"My name's Ronnie Dunn, and I'm a new artist at Sony Arista Records," said a certain returning superstar, by way of reintroduction, playing his first live gig since the breakup last year of Brooks & Dunn. The label exec introducing him wasn't going quite so much for false modesty: "This is the first 'new artist' we've ever had who comes to us already having sold 40 million records... You'll tell your grandchildren you were here for this."The occasion was a private luncheon for hundreds of radio big-wigs being thrown during the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. A few nights earlier, Dunn had thrown a private listening party in the barn behind his house for visiting dignitaries to preview tracks from his upcoming June release. But this showcase was the first time he's played live publicly since the Brooks & Dunn farewell tour, and, eschewing B&D material altogether, he performed five new songs for the DJs and programmers—one of which, the ballad "Bleed Red," is already out and moving up the charts.
It was a momentous occasion more in formality than spirit, since Dunn without Brooks turns out to sound a lot like... Brooks & Dunn. Since he did the lion's share of writing and especially singing in the duo, and harmonies were never their trademark, it marked a new beginning mostly only in truncated lineup. But Dunn hardly needs a fresh musical direction when he can continue to pull off the hardest rockers and most touching ballads as deftly as he did during this riop-roaring teaser set.Actually, one number, "How Far to Waco," did introduce a previously unheralded wrinkle to his sound. As he explained it: "I've got a little place in Santa Fe that I go to every now and then to cleanse my soul. I need to be there a lot. While I was cleansing my soul one day, I found a 10-piece all-female mariachi band. Thank you, Jesus. I'd like to introduce a couple of 'em right now." The two trumpeters added a "Ring of Fire"-like touch to the celebrative number, a road-trip tune that namechecks Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso and, of course, Mexico as the narrator puts the pedal to the metal getting back to his baby.
Dunn started his performance for the lunch guests a little after 1 p.m. by playing a roadhouse barnburner called "Singing in a Cowboy Band," which is in the tradition of "Play Something Country" and other Brooks & Dunn rockers that owed at least as much to Chuck Berry and the Stones as anything twangier. Perhaps sensing that the energy of the song outpaced the laid-back mood of the room, Dunn quipped, "I thought they said we were playing at 1 in the morning, and I thought, we're supposed to be a drunk bar band."
In a similarly raucous vein was "Let the Cowboy Rock." Given that he played two songs with "cowboy" in the title, Dunn referenced the fairly fresh tat of that word on his right forearm after he took his jacket off, saying, "I got a tattoo that said I was a cowboy, and I think I am. But I'm real scared about this new venture taking off, going out and playing rodeos, because I think I've got an ass-whipping coming on the way from the stage to the bus."
But he may have some forgiveness in store from "real" cowboys for giving them anthems like "Let the Cowboy Rock," which describes a rural dude staggering into a bar "like he's been rode hard and put up wet/Heartache's on him like stink on a stump/He's fighting off lonely trying to drown it like a drunk.../Looks like he needs a long rope, boys/Give him some slack/Every now and then you've got to act like that."
Dunn did have another ballad in his arsenal besides the concluding "Bleed Red": "Your Kind of Love," about a woman who "makes me want to come home at the end of the day." Even then, though, Dunn couldn't resist throwing the C-word into the lyrics: "There was a time not that long ago when they called me a cowboy..." Wait, you're not anymore? That tattoo removal's gonna hurt! Fortunately, the domestic bliss only lasted for one song before the electric guitar-wielding Dunn got back to letting cowgirls rock, too.