video on the making of Ronnie Dunn. His patience wore out and now he’s clawing at our eyes and screaming in our ears for attention. He wants us to listen, and we should.