Worth Another Look: Ronnie Dunn – Peace, Love And Country Music

Freedom: The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved (Oxford Dictionary).

For singer-songwriter Ronnie Dunn the word freedom meant being released from the creative straightjacket of the major label system. Dunn, formerly one half of award-winning, multi-platinum duo Brooks & Dunn, parted ways with Arista Nashville in 2012, after the label failed to give the Oklahoma native’s self-titled solo album a proper push. Despite landing in the #1 spot on the Billboard Country Charts and producing two top 20 hits, the album had a disappointing run.

Dunn jumped back in the saddle with Peace Love And Country Music, which he released on his own Little Will-E Records in 2014. The fourteen track collection was stacked with enough country twang and rock muscle to please old-school and new country fans alike. From the opening rattle of “Grown Damn Man,” a swampy tune equal parts Merle Haggard and the Rolling Stones, to the set-closing title track, Dunn did not disappoint.

Peace, Love And Country Music sounds like a true labor of love. Although all of Dunn’s solo music – along with most of the material he recorded as part of Brooks & Dunn – rings with authenticity, Peace, Love And Country Music is different. Maybe it’s the previously mentioned freedom from the major label machine, or Dunn’s drive to prove he still has a lot left in the tank, but the album is solid from start to finish.

Three of the songs, the beefy “Country This,” the sultry “Kiss You There” and the wistful “Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes,” were serviced to radio in the months leading up to Peace, Love And Country Music’s release. Despite being three of the best songs Dunn has ever laid down in the studio, radio ignored them. A war of words erupted on social media between Dunn and radio programmers, pretty much assuring the singer zero airplay for any future singles.

Songs like the tonking “Cowgirls Rock N’ Roll,” and the darkly sketched “Thou Shalt Not,” were hits where it counts, with the fans. The latter finds Dunn reeling from religious guilt that comes from early exposure to southern dogma – where everything is a sin and a man is doomed to an eternity of hell-fire for giving in to the desires of the flesh. More Americana than straight-up country (think Steve Earle or Ray Wylie Hubbard), the song is as far outside the box as Dunn has ever stepped.

“If it comes down to shalt nots, I don’t stand a chance/I got the devil on my coat tails, beggin’ me to dance/Gonna play this guitar loud, cry and moan the blues/While they shout from the mountains high what to and not to do,” Dunn chants.

With Peace, Love And Country Music, Dunn gave the middle finger to mainstream gatekeepers and decision makers, and ended up creating the best album of his career.

Garth Brooks – Gunslinger

Remember when Garth Brooks was untouchable? When everything he released, be it a single or an album, turned to pure gold (or multi-platinum)? Up until his ‘retirement’ in the early 2000s, Brooks was king of the mountain, the artist everyone had to move out of the way for or get crushed by. Albums like No Fences, Fresh Horses, Sevens and Scarecrow were killer collections that sold tens of millions of copies. Brooks was an unstoppable force.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and Brooks is no longer the king of the mountain. He’s not even holding court in the foothills. His touring status remains strong, but his singles and albums since coming out of ‘retirement’ have not faired so well. Is it the content, or the fact that Brooks was out of the recording game so long? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to dig into the new stuff.

Brooks’ first full-length studio album since his ‘retirement’ – Man Against Machine – was easily his weakest collection to date. The album lacked the feel and fire of Brooks’ earlier material. The disc contained a few standout tracks, most notably the uplifting “People Loving People” and the sulphurous “She’s Tired Of Boys,” but the collection as a whole falls flat. Even the cover art – Garth looking all Terminator-like – is disappointing.

Anyone can slip off their game after being away for so long, so Brooks gets a pass for Man Against Machine. Hell, anyone can release a dud, even someone as good as Garth. Gunslinger, Brooks’ latest release, was going to be, for me at least, a make or break album (not that Brooks gives a damn what I think). The aforementioned No Fences, Sevens and Scarecrow are three of my favourite modern country albums, and I was convinced Gunslinger was going to be a return to that level.

Unlike years past, where the record labels would send me albums in advance of release day (sometimes months before they dropped), I had to actually shell out my own money for Gunslinger (I know, the horror). I didn’t mind, though, I knew Garth wouldn’t serve up another mediocre batch of songs. Expectation was high when I slid the disc into the car stereo. I had a long drive in front of me, and having some good music was going to ease the boredom.

From the opening notes of “Honky Tonk Somewhere,” I knew Gunslinger would be joining Man Against Machine in the albums I never listen to pile (and my drive was going to be long and boring). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong without multiple listens (and that’s not going to happen), but there’s definitely something missing in the grooves. Numbers like “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance,” “He Really Loves You” and “8Teen” aren’t bad, they’re just not that good.

Maybe in the hands of another artist, the songs on Gunslinger would fly, but with Garth at the mic, they never really get off the ground. “Bang Bang” is just straight up awful, one of the worst songs Garth has ever recorded. He can still sing, and he’s an amazing performer who lives for the stage, but on record (at least his last two) Brooks sounds bored.

He was once the fastest draw in town, but these days Garth Brooks the Gunslinger is firing blanks.

Five Folk/Americana Albums Worth Searching Out

John Hiatt – Terms Of My Surrender

For his 22nd studio album, Americana kingpin John Hiatt turns out another dusty set of emotionally driven songs. The singer-songwriter – a legend among fellow muse chasers who has had songs recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Buffett – is in fine form as he digs deep in the musical soil for eleven tracks that cut close to the bone. Songs like the rattling blues romp “The Face Of God” and “Old People,” a comical narration on the aged, are simple and beautiful.

