The duo’s sixth studio album, 1999’s Tight Rope, saw them in bit of a rut. After a string of multi-platinum sellers, this album remains their only studio effort to date (apart from their latest, Cowboy Town) not to be classified platinum, and none of the three singles was a really big hit. Each of the previous albums had elicited five singles, with all but two making the top ten, with a good proportion hitting the top of the charts, until ‘South of Santa Fe’ had faltered outside the top 40 just before the release of Tight Rope. Poor Kix never got another single released after this catastrophic failure.
This really is an album of two halves. Not only did Kix and Ronnie divide the vocal leads fairly evenly, they contributed six songs each as writers, each singing lead on his own songs, with Ronnie also getting a bonus cover. Furthermore, although the duo are credited as co-producers throughout, one suspects this was a matter of courtesy. Kix’s tracks were co-produced by old friend Don Cook, but Ronnie’s were co-produced by Byron Gallimore at another studio. All the singles came from Ronnie’s half. As a whole the album sounds their most pop-influenced to date.
Only three singles came from Tight Rope, and the first two failed to crack the top 10. ‘Missing You’, a 1980s pop cover, reached #15. The arrangement may have been a little too pop for country radio, with its whispery call-and-response background vocals, but Ronnie’s lead vocal is excellent. The cheerful rocked-up honky tonker ‘Beer Thirty’ barely squeaked into the top 20, despite being in the same vein as many of their past successes, and the chart failure of this must have been a shock. The big declaration of love ballad ‘You’ll Always Be Loved By Me’, their only single released in the year 2000, deservedly did better, reaching #5. This was the song which provided the album title, from the line “trust is a tightrope we all have to walk”.
Ronnie is in great voice on this album. The brooding ballad ‘Hurt Train’ and the sad ‘All Out Of Love’ have a slightly pop feel, but are very well sung. ‘Goin’ Under Gettin’ Over You’, which opens the set is a fairly brisk number about getting resigned to heartbreak, which might have been better with a more subdued vocal. It did actually get a small amount of unsolicited radio airplay.
Ronnie wrote almost all his songs here with Terry McBride, apart from ‘Too Far This Time’. He wrote this excellent regretful ballad on his own, recounting the tale of a man who realizes too late that his wife has finally had enough:
She said, Save your breath, boy, I’ve heard it all
And keep your place there with your back to the wall
Said I’m leavin’ you lonely cause I’ve had my share
Save those worn-out “I love yous” for someone that cares
Kix wrote three of his tracks with Bob DiPiero. I like the low-key ‘I Love You More’, where Kix’s subdued vocals are perfect for the jilted protagonist, hurt but letting go of the woman he loves:
I was the one that told you he loved you
You were afraid you couldn’t be loved
I was the one who you could believe
Would never leave when times got tough
I’ll never say I told you so
But take this with you when you go
Yeah he can tell you he loves you
But I love you more
The other DiPiero collaborations are closer to filler. The lost-love theme of ‘The Trouble With Angels’ is pleasant but cliche’d. The beaty ‘Temptation #9’ has a better groove than it does a lyric.
Kix sounds vulnerable again on ‘Don’t Look Back Now’, a second-person address to a woman leaving, or trying to leave, another man, who doesn’t love her but won’t let her go, co-written with co-producer Don Cook. Kix sings well on the pop-inflected ballad ‘Can’t Stop My Heart’, which he wrote with Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters, although the song itself is not all that interesting.
The album closes on a more traditional country note with a Kix story song, ‘Texas and Norma Jean’, which he wrote with Lewis Anderson, and which is accompanied by some nice lonesome fiddle, as he recounts a road trip with a girl called Marilyn on her way to California, who he nicknames Norma Jean (the real name, of course, of Marilyn Monroe):
Yeah we took a lotta detours on our winding way out west
Livin’ for the moment, forgettin’ all the rest
The life that she had waitin’ and the one I left behind…
In that coffee shop the road just stopped
And we faced reality
The place that she was goin’ had no place for me
And I see it now, I feel it still
It’s a day I can’t forget and never will
And I hear her voice on the winds of Abilene
She used to call me ‘Texas’ and I called her ‘Norma Jean’
After the relative commercial and airplay failure of this album, it was obviously time for a rethink for Brooks and Dunn for the next decade. In 2000 they even lost their stranglehold on the CMA Duo of the Year title (to Montgomery Gentry). It’s not terrible, but it does lack some of the sparkle of their first few records, and it’s not really a surprise that it’s their least successful album.