For what would be their final studio album, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, the duo turned in a near carbon copy of their previous releases from this decade. And in what appears to be a split-down-the-middle approach, Ronnie Dunn dominates the first half of the disc with both his lead vocals taking on the first five songs as well as them coming from his own pen. Kix Brooks gets his chance to shine on the second half. And while both members turn in a few solid performances to winning lyrics, they seem to have either went out of their way to separate their contributions, or were just getting sloppy at this point, and stacked Ronnie’s studio performances next to Kix’s to make the disc’s eventual song order. I’d think it was a bit of both, but more of the latter.
For his half, Ronnie Dunn would obviously account for the singles. Kix had become a full-time sideman by this point, having not sang lead on a Brooks & Dunn single since 1999. The title track kicks off the disc, written by Ronnie with Paul Nelson and Larry Boone. It’s another declaration of affection for the small town life, only this time it’s a ‘cowboy town’ though sentiments like ‘sweat of our brow’ and wearing your boots to church have been used to describe more than the ranching lifestyle lately, so the lyric is a bit generalized. The same writing team also gave us ‘Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)’, which finds Dunn singing the praises of his heroes. The lead single, ‘Proud of the House We Built’, a mid-tempo Marv Green and Ronnie Dunn composition. This testament to the power of lasting love sailed to a #4 peak on the Country Singles chart.
Citing Reba McEntire as the inspiration behind ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry’, the pair performed the song on the 2008 CMA Awards show with Reba, before adding her to the single version, and crediting the song on the charts to Brooks & Dunn with Reba McEntire. Peaking at #2 on the charts, it became the second top 10 pairing of the two acts. The concept of a tough cowgirl, set to a three-act country story song, is akin to ‘Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma’, which Ronnie Dunn wrote with Reba for her 2007 Duets project. I’ve always said I don’t think McEntire added much to the single, but the more I listen to it (thanks, radio), the more I understand and appreciate her contribution.
The rocked up ‘Put A Girl In It’ was third to radio, and it’s a tribute to the duo’s hits of the past if nothing else. One of few outside written songs, this one was penned by one time ’90s hit-maker Rhett Atkins with Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson. Complete with rodeo-style yells from Ronnie, it fits in neatly with their similar-sounding hits and works just as well in concert with their mega-size inflatable cowgirls. It went to #3 on the charts. So ends the Ronnie Dunn-styled half of Cowboy Town, though he still has a few more vocal performances to give before the disc ends.
While not vocally on par with his singing partner, Kix Brooks has certainly made the most artistic impact on this record. Brooks steps up the mic for the ‘Ballad of Jerry Jeff Walker’, written with Bob DiPiero, and featuring vocals from the Americana troubadour. With it’s catchy melody and irresistible lyrics, it’s one of my favorites from the set. Brooks and DiPiero also wrote the less memorable and weirdly distorted ‘Drop In The Bucket’. Likewise, Ronnie Dunn’s ‘Tequila’, where the singer tells the pro’s and con’s of the beverage, featuring background yells that sound like they come from The Sufaris’ recording of ‘Wipe Out’, is a bit annoying.
‘Drunk On Love’ finds Ronnie Dunn back on lead vocals, singing Radney Foster and Darrel Brown’s edgy track. Several songs in memory have taken advantage of the whole ‘get a buzz on the emotion of love’ idea, but this one holds it owns against the likes of ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ or any of the many great songs along those lines. ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ follows the same groovy style, with electric guitars mixed in front and center. It’s a pleasing tale of a woman who leaves her philandering boyfriend with a rich man for the Bahamas, not able to pass up her ‘chance of a lifetime’.
Closing things up with the laudable ‘God Must Be Busy’ just capped off my observation that the pair was just playing their hands the same way they had always been, with little to no thought to originality. Most of their albums, and in fairness a lot of country albums, close with a spiritual number, whether it’s original or an old hymn. Brooks & Dunn have made use of that tradition throughout their career, though it never sounded as tacked on or forced in this instance. The song would also be the album’s second single, and only to miss the top 10, stalling just outside at #11.
Cowboy Town is a telling example, in my opinion, of two individual artists put together and marketed as a pair. Certainly, Kix and Ronnie worked well together throughout their two-decade career, but it seems to me their combined creativity was a bit stifled on this release. Not that that hurt the material or their performances of it much though. What we get here is a sort of mini EP from Ronnie Dunn and then from Kix Brooks, with both halves produced by Tony Brown this time out. I think it’s a sign of the music to come from both as solo artists, and even though it doesn’t hold up as a cohesive unit, Cowboy Town is one of the duo’s best albums in terms of song quality, vocals, and diversity.