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.

A Long, Cold Winter, An Angry Drummer & Blue Rodeo

It was the winter of ’90-’91. I was living in Brandon, Manitoba, on the frozen Canadian plains. It was a miserably cold winter, much like most Manitoba winters. I was laid-off from my job at a chemical plant, living in a house with four friends, subsisting on 7-11 chili-cheese nachos, Big Bite hotdogs and the slimiest hamburgers you’ve ever eaten; whiling away the hours reading RollingStone magazine, listening to music and banging out songs on my newly acquired acoustic guitar.

To say there were few bright spots that winter would be an understatement. Other than escaping into a world of rock and roll and doing my best to stay warm, which was hard given the fact that I had to walk to the 7-11 (even though the 7-11 was only a block and a half away — a block and a half in -35 weather might as well have been ten miles, especially given my penchant for running shoes and a light jacket), it was an uneventful period. As the days crawled along, one dark and cold twenty-four stretch after another, and as my spirit and creativity were slowly drained, a call came that would briefly shine a light into the darkness.

“How would you like to work the Blue Rodeo concert at the University on the weekend?” The caller, a former co-worker, asked.

I’d heard of Blue Rodeo, was familiar with their big hit “Try” from a few years earlier, but I knew very little about them. I wasn’t a fan, but the opportunity to get out of the house and do something, anything music related, not to mention earn a few well-needed dollars with which to feed my chili-cheese nacho and RollingStone addictions, was appealing. I jumped at the offer.

The day arrived for the concert. Me and one of my guitar playing buddies got up early and loaded ourselves into my former co-worker’s van and headed for the theatre. It was a cold day, but thankfully the weather had broken enough that we weren’t completely freezing our asses off. Toques, gloves, heavy coats, these things weren’t in the wardrobe of young men in their early twenties. (We were far too cool to dress warm, which in hindsight makes me laugh. These days at the first sign of cold, I’m bundled up tighter than an Eskimo.)

The load-in was uneventful, and all I could think about was getting all the gear inside and unthawing. Blue Rodeo’s crew treated us kindly and instructed us where each road case needed to go. Used to dealing with locals in every town, the crew expertly guided us in the stage set up. Me and my guitar playing buddy were each paired off with a crew member, who we then shadowed for the rest of the morning. The experience was not only fun, it was eye-opening. I was surprised at how much goes into setting up a concert.

It appeared Blue Rodeo was far more successful than I’d thought. The band had a tour bus, something few Canadian acts had at the time. Most Canadian bands in the old days crisscrossed the country in tiny vans, pulling small trailers packed with gear. Blue Rodeo had a bus and a big truck to haul their gear. As impressed as I was with the band’s set up, I still blew them off as a pseudo Canadian folk-country band with only one hit (that I knew of), a ballad that was kind of syrupy for a rock and roll dude like myself.

I remember standing next to the monitor mixing station, which was set up on the left side of the stage, talking to my guitar playing buddy, who was about as interested in Blue Rodeo as I was, when a guy popped out of nowhere playing a Gibson ES335. We had no idea who he was. He talked in a whiny voice, sniffling like he had a cold. He plucked on the guitar, which wasn’t plugged in. My buddy turned to me and said, “who is this guy, he can’t even play?” I shrugged. Later that night we found out who he was, it was Bobby Wiseman, then an integral part of Blue Rodeo. A keyboard player by trade, it turned out he could also play the guitar, very well.

After set up, we were told to go home for a few hours and be back an hour before show time. We piled back into my former co-worker’s van and headed for the 7-11 to load up on chili cheese nachos and Big Bites, then it was home to devour our healthy meal and to take a nap (hey, the music business is exhausting, especially when you’re the one doing all the heavy lifting). During my rest, I thought about Blue Rodeo. They were living the kind of life the bands I read about in RollingStone were living. And they were Canadian! Not that Canadian bands had never made it big, but this was a band I hardly knew anything about, and I prided myself on my musical knowledge.

