Tattooed Cowboy

Tattooed Cowboy

Album Review: Ronnie Dunns TATTOOED HEART
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One of my earliest musical experiences was watching the music video for Brooks & Dunn’s single, “Honky Ton Truth”, from their 1997 greatest hits compilation, The Greatest Hits Collection. I became a die-hard Brooks & Dunn fan, however, right around the time their 2003 album Red Dirt Road released. There were several songs on that album that I love and the best music video that they ever made (“You Can’t Take The Honky Tonk Out of the Girl”) was produced to promote that album. Then 2004 saw the release of a second greatest hits compilation (The Greatest Hits Collection II) and that was followed by their 2005 album, Hillbilly Deluxe, which contained the hits “Play Something Country” and “Believe”. I look back on that album positively and believe it to be the last great album of their catalogue. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate 2007’s The Cowboy Town by any means, but there was a key element missing in that record and it was their worst performing album on the Billboard Charts that the group’s highly underrated Tight Rope from 1998.

It was apparent to me that they were fighting the end for a while even if I didn’t want to believe it. When they released their single “Indian Summer” in 2009, I was relived because the song itself was decent enough and it showed hope that the group would continue. Unfortunately, the single ended up being one of only two original songs on their last effort as a duo, a third official compilation album titled #1s…and then some. Brooks & Dunn was my favorite group growing up (and they still have a special spot reserved for them in my heart) and I was devastated when they disbanded following their Last Rodeo Tour in 2010.

My hope in the future, however, was reassured when it was announced that duo member and primary lead singer, Ronnie Dunn, had signed a solo record deal with Sony records to release his debut self-titled album, which was released the following June. Ronnie Dunn was a good album, and while it doesn’t hold up as well six years later, I still look back on it with fond memories. “Bleed Red”, “Once”, and “Cost of Livin’” to this day are still my three favorite songs in Ronnie Dunn’s solo discography and I only wish that “Once” would have been given the single treatment that it deserved. It didn’t have that Brooks & Dunn sound to it, which I think was a miss for some fans, but what would expect? This wasn’t a Brooks & Dunn album, it was a Ronnie Dunn solo album. Of course it was going to be a little different. For example, a lot of the songs were a bit more mainstream sounding and current than much of Brooks & Dunn’s catalogue.

Issues with executives at Sony Music Nashville let to Dunn’s dismissal from the label and his future as an artist was once again in jeopardy. However, in 2014 Dunn released his second solo album, Peace Love & Country Music, independently through his own record label, Little Will-E Records. That album was very experimental with Dunn experimenting with different sounds and technologies such as auto tune. The content on the album itself was very hit and miss. The lead single, “Kiss You There”, sounded very forced with the rap influence and while it does have a certain charm to it, it is easily one of the weakest links on the record. Sound wise, that album was all over the place from the rap influenced “Kiss You There” to the more pop sounding effort, “Romeo & Juliet”, to borderline hard rock with a country twang songs like “Country This” or “Cowgirls Rock & Roll” to the more traditional sounding country songs like “Grown Damn Man”, “I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes”, and “Peace, Love, and Country Music”. That album had some songs that were better than a lot of the songs from the first record. However, the material as a whole was nowhere near as solid as that of the first album, Ronnie Dunn.

Shortly following the release of Peace, Love, & Country Music, Ronnie realized that being a record executive was a lot more difficult that it looked and eventually joined Nash Icon Records under the Big Machine umbrella, which serves that the home of artists such as Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, and Florida Georgia Line. This brings us to the release of Dunn’s third solo effort, Tattooed Heart. So, what’s the verdict? This is a very good album despite being mostly ballads.

