Everybody wants to be 90s country these days, but nobody wants to live through an era without the wide proliferation of the internet, and when cell phones looked like carry-on luggage. Even Kelsea Ballerini is out there trying to convince us that her next project will be 90s country-influenced. But if you want the real stuff, you’re always best going directly to the source, and perhaps no country music act personified 90s country more than Brooks & Dunn, and their monster hits like “My Maria,” “Brand New Man,” and “Neon Moon.”
Ronnie Dunn has taken a bit of a winding road to get back to his 90s roots. After the initial semi-retirement of Brooks & Dunn in 2009 (they semi-reunited in 2012, and still occasional play shows), Dunn was definitely the more ambitious of the two compared to Kix Brooks. Dunn launched a solo career and continued to release albums and singles, but he struggled to find the same level of reception that Brooks & Dunn did during their heyday. This was a rather predictable outcome, but unsatisfied, Dunn kept pushing.
Ronnie Dunn’s 2011 self-titled solo album is actually pretty underrated and pretty damn country, with “Cost of Livin’” and “Bleed Red” being some of Dunn’s best songs of his career, with Brooks & Dunn or otherwise. But Ronnie didn’t seem ready to give up his relevance on radio, and got caught chasing trends a little bit, which led him away from his roots. His 2016 album Tattooed Heart was definitely a mixed bag of more contemporary sounds as Ronnie tried to pull all kinds of stunts to get radio’s attention, and yet still not succeeding.
Now it’s not about Ronnie Dunn reaching out of his comfort zone to chase the current trends, it’s the current trends coming back around to embrace Ronnie Dunn, which means all he has to do is be himself and lean into the sound that got him here. That’s what you get a big snootful on 100 Proof Neon. If you like songs about country, heartbreak, booze and neon, that’s what this album is all about. In fact, here are some stats at you:
* All of the first five songs mention both neon and whiskey.
* Nine of the eleven songs mention at least neon or whiskey.
* Eight of the eleven songs mention neon, including two in the title.
* Seven of the eleven songs mention whiskey, with one in the title.
* Only two of the songs don’t mention whiskey or neon.
And the music is of course very indicative of classic Brooks & Dunn, meaning strong appearances by steel guitar and fiddle, but a slight favoring toward electric Telecaster sounds, giving it that taste of rock that 90s country was known for. If anything, both the lyricism and the instrumentation are a little too consistent on the album. Sometimes one song ends and another starts, and you can’t tell if it’s just the last song repeating. Similar to Justin Moore’s recent records, there’s no doubt these songs are country, but the sound and themes get a little too consistent by the end. Drinking songs that mention whiskey are sort of the safe way for more mainstream artists to get traditional.
But there are a couple of songs where Ronnie Dunn shakes it up a bit, and with positive results. Some may want to razz Ronnie for picking Ashley Monroe’s pocket by recording “The Blade,” which was the title track to her 2015 release. But reading the back story, Ronnie was first to want to cut the song, and then when he heard Ashley wanted it too and intended to make it a title track, he decided to be a gentlemen and say “ladies first.” Monroe may still have the definitive version of this superbly-written song, but Ronnie’s version is stellar too. “The Blade” wasn’t written by Ashley Monroe anyway. It’s by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd, and Allen Shamblin. It was the only song from Ashley’s The Blade she didn’t co-write.
Another standout moment on 100 Proof Neon is “Road To Abilene” featuring Parker McCollum, which hits personally for Ronnie Dunn who got his start in music in the Texas town, playing bass and singing in clubs while in college until he was told him to pick college or clubs, and he picked clubs and moved to Tulsa. The songs gives you another good moment beyond all the drinking songs.
Dunn also collaborates with Jake Worthington on the song “Honky Tonk Town,” and has embraced his role as an elder statesman in country music, making sure some of the better names from the new crop of performers get some attention. Ronnie also records the song “Where The Neon Lies” co-written and originally recorded by Triston Marez, who doesn’t appear here, but Dunn did appear on Triston’s self-titled 2021 album on the track.
100 Proof Neon is always good, certainly country, but never super great, while the consistency of the material makes a few passes through the album ample. But it’s most certainly cool to see Ronnie Dunn get back to what he does best, which is being Ronnie Dunn. His core fans will be more happy, and so will he. And it’s also cool to see country music continue to return to more country influences. The 90s era might not be favorable to everyone, but it’s most certainly more favorable than whatever era we’re living through now.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.3/10)
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