For 20 years, Brooks & Dunn spent most every night beneath the light of a neon moon. But after their two-hour concert in downtown Nashville in Thursday night (Sept. 2), they flipped off the switch and called it a career.
There were no hugs or tears as the last note of "Brand New Man" -- their first single and final song -- rang out across the Bridgestone Arena. Instead, they just waved to the crowd for a minute or two and faded off into the sunset.
The duo had hinted in past interviews that they might have special guests for their final concert, a fundraiser for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. However, they brought out only one during their set -- Reba McEntire, who nailed the last verse of "Cowgirls Don't Cry" before putting her arms around her friends and quickly taking off. Other than that, the show appeared to be evenly divided by hits delivered by Ronnie Dunn and a wide range of material (not always radio hits) sung by Kix Brooks, who was about 10 times more chatty with the crowd than his partner.
Naturally, the show kicked off in high gear with live staples "Play Something Country" and "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl." Brooks scanned the crowd with a video camera before stepping out with "Mama Don't Get Dressed Up for Nothing" and the pulsating guitar lick energizing the crowd. After that, Dunn's take on "Put a Girl in It" kept the crowd at fever pitch.
Then it was time to slow things down a little bit. Dunn sang "I'll Never Forgive My Heart," a lesser-known hit released in 1994 that sounded like a weeper you'd hear in a bar. The song worked well in the concert setting because his poignant voice has always been well-suited to honky-tonks. Brooks took the lead on "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone" as the lyrics scrolled behind him in red, black and white. "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," one of the biggest hits of their career, certainly re-energized the audience.
After a strange lull, just a few seconds of dim blue lights, but definitely noticeable, Brooks took a few moments to address the audience, emphasizing his gratitude to the fans who had traveled long distances -- especially the ones who had to change their travel plans after the show had been postponed because of Dunn's prescribed vocal rest. He thanked the crowd "for making this last go-round for us really special," but accentuated the fact that "this is not a funeral -- we did show up to party!"
But first he decided to talk a little more, saying that everybody kept asking him what it feels like to play their last show. His reply? That he was tired of being asked what it feels like. Still, he graciously thanked the band and crew (who were also saluted in a 15-minute video prior to the show, just after a five-song opening set by young newcomer Tyler Dickerson), and he especially noted the loyal fans that "paid our rent for the last 20 years. God bless each and every one of you."
Brooks sang a song, presumably titled "One Last Ride," which sounded like a cowboy poem set to music. Then he pulled out an oldie, "Lost and Found," from the duo's debut album, setting it up by telling the audience that he wrote it after he skipped out on his wife's dinner party to go out drinking with his friends -- and that when he finally did get home, she wasn't there. Alas, they worked things out because they're still married. The wives of both singers were acknowledged to be in the crowd.
Dunn stepped back to center stage for "That's What She Gets for Lovin' Me" and "It's Getting Better All the Time," a lovely ballad about feeling surprised when time has healed an old wound. Finally, nearly an hour into the show, Dunn spent five minutes telling the crowd about when he first moved to Nashville from Oklahoma, saying he'd never met people who talked so much. Still, he praised the locals' friendliness and concluded, "I love it here. There's nothing like it. We go all over the world -- or have -- and there's no place like it."
Dunn also teased the audience that the reason for the split is because Brooks got to wear the cowboy hat when the guys were initially teamed up by record executives two decades ago. Dunn said the label laid a bunch of "toys" -- like guitars and boots -- on the table, and "the fact that he got the cowboy hat -- that's what broke us up right there." To fix that, Dunn provided his own proof that he's a cowboy after all -- a fresh tattoo he got in Los Angeles that read "COWBOY," boldly stretching across his right forearm. You almost didn't need the jumbo screens to see it.
That anecdote led into "Cowgirls Don't Cry," a touching song that may prove to be a country classic, and then they played an acoustic take on "How Long Gone." When they sang the nostalgic coming-of-age narrative "Red Dirt Road," the two men calmly stood side by side at the lip of the stage and offered one of the evening's most sincere musical highlights. Brooks had mentioned to the crowd that it was probably his favorite song they ever wrote together, and its message served as a nice reminder that although their roads converged two decades ago, the stops along the way will prove unforgettable.
After that, Dunn took it to church with a sterling rendition of "Believe," followed by Brooks' odd selection, "She Likes to Get Out of Town." Then the rhinestoned cow skulls dropped from the ceiling for a glittering "Neon Moon," another favorite from their debut album.
From there, the rest of the night probably felt familiar to longtime Brooks & Dunn fans who have seen their fair share of shows. Although the gigantic inflatable women were missing on "Rock My World (Little Country Girl)," several U.S. Marines and patriotic confetti arrived precisely on cue for "Only in America." Both effects have reliably roused crowds for years now. The enduring "My Maria" came next, followed by about two minutes of shaking hands with nearby fans, an awkward pause in the darkness (this being stuffy Nashville, nobody really claps for an encore) and finally the essential throwback to "Boot Scootin' Boogie," with several girls pulled onto the stage. The duo let the fans sing the last phrase of the song as they pointed the microphones into the crowd, then announced, "We love you!" And they quickly proved it with a strong take on "Brand New Man." Despite that title, by now they're considered by many country fans as old friends.
At the song's conclusion, with the crowd cheering its approval, Brooks dramatically tossed his black cowboy hat into the crowd, but Dunn -- even though he finally had his chance -- didn't go after it.