Kix Brooks’ Field of Dreams: Only In America
Eighty-eight minutes after taking the stage, Kix Brooks returned, black shirt soaked, hair damp when he took off his hat to put an acoustic guitar over his head. He’d played an exhausting set that recast some of the songs his “big act” was known for, unraveled rocking bits of heroism, romanticism and the way life goes and even cross-pollinated some other artists with his own brand of trouba-tonk.
This was not the “Jumping Jack Flash”ery of his former, amphitheatre-headlining act – replete with giant inflatable blow-up girls, confetti cannons, a military color guard, tshirt launchers and trick ropers. No, this was something else: an honest witness to the power of songs, field-stripped and raw, to carry life’s essential trace elements.
With a down-stroke that pressed into the melody and an upstroke that took half the chord with it, Brooks moved through chord changes that seemed familiar. Slightly out of time, but obviously on purpose, there was weight on what was being played – perhaps the weight of a life lived designed to slowdown and shift the once jubilant exhileration of being saved by where we come “Red Dirt Road” into a slow exaltation of who we are at our core.
“It’s where I drank my first beer,” came the molasses-paced witness, “It’s where I found Jesus… where I wrecked my first car, I tore it all to pieces…”
Profound mundanity. Stuff we’ve all done, or know someone who has.
Nothing special here it seems. Once upon a time, the feel-good chorus swept you up, made you raise your first to cheer how young we were, how willing to believe. But in this slowed-down exploration, the deeper truth emerges as the chorus turns, and the confession of who he was and what the Louisiana songwriter’s realized deepens.
“I learned the path to heaven is full of sinners and believers,
“That happiness of earth ain’t just for high achievers
“I’ve learned, I’ve come to know…
“There’s life at both ends… of that red dirt road…”
It’s not the “being a rock star” that matters, it’s the rocking. It’s not the swaggering bluster of booming out of a car radio that’s the reason for being, but more the truth captures and the way people live it.
And it’s not the living it when it’s easy, rolling large and fat, but the way you carry yourself in the margins. For the Shreveport-born’n’bred songwriter, it’s about the moment when you climb back on the bus with a scrappy band of road-vested pickers and tear up the night in a bar where average people come to forget how hard paying the bills is, to drink $18.95 buckets of beer, ride a mechanical bull, maybe find comfort for a night – or the start of forever if they’re lucky.
For the record: Kix Brooks has done it all. Opened for the Rolling Stones. Played the Olympics, a couple inaugurations. Cross-pollinated musically for a tv special that merged his band’s industrial honky tonk with ZZ Top’s blues and Texas machismo on steroids. Written a #1 for someone else; someone else being the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the song being the slightly banged up heartache of “Modern Day Romance.”
He’s been Entertainer of the Year in two different eras. Written a song that rallied America in the wake of 9/11: “Only In America,” which had peaked, but with its chorus of “Dream as big as you want to…,” the celebration of the potentiality of the American Dream spun back around as the dust from the World Trade Center’s towers that fell still swirled, sliding into the top slot on the country radio charts.
I know. I was there. I watched it happen. Heck, I made sure everybody knew it.
And now, the man who’s done all that is out on the road, making it happen all over again. He is not taking the high dollar soft ticket dates. He is not insisting on a major tour. He’s going to the people, and he’s staying up late to make sure they understand he’s one of them. It ain’t glamorous, but it’s real.
Looking at the faces at the 8 Second Saloon, they’re marked by hardship, doubt, even a little fear. These folks have worked their whole lives, have believed in the greatness of the nation, the notion that you could work with your hands, make your way, hold your head up as a man – or woman, as an American. They’re thick about the middle, lumpy in their clothes, lines cut into their faces, skin papery or leathery – and many of’em have not yet seen 40.
It’s the part of the rhetoric we miss. So intoxicated by the Desparate Housewives, the Jersey Shoreians, the Kardashians, reality TV and talent show characters, we forget that brokered bling and staged drama isn’t real. This is. It ain’t pretty.
Funny thing about the crossroads: For all in the inherent drama of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil somewhere in Mississippi, there’s no highwire urgency to it. Little worn, frayed, torn around the edges, thin in places, patched in others. The trick is to make up your mind, then to make it hold.
Sliding through the corn fields and thunder clouds, heading north on I-65, I think about all that. It’d been a long time since I left the Neon Circus, too physically sick to give them the job they deserve, and yet never quite soul disconnected from the full-tilt, hardcore blue collar juke joint mainstream country Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks had conjured from their barroom-honed back stories.
Thing about the ones who crawl out of the trenches: they play to win, but they never forget the ache of 6 sets a night for tips and a bar tab, the need of the people coming to hear’em and the way they turn if you don’t deliver. Brooks & Dunn delivered. Full grown men, they hit hard and didn’t look back; they were gonna show you the best damn time you’d had in ages. And you could take that to the bank.