Back at the theatre, an hour before show-time, me and my guitar playing buddy were assigned the task of backstage security, which meant we could hang around and watch the show from the side of the stage as long as we kept one eye on the doors that lead to front of house. I found myself a road case and got comfortable. The number of people filing into the venue surprised me. The place didn’t sell out, but there was a near capacity crowd. And something tells me had the temperature not dipped considerably in the evening, the show might very well have sold out.

Before Blue Rodeo took the stage, opening act the Skydiggers warmed the crowd up with their folk sounds. At first I was skeptical of this ragtag group of musicians when they burst through the back doors of the venue shortly before their set. The guys looked more like college students than they did a band. The group’s singer, Andy, was the only one who came over and chatted briefly. The rest of the band floated around backstage as they chattered loudly and cleaned up the crumbs from the catering table. Turns out they were good.

Intermission came, and us local roadies were again instructed to watch the backstage doors. While I guarded the doors on stage left, the Skydiggers drummer came to the loading dock and began tearing his equipment down. Intrigued, I approached him to enquire as to why he would be breaking his own equipment down (I didn’t know much about the music business), and to offer him a helping hand. “I didn’t realize opening bands have to break their own equipment down,” I said in an attempt to start up a conversation. “Yeah,” he barked at me wild-eyed, “we wipe our own asses and do our own laundry, too!”

The guy’s response shocked me. I didn’t know what to say. He kept on tearing his gear down and ignored me. I quietly moved closer to the front of house doors and pondered this outburst. My tone was friendly. I hadn’t said anything rude, or at least I didn’t think so. Just then, my guitar playing buddy (yes, he does have a name, and no, I’m not telling you) came rolling around the corner. Relieved of his duties watching the front of house doors on stage right, my buddy was sent to assist me. I told him about the altercation (if that’s what it was) with the drummer.

My buddy looked over in the direction of the drummer, who was now crankily loading his gear out the back door and into the band’s van. “F*** him,” my buddy said. “It’s not like he’s in the Eagles or anything.” Big Eagles fans, we both nodded in agreement and moved on to more pressing matters. Like how we were going to get our band together and conquer the world. Hell, if Blue Rodeo could do it, we surely could. Turns out it’s not as easy as it looks (but that’s a completely different story).

By the time Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the co-founders and co-lead vocalists and songwriters of Blue Rodeo, followed bassist Basil Donovan, the aforementioned Bobby Wiseman and drummer Mark French out on stage, I was just waiting for the show to be over so we could tear down, load the gear out, get paid and go home. Only two songs in, I was rocking along with the crowd. Turned out the boys were more than a simple folk-country band, they were a rock and roll band. Sure they twanged, but they rocked the house.

Touring behind their then new album Casino, a disc that was produced by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson, the band tore up the theatre floorboards in Brandon. I was completely blown away by songs like “Til I Am Myself Again,” “Trust Yourself” and “After The Rain,” from Casino, but it was songs like “Joker’s Wild” and “Diamond Mine,” from the band’s first two albums, Outskirts and Diamond Mine respectively, that knocked me on my ass. Who were these guys?

Hearing Jim Cuddy sing was an inspiring experience, the guy is one of the best singers – Canadian or otherwise – to ever set foot in a recording studio or on a stage. As for Greg Keelor, his gritty guitar and raw voice charged me up. While not blessed with the same vocal prowess as Cuddy, Keelor’s from-the-gut delivery added a well needed dynamic to the Blue Rodeo sound. Then there was the songwriting; these guys were writing monster jams and radio hits that somehow blended together perfectly. After the show, I was shell-shocked, converted, a Blue Rodeo fan for life.

I don’t have many good memories from that winter, but the Blue Rodeo concert is a bright spot in what was a bleak stretch in my life. Every now and then, I’ll pull out my favourite Blue Rodeo album, close my eyes and be transported back more than twenty five years to one of the most inspiring concerts I’ve ever witnessed.