The first track on the album and lead single, “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” is a charming song about male stubborn pride. The narrator of the song is heartbroken of his girlfriend deciding to leave town and he decides to state how much he doesn’t care about her by singing: There ain’t no trucks in Texas/Ain’t no football in the south/Ain’t no bourbon in Kentucky/I ain’t drinking me some now/Ain’t no stars in California/Memphis never had the blues/Oh, there ain’t no trucks in Texas/And I ain’t missing you. It reminds me, to some extent, of his former duo partner’s (Kix Brooks) only solo hit, “New To This Town”. While coming from a similar place, this song is able to perfect what that song was trying to do but fell just a little bit flat. Production wise, the single is one of the best songs on the album. It is produced by Jay DeMarcus (Rascal Flats) and is a very contemporary; yet, country outlaw sounding song that I think will appeal to fans of older country as well as contemporary country.

The second track and second single from the album, “Damn Drunk”, reunites Brooks & Dunn as Kix Brooks is brought in to sing backup vocals for his former partner in crime. Kix’s vocals are a welcoming sound and very pleasant harmonies to this track. While it is Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks singing together, this isn’t the Brooks & Dunn reunion that many B&D fans were hoping for. It certainly is more of a Ronnie Dunn song than a B&D song, but that shouldn’t be counted against it. Despite what the title suggests, this is not a kick-your-heels-up-in-the-air country rocker. Rather, it is a more pop driven country song about a man who loves his wife or girlfriend so much that is she was a whiskey, he would be a drunk. In the song Dunn sings: If you were this guitar I’d turn it to eleven/If you were an angel I would pray to go to heaven/If they wouldn’t let me in I’d break the gates down/I’d break ‘em all down/If you were on the other side of the world/I’d spin that thing right back around just to get to you girl/I love the way you always go and mess me up/If you were a whiskey, girl, I’d be a damn drunk. The melody is very beautiful and fits into the three consistent themes on this record: whiskey, women, and the southwest.

The third track on the album, “I Worship The Woman You Walked On”, is a bit more traditional and sounds more like something that would be on a Brooks & Dunn record. The song is about a man who is in love with a woman who is in a relationship with a seemingly failing relationship and is attempting to act on the rebound. Dun sings: I worship the woman you walked on/I hold her at night until she’s satisfied/And I try to right all you did wrong/I worship the woman you walked on. While it isn’t really a key track on the record, it will certainly please traditional country and Brooks & Dunn fans alike.

The fourth song on the record, “That’s Why They Make Jack Daniels”, is another song that has more of a pop country feel to it. The substance is, once again, about whiskey and women as Dunn belches in the chorus: That’s why they make Jack Daniels/Two fingers in a glass/Ain’t gonna make it any better but it won’t hurt as bad. The song isn’t all that weak, but it doesn’t really offer anything else to the album and is comparatively similar to the lead single, “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas”. The fifth song on the record, “I Put That There”, is one of the highlights on the record. Again, this song has the common theme of women and whiskey, however, unlike the track before it, it does have a little bit more to offer. The substance of the song itself is about a man looking back on a failed relationship and him owning up to it and being honest with himself. The music is heavily influenced by 80s rock songs with the electric keyboard licks in the verses and that surprisingly doesn’t sound cheesy and is refreshing. Dunn sings: That hundred miles of highway between her and me/That whole lotta empty where she used to be/That whiskey bottle smashed in pieces on the floor/Like so many reasons she don’t love me no more/That goodbye hanging like smoke in the air/I put that there. Dunn’s experience in life is why he is able to pull this song off with the sophistication that he does.

The sixth song on the record, “Young Buck”, is a really good “outlaw” country song about an older man (Dunn) speaking to a younger man with the lyrics stating: Get back to chasing them girls/Shooting at the moon/Raising that hell/Loving Jesus too/You’re the heartbeat of this little bitty town/Bottle rockets lit/Friday night lights/Just like your daddy and his daddy, that’s right/Got a fire you can’t put out/Hey young buck/Don’t be ashamed of what you’re proud of. The song is pretty straight forward in terms of message and is a classic among outlaw country stars. The seventh song on the album, “I Wanna Love Like That Again”, is one of two songs penned by Dunn himself. This song is about a man looking back at a past love wishing that his current love could be as spontaneous as he sings: It’s like that song plays/The words just rhyme/Right place, right time/One of those things/It just kinda happens/The blind leads the blind/I don’t matter the whys the whens/I wanna love like that again. The song itself is a very mid tempo country ballad and is pretty run of the mill comparatively. Still, Dunn’s voice shines through turning what would be a pretty mediocre song into something special.

