Brooks and Dunn

MetroCentre, Rockford,

March 31

While generalizing can be a dicey business, it’s probably fair to say that the common man votes more often through SoundScan than on election day. Record store numbers will tell you that the common man doesn’t really want to spend an excruciatingly tasteful evening with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Instead, the common man bought 13 million copies of Garth Brooks’s No Fences. And last Friday it was the common man that sold out Rockford’s cavernous MetroCentre to watch country superduo Brooks and Dunn.

Now on their third album, Brooks and Dunn are at the forefront of that most critically disdained segment of contemporary country, the line-dance movement. Their debut album, 1991’s Brand New Man, sold four million copies, unleashed five hit singles, and gave the movement its biggest anthem, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” The liner notes couch the history of the duo’s formation in the guise of a western tale: two drifters meet up on the sun-scorched plains and decide to hook up. “How far you goin’?” asks Brooks. Dunn responds with a statement that proves to be prophetic: “Far as I can.” The real story is far less romantic. After pursuing separate failed solo careers, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were teamed up by Arista honcho Tim DuBois and took a last-gasp stab at success as a duo. They were a commercial smash out of the gate, and three albums later they’re still riding high–not on the range, but on country radio and in arenas.

Taken as a whole, their three albums consist mostly of disposable, testosterone-pumped modern honky-tonk tunes and some sappy nods to the Eagles. And yet a handful of songs do have a great deal of resonance: the lilting “Neon Moon” was one of the best country ballads to come along in quite some time, giving the worn-out heartache theme a fresh spin with lovely, well-crafted rhymes; on the blasting “Brand New Man,” Dunn’s vocal attack cuts with the force of an auctioneer’s blast, while the song’s big guitar lead dazzles with the simplicity of strummed new-wave power pop chords; even the much maligned “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” packs enough of a metallic guitar-and-fiddle bang to ensure people will still punch it up on a jukebox ten years from now.

Besides those singles, Brooks and Dunn’s other major saving grace is that they portray themselves as entertainers and not as artists. And entertainment is often highly prized by the common man. Brooks and Dunn’s major tour last year grossed $17.2 million, second only to Reba McEntire in the country market. They did not achieve that stunning figure by being subtle. In concert Brooks and Dunn put on the sort of show that would have given Roy Acuff a nosebleed, and one that would nauseate your average Jo Carol Pierce fan. But being there made me feel like a pig in shit.

Moments before they started at Rockford’s MetroCentre, the arena went dark and the common man roared. A giant black curtain draping the stage rose as two enormous cow skull sculptures descended in front of it. The stage revealed a seven-piece band standing on multitiered platforms against a setting that can only be described as a postapocalyptic industrial western-motif wasteland. Large rectangular metal screens jutted against smaller cow skulls impaled on poles; all of it rippled under the light of revolving mini disco balls like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting gone mad. The two gigantic skulls dangling in front suddenly lifted, and from behind them jumped Brooks and Dunn, like urban cowboys-in-the-box.

I’ve never had an acid flashback, but I imagine it might be something like watching Kix Brooks clog across a stage under a seizure-inducing strobe light. Kix Brooks lives up to his name; he’s equal parts packaged breakfast cereal and a running, babbling force of nature. A dark-haired, mustachioed Gabe Kaplan look-alike, Brooks favors cowboy hats and western shirts emblazoned with thunderbolts that are louder than the real thing. As a solo singer, he’s one of the worst I’ve ever heard on a major stage. As a harmony singer, though, he’s pretty good, and as someone making a spectacle out of himself he can’t be beat. He’s a repository of every cock rock move in the book: sticking his tongue out of his head while ripping out leads on his guitar, leaping from risers, racing up and down ramps, high-fiving bandmates and audience members, lifting his mike stand above his head like a redneck Captain Ahab. As a performer he’s an unapologetic macho ass-wagger–just the sort of person I detest when facing him on the street but who’s strangely hypnotic on a stage full of glowing cow skulls.

By comparison Ronnie Dunn is the tasteful one. He’s a tall, slim, bearded guy in black with a forelock jutting out like a cockatoo’s crest. One of today’s most underrated country singers, Dunn has a piercing nasal twang that cuts across an arena like Ajax through a stain; it’s no accident that the duo’s best songs are the ones he sings lead on. Together these two balanced their differences among the skulls and spotlights, all the way to the really big finish: a swaying Macy’s Parade-sized cow skull balloon that rose and backdropped the stage from floor to ceiling, signaling the start of a blasting, tinnitus-causing version of “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”

In the heady afterglow of this orgy of crap, I glanced down at my notes. The only legible scrawl on my pad said this: “OK, so Brooks and Dunn aren’t Hank Williams. But it should be noted that Hank Williams, the greatest poet of country music, was also a guy who sold tickets to his second wedding.” Now, in the sober light of day, I’m left with only several nagging questions. Will Brooks and Dunn be damned for helping usher discolike spectacle into honky-tonk, for pandering to what could be viewed as the most garish impulses of the common man? Will I be damned for my complicity in their sins, for my willingness to meet them halfway and for realizing it’s a shorter trip than I care to admit? If the answers are yes, I’ll see you in hell boys. Same time next year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Basil Fairbanks Studio.