Proof was in the CD changer. There beside the Rolling Stones late-midcareer gem Some Girls, South Florida punk/blues icon Charlie Pickett & the Eggs’ brutal Live from the Button South and the derailed future of rock & roll Mary Cutrufello’s Stones-tinged, Faces-laced When The Night Is Through was Brooks & Dunn’s body-slamming Hillbilly Deluxe, an album that brought the rhythms with force (“Play Something Country,” the title track), the salvation hard won (the CMA Song of the Year “Believe”), female fist-pumping (“Get Out of Town,” with it’s chorus of “what goes on on the road, stays on the road…”) and a few wistful sketches of their restless sweethearts’ memory (“Her West Was Wilder”).
The thing about stepping out that most people don’t realize: your place gets filled. Immediately. Everyone clamoring for their shot comes rushing into the void. Things must be done. It is not about quality or competence, understanding or vision. It just is. Set up those interviews, write those releases, create those mailers.
Seems like excellence doesn’t matter. Momentum takes care of that, as does the sizzle of fame or scandal. Miranda Lambert may have won three straight Academy of Country Music Album of the Year awards – for her last three records, an unprecedented feat – but America knows far more about her bold-faced marriage to “Voice” judge/singer Blake Shelton (who’s own Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock championing has been lost in translation), her hunting and gun advocacy, work out programs and diet, wedding plans, squabbles with Ashton Kutcher…
Uhm, people, Miranda Lambert’s records empower young girls who aren’t Barbie Dolls. The music’s smart, funny, piquant, ballsy in the right ways, heart-tugging without being Hallmark. She’s walked both sides of the line – being brazen in “Crazy Ex Girlfriend,” self-protective in the wake of an abusing partner in “Gun Powder & Lead,” catty, yet hysterical in “Only Prettier” and recognizing the poetry of where we come from with the CMA Single of the Year “The House That Built Me,” not to mention her redneck high art’n’trailer park trio Pistol Annies, who made last year’s most spot-on record.
People rarely talk about it. Digging in and striving for quality is up to you, but it’s only done for you. Don’t expect to be rewarded for it. Most people are too busy getting by to notice. Too busy texting to consider deeper discernment or writing that’s much more than flat facts, let alone poetry. It is being serviced, not making love: pumping instead of pleasure. Relief, yes, but passion?
And is passion worth it? Is it?
When you know the difference, the question gets harder to answer. You must get by, but is that living? You need to get beyond your skin, but is that what coupling’s about? The worst part of growing up: once you know, you can’t not know. And there you are, stranded in awareness with the realization of how little there truly is.
“Every time I looked in those far away eyes,
I could see myself getting left behind
“I gave her my best, but her west… was wilder than mine,” came the truth…
That’s the thing about cowboys: they love and they lose and they’re willing hurt. Indeed, it’s inherent to their human condition. It’s what makes them rock harder, climb higher. It’s what drives a man like Kix Brooks, who don’t need to, head out onto the road, pulling a trailer and seeking ecstasy and connection in the night.
And it’s not overly earnest, either. No, this’s no take-me-seriously-I-used-to-be-somebody ploy to cling to the last tatters of what was. Rather it’s an altar call of the faithful, who believe in the power of what music can do.
They know who they’re coming to see, mind you. The young 20-something couple with the tattoos and piercings. The three hot local 30-somethings intent on flirting. The beaten down 40 something who remembers “the time…” The college kids who want to share he was their first concert.
But this is a barroom; the second bus pulls a trailer with the equipment. Indeed, before the show, the smoky, spilt rail-voiced singer tries to figure out how to hook up a wireless printer he’d bought after his radio visits, so the band could have set lists. He may host “America’s Country Countdown,” who have shrink-wrapped his “star coach,” but this is the part where the sheen gets turpentined.
Walking out onstage to the frenetically paced now-or-never wedding protocol “Let’s Do This Thing,” Brooks has come to take it to the wall. It is 11 o’clock when he strides onstage – two electric guitars blaring, drums thumping like a world class shakedown. It’s the sort of full-tilt, downhill with no brakes boogie that made the John Anderson of “Let Somebody Else Drive” and “Black Sheep” so compelling.
And so it went: fraught and taut and playing for keeps. The new songs explore the basic things of being old enough to know better, but not giving a damn. There’s big boy lust – the Warren Zevon-“A Certain Girl”-invoking “My Baby’s Tattoo” and “Moonshine Row,” there’s just-stay-here’n’drinkery – the acoustic, harmony-laced hard country of “I’m Only Here For The Beer,” the raucous “360” and “Crazy’s What I Know,” and that bittersweet twinge of bruised heart he does so dignified and vulnerable — the lead single “New In Town.”
But this wasn’t about flogging upcoming product, though the crowd was up and dancing, fist pumping and whooping in recognition of what he sang about. Nor was it about reinventing a canon of songs that had become the sonic wallpaper of a couple generations of country fans, though gave “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up for Nothing” a burlesque turn via John Jarvis’ piano and offered a mariachi-undertowed “Lost & Found,” as well as the straight-up bar-room boogie of the single girl’s lust for life “Get Out of Town.”