The eighth song on the record, “Still Feels Like Mexico”, reunites Dunn with another one of his long time duet partner, Reba McEntire. The song is written by Tommy Lee James, who penned their previous duet back when Dunn was with Brooks & Dunn, “If You See Him/If You See Her”. This song is in the same vein as it is about two lovers recounting their past love, though it is a bit more optimistic because they seem to still be together in the song. In the lyrics Dunn and McEntire sing: Still feels like Mexico/Still feels like the first time, baby/Still feels like we’re in Canun/’Cause I’m still drunk on you/In that beach side motel room/Still feels like those summer days/Those nights we went a little crazy/Who cares if we ever go back/When you kiss me like that it still feels like Mexico. The song is certainly another highlight to the album and should definitely released as a single.

The ninth track and title track of the record, “Tattooed Heart”, is the odd ball on the album. A cover of Arianna Grande’s song, “Tattooed Heart”, is about young love, to but it simply. The song itself is a pop R&B song that fits Dunn’s vocals nicely and can best be compared with “You Don’t Know Me” from his 2014 solo album, Peace, Love, & Country Music. The song is not thematically significant, but it is a nice addition to the album and it features something that many modern songs of any genre lack these days: a key change. The tenth track on the album is “This Old Heart” is a more modern country rocker (one of only two on the record) and starts off with: I used to ramble all over town/I’d be the last one out/I’d close ‘em down and then transitions into the chorus: This old heart ain’t what it used to be/Girl your love sure is good me/This old heart ain’t what it used to be/Girl your love sure is good to me. It is a pretty run of the mill song that could best be compared with the Brooks & Dunn song, “Brand New Man”. Still, on an album full of ballads, it is a pretty stand out track that is definitely worth a listen. Just note that it doesn’t really bring anything new other than a really catchy bridge.

The eleventh track on the album, “Only Broken Heart in San Antone”, concludes what Dunn referred to, as the trilogy of “Heart” songs is another broken heart song. It is a good song as Dunn sings: I’m the only broken heart in San Antone tonight/Guess this ain’t no place to start to get on with my life/Everybody’s hand in hand/Moonlight walkin’, makin’ plans/It sure is lonely when you’re the only broken heart in San Antone. The song is about a man who goes to San Antone and is tortured by the sight of happy couples around him after his most recent relationship fell apart. It is one of the stand out tracks on the album, though I’m not sure if it should be released as a single. The final track on the album, “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”, is the second of two songs Dunn penned on his own and it proves that he hasn’t lost a damn thing when it comes to songwriting. One of my favorite lines of the song is: Band they played that “Neon Moon”/Back and forth we’d sway/We lived, we breathed those cowboy tunes/I still do today. Here Dunn offers a nod to the classic Brooks & Dunn hit, “Neon Moon”, which he peened fro their first album as a duo, Brand New Man. The chorus is especially good as Dunn sings: Strait took it home, he almost quit, climbed down off his horse/Jones walked it through those pearly gates, big old swinging doors/Right now I could a shot of something hardcore, that’s for sure/She Don’t Honky Tonk No More. The reason this song sticks out like it does is because Dunn composed it in only the way he can while many of the run of the mill songs on the record were composed by run of the mill Nashville songwriters.

Overall, the album is the best of his solo career and a fine achievement. The stand out tracks are the first two singles, “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” and “Damn Drunk”, “I Put That There”, “Still Feels Like Mexico”, and “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”. I really hope that this isn’t the last we see of Ronnie Dunn. I just hope that for his fourth solo album, he writes more of the material himself. It has more heart when he takes the time to do that.

