Release Date: 07.15.03
Record label: Arista
Genre(s): Trance, Big Beat, Ambient, House, Trip-Hop, etc.
The Poet and the Player, Neo-Country White-Guy Style
by: matt cibula
Brooks & Dunn have been big Nashville hitmakers for more than a decade now, from their debut where they wrote most of the songs (including Dunn's amusing trifle "Boot Scootin' Boogie") through a long period where they were pretty much vehicles for outside writers and producers. But on this record, they write just about everything themselves—and I do mean everything. There are tracks here that incorporate 50's rockabilly, 60's soul-gospel, 70's dirtbag-rock boogie, 80's new wave, and 90's arena rock along with a heaping helping of traditional country dobros, violins, slide guitars, and all those signifiers.
Yes, I used the word "signifiers" while talking about Brooks and Dunn here. No, I'm not kidding. This record begs to be taken seriously and analyzed—hell, they even have a pretentious (and kinda homoerotic) little story in the liner notes about two cowboys named Howdy and Slim (obviously Brooks and Dunn themselves) and how they have to walk their own paths. (It's worked—at least one prominent New York City critic is saying this is the Record of the Year by a mile.) And we hear them doing that on the first track, "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl." We get the guitar riff from the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" before we hear anything else, a Clarence Clemons sax break at the 1:42 mark (Bruce Springsteen has always been a huge influence on them), and a strange twin-guitar break that sounds like Guns N Roses in there somewhere too, all in a song about how country women always remain country even when they move to LA or New York City. It's like they're tossing everything in the stew, and cooking it up well—and it sounds great.
Dunn's songs, in particular, are just some kind of wonderful. "Caroline" is untouchable, a swamp boogie with messed-up glorious harmonies on the chorus and lyrics about roaming down the devil's path; "That's What She Gets for Loving Me" alternates between being great Neil Young and great Waylon Jennings; "She Was Born to Run" lifts guitar riffs from all those early VH1 acts and makes them work; and "Good Cowboy" is the most convincing ZZ Top homage I've ever heard as well as the sexiest country song you'll ever hear a guy sing: "Ridin' the range I think of you / I dig your chili you know it's true." (Okay, so he didn't write this one, but whatever.)
And Brooks' songs are better than anyone had a right to expect, from the title song that reminds people to remember their roots ("I went out in the world, and I came back in") to the early-90s Springsteen sound of "Memory Town." But he is also a walking ball of clichés as a lyric writer (yes, even for Nashville) and he pulls out the I'm-an-American card as a reflex even when it makes no sense, especially on the overstuffed "Great Day to Be Me," in which he prays for the soldiers and holds his hat over his heart while still saying that he was never captain of the football team—which is it, dude, are you the mainstream culture or the rebel? His songs just try too hard to please, and it's jarring, especially when compared with Brooks' smooth effortless innovation.
Ultimately, this record reminds me of OutKast's Stankonia album. It's futuristic and backward-looking, weird and traditional at the same time, but split too much between the two personae of the groups: Dunn is the Andre 3000 of the equation, a freaky poet of vision, and Brooks is the Big Boi, the populist whose self-aggrandizement and easy way with cliché just sticks out like a sore thumb. But I expect big things from Big Boi's solo disc, and I think that Brooks will raise his game, and it's conceivable that Red Dirt Road could end up being the springboard record before Brooks and Dunn come out with their "real" classic in a couple of years. In the meantime, this is really good…but not as perfect as some New York critics are saying it is. 13-Aug-2003 8:40 AM