Something kind of strange and wholly unexpected happened a few years ago to country music, as we know it: Big & Rich. Some four years later, a couple high-concept weirdoes launched the conservative Nashville establishment into the 21st century, by, among other means, enlisting a very tall “country-rapper“, referencing OutKast and Limp Bizkit, and morphing a nice-enough traditional ballad into an electric fiddle freak-out replete with yodeling and nods toward Stevie Wonder and Prozac. As it turns out, Big & Rich were very much a one-shot revolution, which culminated with a bizarre, show-stopping Country Music Awards performance. The two albums they’ve released since 2004’s Horse of a Different Color are considerably less audacious, and Cowboy Troy’s full-length outing proved definitively that, once the novelty of the form wears thin, bad rapping is just bad rapping.
Still, after Horse‘s surprise success and crossover appeal, John Rich and Big Kenny’s thumb print was, for better or worse, imprinted firmly on commercial country’s DNA. A year before Big & Rich took the genre by storm, country’s best-selling duo had released their strongest album to date, the excellent Red Dirt Road, an expansive 15-song set that sounded pretty adventurous in those innocent, pre-Big & Rich days. Post-Horse, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn seemed somewhat perplexed by the apparent sea change that had occurred since they last tested the marketplace. Their response was a mixed bag of a record called Hillbilly Deluxe, in which they invited Sheryl Crow over and tried their best to amp their honky-tonk aesthetic up to 11, ala Big & Rich.
Upon first listen, Cowboy Town can consequently be considered a return to vintage form for Brooks & Dun. Thankfully, they’re mostly just trying to be themselves here, at least insofar as they were “themselves” on their ‘90’s hits, and focus on what they do best. Within the context of their recent output, it’s not as front-to-back inspired or musically diverse as Red Dirt Road, but it’s a more consistently pleasing collection than Hillbilly Deluxe. But this isn’t just a step back from their last outing, it sounds as if it should predate Red Dirt Road and perhaps 2001s more-than-solid Steers and Stripes, too. As a country music fan, I’m more or less fine with this move, but as a music critic (the hat I’m wearing at the moment) who championed the broader horizons Brooks & Dunn had begun to explore, the digression Cowboy Town represents is rather more problematic.
Because there’s a catch and there’s always a catch. With the notable exception of one bona-fide classic (which I’ll get to in a minute), the duration of the new album is plagued by a palpable sense of you-can’t-go-home-again. Knowing where the group has ventured these past six years, it’s hard to buy the more musically modest, unassuming Brooks & Dunn present on Cowboy Town. This is especially true when the music in question is, in many respects, the slickest they’ve ever put to record. It’s heat lamp Brooks & Dunn, where Red Dirt Road was clearly made-to-order.
That said, this is still a Brooks & Dunn record, and a pretty good one. Everything works the way it’s supposed to, from the ironically rock-tinged title track (to these ears, they’ve long had more in common with Bruce Springsteen than with Johnny Cash, despite name-checking the latter a couple tracks later) to power-ballad lead-off single “Proud of the House We Built” to “Put a Girl in It” (the closest thing here to Big & Rich, for the record) to the wonderful, old school R&B-inflected “Chance of a Lifetime,” which connects dots that would put a grin on Sasha Frere-Jones’ face. The only problem is that it’s hard to shake the feeling that the duo is on cruise control for the most part here, especially on the Cowboy Town tracks I haven’t mentioned in this review. Frustratingly, you know they can do better than this, and they do, right here on this record.
“The Ballad of Jerry Jeff Walker”, a quasi-mythic tribute to the veteran country singer, who appears on the track, might well be, for my money, the best Brooks & Dunn song ever. It’s almost certainly my favorite three minutes and forty two seconds of music this year, a breezy, funny, utterly irresistible homage to carefree living as seen through the rose-colored lens of hard-earned maturity. Kix and Ronnie wax poetic about “buckaroos and jaded lovers”, the “L.A. freeway and redneck mothers”, and “outlawed long-hair loners and stoners”, while Walker provides color commentary along the lines of “you’ll never make it on time / why don’t ya have another round?”
It’s effectively country’s answer to “Stay Fly”, and they pulled it off without a Cowboy Troy guest verse. If the five tracks that precede it and the six that come after were half as good, this would be a career-record. They’re not, and it’s not. That’s just the way it goes. But it’s nevertheless nice to know that, in 2007, Brooks & Dunn are still capable of blowing me away.