Rating: 4/5

Cover Image Credit: http://www.cmt.com/artists/ronnie-dunn/

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To Percy Jackson, I Hope You're Well...

Percy Jackson and the Olympians and the Heroes of Olympus are both series which helped shape my life. I want to share my love for them here, with you.

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Two days before I moved from New Jersey to California, I had a late night at a friend's house. Just a few miles outside of my small town of Morris Plains, his house was out of the way and a safe haven for myself and my mother during a harrowing and strenuous move. My father had been across the country already for almost two months trying to hold down his new job and prove himself. His absence was trying on me (at the tender young age of nine years old) and my mother, and we often spent time at my friend's home, as our mothers got along well.

That night came the time to say goodbye for the very last time, and as our mothers were tearfully embracing at the door, he ran up to me and shoved a book in my hands. Bewildered and confused, I tried to give him my thanks but he was already gone - running away in a childish fit that expressed his hurt at my leaving more than any words he could've said. I looked down at the book in my hands. It was a battered copy of Rick Riordan's "The Lightning Thief," with its binding bulging slightly out in a strange fashion, the cover slightly torn and bent, and quite a few pages dog-eared. The book wasn't in good condition, but I took the time to read it. I was ensnared and enchanted by the lurid descriptions of mythology, of the lovable characters of Percy, Annabeth, and Grover, and the upside-down world they lived in. Over the course of the move and our eventual settling into our new California home, I devoured the series adamantly, reading "The Battle of the Labyrinth" almost five times in the fifth grade and eventually finishing out with "The Last Olympian." The series accompanied me through a difficult move and a whirlwhind of early puberty; by that time, Percy and friends I knew intimately as my own companions. When the series ended, I happily parted with it, and began other literary conquests (namely in the realm of classics).

After an almost year-long break, I re-discovered the series in sixth grade. I hadn't realized that there was a companion series to the first, in fact, a continuation - The Heroes of Olympus. I lapped up "The Lost Hero" and "The Son of Neptune" with greed, and eagerly awaited the arrival of "The Mark of Athena" the following year.

One of my most vivid memories of middle school was sneaking downstairs the morning of the Kindle release of "The Mark of Athena", sneaking past my parents' bedroom as stealthily as I could in the wee hours of the morning to get my kindle and immerse myself in the world. I believe I finished it in about two days. For the next two books in the series, I followed the same pattern: get up early, read it as fast as I could get my hands on it. "The Blood of Olympus", the last book in the series, came out in my freshman year of high school. After finishing the second series, I shelved my much-loved paperbacks for good, and turned myself to other literary pursuits. I eventually relocated to Virginia, and went to college. Percy and friends were almost forgotten until my first year at the University of Virginia.

I was devastatingly alone my first semester at university. I didn't know what to do with myself, entombed by my loneliness. However, at the bottom of my suitcase, I found my old Kindle Paperwhite, with both of Percy's series neatly installed for me. I made a resolution with myself: I would reread both series, reading only at mealtimes where I sat alone. By the time I was finished, I wanted to see where I was compared to when I started.

Re-reading the series was like coming home. It was nostalgia, sadness, and ecstasy wrapped into one. I delighted in revisiting Percy's old haunts, his friends, his challenges. However, it was sad, knowing I had grown up and left them behind while they had stayed the same. It was a riveting memory train which made me look forward to meals, and eased my loneliness at school. Gradually, as the semester progressed, I was reading on Percy's tales less and less, as I found my friends, clubs, and organizations that gradually took up more and more time.

I still haven't finished my re-read, and am about halfway through "The Blood of Olympus". I've come a long way in the almost decade since I first received that tattered copy of "The Lightning Thief", and I still have some ways to go. So thanks, Percy, Annabeth, Grover, Jason, Piper, Reyna, Nico, Frank, Hazel, Leo. Thank you for growing up with me. I'll never forget you.

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