Brooks & Dunn’s fourth studio album for Arista Records was released in April 1996. The title — Borderline — is an unusually though probably unintentionally descriptive one, as it sums up perfectly the quality of this uneven and somewhat disappointing collection.
A month before the album’s release, things got off to a good start with the advance single, an excellent cover of the 1973 B.W. Stevenson hit, “My Maria”. It was somewhat of a departure for the duo, as it marked only the second time they released a cover song as a single. The first was 1992’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, which although it was an original Ronnie Dunn composition, had previously been recorded by Asleep at the Wheel. Despite its pop origins, “My Maria” quickly soared to #1 on Billboard’s country singles chart, where it spent three weeks. It was also the publication’s top country song of the year for 1996.
The follow-up single and second track on the album, “I Am That Man”, was written by Terry McBride and Monty Powell. Despite being a bland and somewhat forgettable song, it managed to climb all the way to #2. Things continued on a downward trend with the third single release, “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up For Nothing”, on which Kix Brooks takes over the lead vocals. Written by Brooks and Dunn along with producer Don Cook, “Mama” is a line dance number in the same vein as “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” that fails to recapture the magic of that earlier hit. The lyrics require an attitude and sassy delivery that Brooks fails to provide. He sounds like he is phoning in his performance; the song could possibly have been saved if Dunn had sung the lead, though it is questionable whether his stronger voice would have been enough to overcome the banality of the lyrics. Radio was apparently in agreement with me on this one, since “Mama” stalled at #13, becoming the first single the duo released that failed to reach the Top 10.
Things picked up considerably with the fourth single, “A Man This Lonely”, which returned the pair to the top of the singles chart when it became their eleventh #1 hit in February 1997. This was followed up by another lackluster single, “Why Would I Say Goodbye”, which, like “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up For Nothing” featured Kix on lead vocals. It seems an odd choice for a single release; it was possibly chosen in an attempt to give Brooks some more radio exposure as a lead vocalist. Though it peaked at #8, I had totally forgotten that this song had even been a single until I started doing research for this review. I can’t remember ever hearing it on the radio. I would have by-passed it in favor of “One Heartache At A Time”, a Ronnie Dunn-led effort. Written by Brooks with one-time Vince Gill band member and former Wynonna Judd fiance Tony King, “One Heartache At A Time” is my favorite song on the album. Another gem is uptempo fiddle-and-steel driven album closer “White Line Casanova”, which was probably not sufficiently commercial to release to radio. Nonetheless, it’s a standout track on this frustratingly inconsistent album.
The remainder of the songs on the album are generic filler and not worthy of any lengthy discussion. The production is solid throughout the album; it is somewhat baffling to come up with an explanation for why Brooks and Dunn weren’t able to come up with stronger material as they had on their previous releases. Borderline relies a little more on outside songwriters than the previous albums, but this actually one of the collection’s strengths, particularly in the case of “My Maria”.
Despite its flaws, Borderline became the second Brooks & Dunn album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Certified double-platinum (about 1 million units fewer than its predecessor Waitin’ On Sundown), it marked the beginning of a leveling-off of the duo’s album sales. It is still in print, available at Amazon and iTunes, but is not essential listening as the singles are available on various hits compilations.