Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Ronnie Dunn and CJ Solar

Ronnie Dunn – 100 Proof Neon

I don’t suppose Ronnie cares if only the loyal faithful hear this album, his fourth of original material, which he himself produced. He no longer bothers country radio and he doesn’t need to write anything new. After all, he is making plans for his 70th birthday next year.

The copyrights on Boot Scootin’ Boogie, Hard Workin’ Man, Neon Moon and My Next Broken Heart must ensure he need never work again but, once you’re a songwriter and performer, the itch never ends. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are on tour at 80, while Willie Nelson will be 90 next year, making one half of Brooks & Dunn a young whippersnapper.

In 2020 he put out a 24-track set of covers called Re-Dunn, while his old buddy Kix Brooks has now gone a decade without putting out an album, content to host the American Country Countdown. One of the most commercial voices of the post-Garth era, Ronnie was paired with Kix as a sort of Music Row version of Hall & Oates. The pair are touring this summer, heading to Durant, Oklahoma, Brandon, Mississippi and Springfield, Illinois this August, having played the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville in June. They remain a big draw and, like Garth or Reba or Alan Jackson, play to three generations of fans as a legacy act.

The album opens with Broken Neon Hearts, a funky song set in a bar where lonely souls drink and a band plays loud, which is followed by Honky Tonk Town. As well as a lovely cowbell in the chorus and a fine key change, it features vocals from young Jake Worthington. Ronnie’s voice soars to a falsetto on the hopeful If Love Ever Comes My Way Again, where ‘neon lights’ once again appear in the lyric.

Later on we get Honky Tonk Skin, which rather belabours the point but still sounds great with its thunking backbeat and good-time lyric which shows Ronnie’s pride in being ‘raised on Hag songs, baptised in neon’ and ‘comfortable in my honky tonk skin’. The song’s texture is further improved by the backing vocals which provide a nice bed on which the lead voice sits; there’s a nice nod to Honky Tonk Woman too. We remain on the dancefloor for Two Steppers, Waltzes, and Shuffles that namechecks Johnny Cash and another Rolling Stones tune.

The Triston Marez song Where The Neon Lies (‘where the jukebox plays and the heart don’t break’), on which Ronnie guested, gets the solo treatment to bring it to any ears that haven’t yet heard the song. The guy knows a good song when he hears it, and his take on heartbreak ballad The Blade is the equal of Ashley Monroe’s original version. Parker McCollum appears on Road to Abilene, where both narrators mourn a lost love over pedal steel heartache. I love the description of the sky as ‘bloodshot’.

Lee Thomas Miller and Bob DiPiero bring their A game to Good Bartender, the album’s closing track which begins: ‘Happy Hour was a big letdown’. Resistance is futile as you try not to sing along to the woahs. Shawn Camp (who wrote Two Pina Coladas) and his mate Terry McBride (who wrote Play Something Country) were in the room for She’s Why I Drink Whiskey (‘I can’t drown her memory, I can’t move on’); with its snare rimshots and ‘empty glasses’, and the ‘girl done left me’ lyric, it is country in its purest form. The mighty Dean Dillon co-wrote Somethin’ I Can’t Have, which is slathered in fiddle and heartbreak.

This album reminds me of Bruce Springsteen, who has made album after album in the last 20 years, each with panache and charm. The Rising, released 20 years ago, was full of tunes driven by Max Weinberg’s drums and lyrics about togetherness. 100 Proof Neon has that same quality; any song Ronnie decides to play from this album will not drive people to the bar as they wait for those big tunes.

CJ Solar – The Future’s Neon

Ronnie isn’t the only man inspired by Broadway’s honky-tonks. CJ Solar is a songwriter of some repute who co-wrote a great song called Blue Bandana which was a minor hit for Jerrod Niemann. He also has plaques and money from his number one radio smashes Some Girls for Jameson Rodgers and Up Down for Florida Georgia Line.

CJ often puts out songs which get a little bit of radio pla, such as American Girls and Airplane, without becoming widely popular. After EPs in 2017 and 2020, CJ releases his first album on his Raining Bacon imprint, with nine tracks clocking in at half an hour. He appears on the cover with a trademark hat, shoulder-length hair and beard.

The lead single All I Can Think About Lately is driven by a two-chord loop and a chorus with a wish to get high with his beloved. Conversely, More Than She Loves Me was written with Jon Pardi’s pal Bart Butler and shares the heartstring-tugging feel of some of Pardi’s ballads, even as CJ’s girl leaves him for Texas. Jesus & A Woman looks to Whiskey and You for inspiration (‘one will drive you drinking, one will save you for yourself’) and will be a writers’ round tune for many years.

Coming Around, written with Michael Hardy (who is hot right now), echoes Scotty McCreery’s Damn Strait. CJ hears a song on the radio that makes his ex’s memory come back around. There’s a nice reference to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses and the song is sticky.

If you’ve written thousands of songs, you need a new way to say something familiar. Oddly, CJ wants his beloved to show him a Little Less Mercy and, it seems, chastise him once in a while. Over some slide guitar and heavy drumwork he admits that ‘I know how bad I can be’. The grooves continue on both Drunk Dancing and Long Nights, anthems to partying which seem made for Lower Broadway.

The album’s title track unites honky-tonk thrills and forgetting about an ex, sung with clarity and power without overwhelming the listener. The closing waltz Hungover Enough takes a sober look at the previous eight tracks: CJ sings ‘Don’t know why I keep doing this to myself’ over piano chords and a sonic wash of pedal steel. It’s very country and very good.

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