You know, I sympathize with artists. Sure, there’s the dangers of traveling from town to town on the road, but I’m talking about something else here – artistic progression. Now, some artists actually start out great and actually continuously progress as they grow older and wiser. Blackberry Smoke is a fine example of this in my eyes. On the other hand, there are certain artists who may start out a tad sluggish in their delivery only to evolve over time into a style that’s wholly excellent and distinctive, something that I of course love to see as a critic. Of course, there are some artists who take a little more time to develop an artistic vision, and that’s alright as long as that artist is at least trying.
However, if you’re an artist who’s been around since the 90’s and you still have no clue what music you want to make, you’re kind of out of excuses. As you can probably gather by now, I’m of course talking about Ronnie Dunn, formerly of the duo Brooks and Dunn (did I really need to tell you that though?). Ronnie’s solo career has been questionable at best, and what frustrates me the most is that it shouldn’t be. He’s always had the killer voice matched with a spirit to fight for the integrity of country music, and yet he still doesn’t know what to do with it.
Now, I thought his debut solo album back in 2011 was sort of good. Sure, there were a lot of filler tracks, but you also had songs that really stood out as downright excellent such as “Bleed Red” and “Cost Of Livin’”, one of my favorite songs of the past couple years by the way. 2014’s Peace, Love, and Country Music was essentially the same deal. There were plenty of excellent songs like “Thou Shalt Not” and “I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes”, and yet on that album he felt the need to flirt with bro-country and protest songs, two things that really couldn’t be more different if they tried.
Going into his latest album, Tattooed Heart, I really didn’t know what to expect. I should mention that to date, all three of Ronnie’s solo albums have been released on separate labels, and so it’s not really surprising that signing with Nash Icon led to Ronnie’s new music having more of a polish than we’ve otherwise heard before. Now, as someone who’s never minded pop-country as much as he probably should, I was fine with this provided the music was good. Was it?
Well folks, I’ll say the same thing about Tattooed Heart as I’ve said with his other two albums. It’s got its high points, it’s got its low points, and overall this leads to a confusion as to how I really feel about this album. I’m five listens in at this point and I’m still not sure what to think.
The unquestionable best part about this album is Ronnie Dunn as a vocalist. Not only does he have the passion and range in his voice, he also has the power to match, and that’s led him to having one of my favorite voices in country music. Of course it’s only an asset to an extent on this album.
Like I said before, the two lead singles from this album flirted more with modern production, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get here. The guitars are more breezy, the percussion is a little more stiff, and of course, most of the choruses of these songs adopt the “wall of sound” technique instead of just adding in some meatier guitars. Now, for as much as I like Ronnie as a vocalist, it’s just not a welcome fit on this album. Of the two who formed the duo Brooks and Dunn, Kix Brooks was always the one who had more of a smoothness to his vocals, meaning he wouldn’t sound out of place on this album. On the other hand, Ronnie has always had more of a grittier, rougher side to his voice that complements well, country music (shocker, right?).
Don’t get me wrong, songs like “I Wanna Love Like That Again”, “Only Broken Heart In San Antone” and “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More” all work due to all of those songs being a little slower and giving Ronnie room to breathe in his delivery. Where it doesn’t work as well is on tracks like “That’s Why They Make Jack Daniels” where Ronnie feels like he’s shouting during the chorus. Then of course you have the Ariana Grande cover with the title track which yes, is every bit as weird as you’d expect. Believe it or not, my issue isn’t that Ronnie covered a pop song (especially considering I think it’s by a good pop artist), it’s once again with the production. There’s just way too much going on in this area to really enjoy the song. It’s trying for that smokey waltz like vibe in the vein of “Blue Ain’t Your Color” by Keith Urban while also trying all sorts of other production techniques that just make this a bad cover.
Of course, where this album really doesn’t quite click with me is in the lyrical content. The album itself doesn’t really stretch itself beyond just love songs and breakup songs. You have exceptions like “Young Buck” which plays to the theme of a father passing on life lessons to his son. The only problem is that it’s really not as nuanced or specific as it could be, and when I can easily compare it to better songs like “The Good Life” by Blackberry Smoke or (as much as I don’t like admitting it) “Sea Stories” by Sturgill Simpson, this song just doesn’t do much for me. Of course, I could say that about other songs on this album as well. “This Old Heart”, “I Wanna Love Like That Again”, “Damn Drunk”, “That’s Why They Make Jack Daniels” and “I Put That There” aren’t necessarily bad songs. In fact, those last two are kind of enjoyable despite some problems with the production. As it stands though, all of those songs explore themes that are familiar to country music and don’t really add anything to make any of them really standout for me. Even a song like “Still Feels Like Mexico” with Reba McEntire is inherently alright, but if you’ve got a song with Reba, why not let her provide more than just harmony and a line at the end? The song itself is about a love who still feel the same feelings they once did for each other, and yet we only hear that from Ronnie. It would have made for a great duet but instead, it’s just alright.
What did I say at the beginning of this review though? I said this shares some traits with his last albums, and one of those traits was a mixed bag of songs. I’ve already harped on long enough about the bad and mediocre songs, so what about the good?
Well, just like his other two albums, there are some real highlights here. “I Worship The Woman You Walked On” is very much playing in the same vein as Gary Allan’s “Man To Man” where the male narrator says to the other guy, “look, you had your chance, and you blew it”. Really, it’s one of the few places where the modern touches actually really standout as great with the song itself feeling like a modern Countrypolitan song. It’s got a nice string section and Ronnie’s voice actually works wonders here. “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” is a very good song about a man who alludes to the fact that he’s hurting over a lost love by stating lines like “Memphis never had the blues, there ain’t no trucks in Texas, and I ain’t missing you”. Obviously they’re all lies. Yeah, it kind of drones on the point a little long, but at the same time I also really enjoyed Ronnie’s delivery here. Much like “I Worship…” I also think the modern production sounds very solid here.
Of course, two of the best songs on this album come towards the end with “Only Broken Heart In San Antone” and “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”. The former is a solid breakup song that features an excellent vocal performance from Ronnie. Like I said, he nails these slower songs, and the bluesy soul touches here actually work well. Then of course you get to “Honky Tonk” which features a phenomenal twin fiddle line. No, I don’t just like this because it’s the most country song on this album, I like it because this type of material suits Ronnie’s voice the best. Yeah, the references to George Strait and George Jones feel kind of weird seeing as how this is his most modern album to date, but it’s still a solid song in its own right.
But overall, Tattooed Heart is one of those albums with potential to be great but unfortunately falls short for me. While the Ariana Grande cover is definitely very odd, I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily a bad song besides that. I just wish most of these songs were able to rise above the level of “okay”. There are some damn great songs, enough to where I’m giving this a very light 6/10, but still, Ronnie Dunn is capable of so much more. Three albums in and he’s still producing mixed bags, so who knows if number four will be the charm. I sure hope so.
Best Songs: “I Worship The Woman You Walked On”, “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas”, “Only Broken Heart In San Antone”, “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”
Worst Song: “Tattooed Heart”