As Brooks & Dunn embark on the final leg of their journey, it seems a good time to take a look back at their decades as one of country’s top duos. In his second article for Country California, contributor David Jones gives his ranking of the duo’s studio albums to date, which will apparently stand as their oeuvre (minus hits collections and a Christmas album). As always, you’re invited to give your own rankings in the comments. –CMW
1. Steers and Stripes (2001)
Hitting a well-deserved platinum, this album started a new decade for Kix and Ronnie and was also a stylistic change of pace from their earlier efforts, with more rocked-up anthems than usual. Diverse styles are represented here, from Latin influences, pulsating ’80s-style rock to searing traditional honky tonk and achingly delicate ballads such as “The Long Goodbye,” and two neglected Kix opuses, “I Fall” and “When She’s Gone, She’s Gone.”
2. Tight Rope (1999)
This album barely scraped gold, and apparently wasn’t a particular joy to make: both Ronnie and Kix worked separately with their own choice of producers, even likening the album’s title to their own career (still ten years away from dissolution). Although their least commercially successful album, it does contain many of the hallmarks which make Brooks & Dunn the most popular duo in country music history, with a melding of rocked-up honky tonk and sensitive ballads.
3. Brand New Man (1991)
With the opening verse/chorus, sung by Ronnie Dunn, the two musicians who had been slogging away on the club circuit for more than a decade were given a hearty welcome by country programmers everywhere, and also started the line-dancing craze. But let’s try and forget that last bit. Five singles were culled from this album, four of which hit the top of the charts. Back then, traditional honky tonk was the order of the day for the duo, and songs like “My Next Broken Heart,” “Cheating On the Blues” and “I’ve Got a Lot to Learn” underline how well they did this.
4. If You See Her (1998)
Maybe not the most popular of choices, this album showed Brooks & Dunn morphing into the dictated-by-radio brand they would become, but it did spawn three number ones, and the quality, if slightly uneven in places, did complement both vocalists nicely. The chart-topping cover of “Husbands and Wives” is as pertinent today as it was when Roger Miller wrote it in 1966, and Ronnie’s vocal on the track exudes warmth. “Born and Raised in Black and White” is a rare B&D duet, a two-way narrative with parallels to the old James Cagney film Angels With Dirty Faces. This exciting, moving story song should be given more retrospective prominence.
5. Waitin’ On Sundown (1994)
The startlingly rockin’ intro of “Little Miss Honky Tonk” introduces a strong collection which contains ballads, ’80s-style rock and honky tonk. Memorable hits like “She’s Not the Cheatin’ Kind” and Kix’s only chart-topping hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” reverberate down their nearly twenty year career as excellent songs which remain immensely enjoyable.
6. Hillbilly Deluxe (2005)
Southern rock influence finds a welcome home here, on their penultimate, platinum-selling effort which includes rockin’ tracks like “Play Something Country,” the Stones-inspired “She Likes to Get Out of Town” (easily Kix’s best rocker), and beautifully melodic ballads like “Again” and “I May Never Get Over You.” Out of all the hits Brooks & Dunn have had, few stand out more than the gospel-tinged “Believe.” On the downside, however, some tracks like “Her West Was Wilder” and “Building Bridges” struggle to hold their own against the stellar ones mentioned.
7. Hard Workin’ Man (1993)
Picking up where their debut left off, this sophomore effort helped earn the duo’s stripes with five top ten hits, including two beautifully soulful Ronnie showcases in “That Ain’t No Way to Go” and “She Used to Be Mine.” Kix holds up his end of the bargain with a couple of goodies, most memorably the hit “Rock My World (Little Country Girl).”
8. Red Dirt Road (2003)
This album was received well by critics upon its release, but it does take some listening before it finally envelops you with its down home, rough ‘n’ ready style. “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk” is a marvelous musical nod to The Rolling Stones, one of many pastiches on an album which tilts its cap to Bruce Springsteen (“She Was Born to Run”) and other influences. Ronnie delves supremely into the soulful laments of “I Used to Know This Song By Heart” and “That’s What She Gets for Loving Me.” The best song is easily the title track, an effective – if unoriginal – metaphor for life’s journey. It will probably end up as the song Brooks & Dunn are most remembered for.
9. Cowboy Town (2007)
What can now be viewed as their final album doesn’t hold up to their past efforts particularly well, with much material being suspiciously by-the-numbers. It does, however, have some redeeming features, such as the singles “Proud of the House We Built” and “God Must Be Busy.” The Reba-less “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” was one of the only traditional country songs on country radio in 2008, and is a pleasing (if formulaic) ballad, while “Put a Girl In It,” a wonderfully Stones-esque bopper with sunny lyrics and a driving beat, is one of their finest songs.
10. Borderline (1996)
One of their career songs, “My Maria,” received much attention upon its release, but still doesn’t cut any ice with this listener, being mostly plodding and mundane (like the song itself). Kix shines on the rocker “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up for Nothing” and Ronnie remembers how to honky tonk on “Redneck Rhythm and Blues” and “One Heartache At a Time.” A couple of Kix mid-tempos stand out – “My Love Will Follow You” and “Why Would I Say Goodbye” – but, mostly, this is a formulaic affair, with the rather dull “A Man This Lonely” claiming most of the afforded airplay at the time of the album’s release.