What came off the stage was a man trying to help people remember: the way music can set the free, set them on fire. There were stories about jello shots in the first flicker of fame, laughing trench tales of the working musicians sharing the bandstand with a direct “everyone on this stage was either fired or left Brooks & Dunn, and I don’t know which side of that line I come down on…,” even the basic Cinderella history of “we met on a Tuesday, wrote ‘Brand New Man’ on Thursday, ‘Neon Moon’ on Friday and spent the next 20 years riding a tour bus…”
It was personable, it was human, but it also invested the crowd in the music and rogue life. With a remember-when reminiscence of being ignited by the Allman Brothers, the band kicked into a blistering “One Way Out.” There was a grinding take on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” that gave new lumber to an almost cliché.
But especially there was fluidity. The brand new “(My Baby) Ain’t Comin’ Back” was wildy propulsive, bumping into the realm of gonzo Texan Ray Wylie Hubband. “Ain’t Comin’ Back” then banjo rolledi nto a euphoric version of Tom Petty “American Girl.” Both were a rush of feel-good and wide-open, the way a handful of night feels at 72 miles an hour on the open road – and that tactility served the 7-pieces flying through the kind of set country bands used to play on two-wheels and a whole lot of tequila.
That would’ve been wonder enough, but as “American Girl” rushed forward and swept people up on the crest of the best of what young women rebelling against the cultural notions to come into their own embody, the bottom fell out. Just a little, just enough to make it interesting.
Suddenly, juxtaposed to Petty’s classic, a new song emerged from the crack in the sidewalk. The rhythms again enough off kilter, the lyrics enough drawn out that recognition wasn’t immediate. You could feel the anticipation, the notion of “wha…?” Just before the chorus, it hit the crowd and they were on their feet.
It was slower, more purposeful. Suddenly a bald-rallying cry became a proud definition – of who they were, of what they stood for. If the opening line “Sun comin’ up, over New York City…” had gotten by them, the declaration of “Only In America where you dream in red, white and blue…” hit hard. This song was their truth, their reason to believe.
It was a moment of weary catharsis for the crowd. They knew when they came, they weren’t going to get the grand spectacle and flashy tricks of Brooks & Dunn, but they weren’t sure what they’d find. What they didn’t count on was finding themselves.
Onstage with no production, practically no support crew, Kix Brooks made a stand for real music played for all its worth. Solos that lashed and lacerated, musicians driving and getting off on each other’s playing, songs that you didn’t just know, you inhabited.
It was plain, funky in a musty way and immersed in giving it all you got.
It was exactly like the people who’d come unsure, but who came because that’s all they’ve got left to do. They’re not ready to surrender, and they don’t know what happened to everything they’d bought into – because for all the Yuppies who talk about “how real” country is, this remains working class music.
It was well after 1 a.m. when the final notes rained down. Back and forth across the front of the stage, high fiving and signing, Brooks was spent. Waving his salt-stained hait in the air, he chugged offstage and into the crisp night.
As two approached, there were still people gathered around his bus – the one with pictures of Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts on it to promote his nationally syndicated weekly country countdown show – waiting for their moment to say hi, take a picture, get an autograph.
If they’d come to acknowledge who he was at the pre-show meet & greet, these people were there because of how the show had made them feel. Nothing fancy, just actual music relentlessly played, touching people, rocking hard, finding that place inside where we feel most electric.
Sitting in my car watching, I marveled. This is hard work – and there’s no substitute, nor guarantee. You do it because you love it, and because you feel there is something more to seek. Is it harder? Smokier? More intense?
Hard to say. Brooks talks sometimes about his father, who never knew a stranger, loved the tavern life. His mother died of cancer when he was young, and maybe that’s how his Dad connected with humanity after. Certainly for Leon Brooks, who answers to Kix, it is a place where his kind of alive invigorates others. Maybe that’s reason enough…
Certainly, it’s about staking one’s claim, making a mark that is all your own.
People in Nashville like to make it a competition, a grudge match between the two frontman. Certainly Ronnie Dunn is the greatest hard country, flame-throwing singer since George Jones or Gary Stewart – and years of being compared to that makes people forget that Brooks sings as well as most of today’s newcomers, as well as Luke Bryan, as well as Jake Owen or even Aldean, as well as nuevo-outlaws Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church and Justin Moore.
This ain’t about that. It’s about aesthetics. The fact that you play enough beer joints, and you learn what you like. If Dunn is more a classic honky tonk on stun kind of guy, Brooks drags the gray area between the low-slung boogie’n’blues, the troubadours punching it out in bars and the fringe of the Waylon’n’Willie realm of Outlaw Country.
Like Dunn, he wants to know how far he can take it, to see if the intensity will hold. He’s not competing with anyone, but himself – and he’s pushing hard. Pushing because when you’ve had it all, you wanna know you can do it again – and you wanna make people feel those things they once felt, too.
Funny how big – and small – dreams are when you embrace them.