Corb Lund – Counterfeit Blues

He may be Canadian, but song-slinger Corb Lund’s music fits nicely alongside Americana acts like Robert Earl Keen and Ryan Bingham. In fact, after one listen to his 2014 offering Counterfeit Blues, it’s hard to tell if Lund is from Alberta, Mississippi or Texas. The twelve track collection, recorded live at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, TN, features re-worked versions of earlier Lund compositions alongside a few new songs. Highlights include the title cut and “Truck Got Stuck.”

Kevin Fowler – How Country Are Ya?

Kevin Fowler is too country for rock and too rock for country. Where does that leave the singer (who once played with metal act Dangerous Toys)? In the Americana genre, of course. Fowler’s latest release How Country Are Ya? is bursting with Stonesy electric guitars, sawing fiddles and liquid steel licks. Meat and potatoes country and rock with a side of blues tracks like the honky tonk “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and the comical “Chicken Wing” are some of the best Fowler has recorded to date.

Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky

Between 2001-2008, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell released a quartet of albums that shook the foundations of Americana. The Houston Kid, Fate’s Right Hand, The Outsider and Sex & Gasoline are towering collections that stand out in an already impressive Crowell catalog. The Texas native’s 2014 release TarPaper Sky, while not as monumental, is brimming with soul-piercing songs, including the heartsore “God I’m Missing You” and the equally emotive, “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You.”

Steve Earle – Live In Nashville 1995

In 1995 Steve Earle was back from the brink, with a new acoustic album Train A Comin’ on the racks and a new lease on life. Clean and sober after years of addiction that had left him missing in action, Earle hit the road. A stop in Nashville in the fall of ’95, a ‘comeback’ show of sorts, was recorded for posterity and is finally seeing the light of day as a stand alone release. Earle shines on spirited renditions of “Hometown Blues” and “Copperhead Road,” bit no more so than on the poignant “Goodbye,” a duet with Emmylou Harris.

William Michael Morgan – Vinyl

You. In the back, near the exit sign. Yes you – the guy in the cowboy hat and starched shirt with the scowl and pretty sister. Oh, she’s not your sister? That’s too bad. You’ve been pissing and moaning about no ‘real’ Country music being played on the radio anymore (don’t get me going on what constitutes ‘real’). Well, it’s time to turn that frown upside down, bub, because William Michael Morgan is here to breathe a bit of old-school back into the genre.

Morgan’s eleven song Vinyl won’t please the bitching set who long for the days of Merle Haggard and George Jones, but fans of artists like Randy Travis and Alan Jackson will love it. From the opening rollick of “People Like Me,” to the album-closing romp of “Back Seat Driver,” Vinyl does not disappoint. The former is a telecaster-smoked track that straddles the line between old and new nicely, while the latter is a foot-stomping number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Blake Shelton album.

Introduced to audiences in March of this year with a self-titled EP and debut single, Morgan proves you don’t have to sell your soul to Rock and Roll to make it in Nashville. Although there’s plenty of good old-school leaning Country music being released these days, very little of it is being played on mainstream radio. Thankfully, Morgan’s voice and top 5 debut single “I Met A Girl,” an easy-going love song that will have listeners hitting repeat, were just too good to ignore.

It’s nice to hear steel guitars and fiddles that aren’t simply token props used to dress up Rock songs disguised as Country songs (Editors note: the author likes his Country Country and his Rock Rock). Morgan utilizes traditional instrumentation throughout Vinyl. The Mississippi native covers all the topical bases on the disc, as well, including good times (“Beer Drinker,” “Somethin’ To Drink About”), heartache (“Lonesomeville”) and love (“Spend It All On You”).

It’s rare for an album to live up to the hype that preceded it, but William Michael Morgan’s Vinyl does just that.

Love Hard Core Country Music? These Two Albums Belong In Your collection.

George Ducas: George Ducas

Released in September 1994, George Ducas’ eponymous debut is perhaps the most criminally overlooked release of the ’90s. The ten track collection is one of those rare albums where every song is a potential single. From the opening strains of the foot-shuffling “Teardrops,” a brilliant take on an aching heart, to the final notes of the guitar grinding “It Ain’t Me,” a Dwight Yoakam-esque number, George Ducas is solid front to back.

Whether he’s bleeding from the heart, on the top 10 hit “Lipstick Promises,” or drowning in a pool of misery, on “Hello Cruel World,” Ducas nails every song like it’s the last one he’ll ever get to sing. Unfortunately for the Texas singer he was on the same label as Garth Brooks, which meant he got lost in the promotional shuffle. George Ducas should be one the top-selling albums of the ‘90s instead of a lost treasure. Thankfully, the disc lives on in the digital world.

Kevin Denney: Kevin Denney

Released in April 2002, Kentucky native Kevin Denney’s self-titled debut featured the top 20 single “That’s Just Jessie,” a song that owed a serious debt to hardcore country artists like George Strait, George Jones and Keith Whitley. It was Whitley, in fact, whom Denney emulated vocally (to great effect) on much of his debut.

With singles like the funny bone tickling “Cadillac Tears,” and the weeping “It’ll Go Away,” both of which failed to break beyond the top 30, along with cuts like the honky tonk leaning “Correct Me If I’m Right” and the nostalgic “Daddy Was A Navy Man,” Kevin Denney was easily one of the best country albums released in 2002.

Whether it was bad timing or a lack of promotion, the album slipped through the cracks. Denney reportedly recorded a sophomore disc, but his label, the now defunct Lyric Street Records in Nashville, never released it. The singer-songwriter has since gone on to have his songs recorded by the likes of Craig Morgan and Easton Corbin. Like the Ducas record, Kevin Denney lives on in the digital world.