On his first solo album ever after a perennially chart-topping two-decade career with Brooks & Dunn, the duo’s great, full-bodied, sky-sailing tenor Ronnie Dunn does what he knows best: makes what mostly sounds like a Brooks & Dunn album.
Ronnie Dunn opens with a statement of aesthetic purpose (“rockin’ and rollin’/ mixin’ up the fast and the slow ones”); one that’s called “Singer In A Cowboy Band” even though its thick guitar layers have more in common with the Rolling Stones than with Gene Autry. Ronnie’s guitars in the second track — “I Don’t Dance,” a pledge of fealty, not belated anti-boot-scoot backlash — are sadder and more distorted, the kind of cowboy-on-steel-horse hair ballad Bon Jovi or Cinderella might have done circa 1988. And “Let the Cowboy Rock” later on is, again, the itchy sort of Stones-y country that had been one of B&D’s most reliable styles through the ’00s.
Of course the pair always did sorrow-drowning sensitivity, too, and Ronnie Dunn has more than its share: maudlin at moments, maybe, but Dunn’s soulful soaring through the spacious “I Can’t Help Myself” illustrates just what a wonder of nature his pipes are, with high lonesome filigrees that come as close to melisma as any current male country singing. “How Far to Waco” is a mariachi-horned road trip from L.A. to central Texas over a border-pop beat. And then there’s “Cost of Livin’,” a meaningful number about an Army vet desperately filing a job application. Barebones in an early-’70s singer-songwriter sense, its forlorn gloom is the farthest thing from the American triumphalism that Nashville reveled in for much of the past decade. It sounds like a man starting over, and for Ronnie Dunn, it is.