1999’s Tight Rope was a commercial failure by Brooks & Dunn’s standards; it yielded no major radio hits and became the duo’s first studio album not to be certified platinum. Not surprisingly, they made some some changes for their next project, in their attempts to break out of the artistic and commercial rut in which they had found themselves. Mark Wright came on board as co-producer for 2001’s Steers & Stripes, which proved to be one of Brooks & Dunn’s more consistent and satisfying albums. Though it does have its flaws, they are more easily forgiven, thanks to a generous offering of fourteen tracks. Steers & Stripes finds the duo updating their sound, moving away from the beat-driven, barn-burning sound that had been the hallmark of many of their 90s hits, and moving towards more pop-oriented music.
“Ain’t Nothin’ About You”, the first single, was released two months in advance of the album and returned the duo to the top of the Billboard singles chart, becoming their first #1 hit since 1998’s “Husbands and Wives”. It also reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, the duo’s best showing ever on that all-genre chart. The patriotic anthem “Only In America”, which opens the album, was chosen as the second single. Released in mid-2001, it predated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but in their aftermath, it quickly became a rallying cry for a nation struggling to come to terms with what had happened. It reached the #1 spot in Billboard in October of 2001 and was later featured prominently as a theme song for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. In the spirit of bipartisanship, it was also played four years later at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
The next single, “The Long Goodbye”, was somewhat of a departure for Brooks & Dunn. Composed by Irish songwriters Paul Brady and Ronan Keating, it had originally appeared on Brady’s 2000 album and was subsequently covered by Keating, whose version became a Top 5 hit in the United Kingdom in 2003. Though wildly successful – providing yet another #1 hit for the duo – Brooks & Dunn’s version is marred by overproduction, a problem that occasionally plagues other tracks on the album, namely “When She’s Gone, She’s Gone” and “I Fall”, both of which feature Kix on lead vocals, and especially “Unloved” – the most purely pop Brooks & Dunn song to date. All of these songs feature a more slick and polished sound than the duo’s previous work, and on “Unloved” in particular, the strings and synthesizers tend to overwhelm the song. Fortunately, Ronnie Dunn’s vocal performance is restrained, and he wisely resists the temptation to turn the song into an 80s-style power ballad.
More to my taste is “Every River”, the fifth and final single released from this set. It is one of the album’s more traditional-leaning songs and its least successful single, peaking at #12. “Lucky Me, Lonely You”, my favorite song on the album, is the sole purely traditional number. Also providing a nice change of pace from the strings, synthesizers and rock guitar licks that characterize most of the album, are the two Latin-flavored songs, “My Heart Is Lost To You” and “Deny, Deny, Deny”. “My Heart Is Lost To You” was the album’s fourth single, released between “The Long Goodbye” and “Every River”. It reached #5 in Billboard. The remaining tracks are largely forgettable, with the exception of “See Jane Dance”, which closes the album. This song is a throwback to the line-dancing songs of the 90s, and one I could have lived without.
In addition to a new co-producer and a change in musical styles, Steers & Stripes marks the beginning of a shift towards a little less Brooks and a little more Dunn. Whereas previous albums had the two members sharing lead vocalist duties more or less equally, Steers & Stripes is about one-third Brooks and two-thirds Dunn, with Kix taking the lead on only five of the album’s fourteen tracks. The changes paid off; Steers & Stripes marked a commercial recovery, reaching #1 on the albums chart and earning platinum certification. More importantly, it helped the duo break out of their creative rut. Despite the prevalence of more pop-leaning songs, Steers & Stripes is one of the stronger albums in the Brooks & Dunn catalog, and is worth seeking out.
It is still widely available from both Amazon and iTunes.