CHICAGO -- It's kind of like that proverbial half-empty or half-full question. Is one-half of Brooks & Dunn better or worse than no Brooks & Dunn at all? But when Kix Brooks hit the stage Friday night (Oct. 8) at Joe's Bar in Chicago, there was no question. Even without Ronnie Dunn, Brooks is still one of country music's high points.
He was warmly welcomed by the intimate candlelit crowd for good reason. Even when he wasn't singing, Brooks was consummately entertaining. That might have meant he was playing the harmonica to back the newcomers in The Band Perry. Or strumming his guitar when Nashville hitmaker Bob DiPiero was singing Montgomery Gentry's "Gone." Or spinning some everlasting tale about his early days on the road. Whatever he was doing, the fans were captivated.
Brooks' appearance was part of the CMA Songwriters Series. But the thing about this songwriter's night is that it never felt like a songwriter's night. It felt more like a Kenny Chesney/Tim McGraw/Montgomery Gentry/Ricochet/Shenandoah/Josh Thompson concert. Because all the songwriters there -- Brooks, DiPiero, David Lee Murphy and the three members of The Band Perry -- are gifted at crafting country songs that are as hip as they are enduring.
So when DiPiero kicked off the show with his "Church on Cumberland Road," the first No. 1 hit for Shenandoah back in 1989, it was his way of telling the crowd just how long he'd been at this. Then it was The Band Perry's turn, with their debut single, "Hip to My Heart." Kimberly Perry sang the infectious tune while her brother Neil played mandolin, her other brother Reid played bass and DiPiero, Brooks and Murphy backed them with solid acoustic guitar playing. When they were done, Brooks joked about Neil and Reid, saying, "They cheated. They got the only pretty one on stage."
Then before he sang his first Brooks & Dunn hit, Brooks lingered a while on memory lane, telling the crowd about playing the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. every night before he got to Nashville. After some initial success in Nashville, he took Dunn to Bourbon Street and discovered a country karaoke bar. Being just drunk enough on Jell-O shots to fight their way through the crowd, they took the stage and sang one of their own tunes.
"We nailed it," Brooks laughed.
Then he did his 2003 rural-raisin' anthem, "Red Dirt Road," after which Murphy sighed and said, "Everyone in Nashville wants another 'Red Dirt Road.'"
While Murphy probably has just as many colorful stories as Brooks from his success as an artist in the mid-'90s, he was a little more reserved. He introduced his songs with a modest, "One of my buddies recorded this. You might recognize it," before singing one of the hits he'd written such as Kenny Chesney's "Living in Fast Forward" and Josh Thompson's "Way Out Here" and, eventually, his own No. 1 single, "Dust on the Bottle."
The Band Perry had a handful of turns at the microphone and used each one to showcase a song from their upcoming self-titled debut album that will be released Tuesday (Oct. 12). After the opening song, "Hip to My Heart," there was one about getting more than a stone's throw from home called "Independence" and then a county-fair ballad about being in love (and proud of it) called "Walk Me Down the Middle." Both songs not only showcased their songwriting, they also emphasized Kimberly's polished vocal style and Neil and Reid's instrumental prowess.
DiPiero told a few stories of his own. Like how he was having trouble writing a song one day and finally came right out and told his writing partner, "This song sucks. If we can just write one with one word and two chords, we'll be done."
What they came up with that day ended up being "Gone," Montgomery Gentry's big hit from 2005. He also took some only-at-a-live-show creative liberties with "Daddy's Money," a song he penned for Ricochet in the '90s, changing "golly, did she grow up fast" to "now she's all tits and ass."
Brooks had time for one more story before the two-hour show came to an end. In introducing one of Brooks & Dunn's most enduring hits, he talked about when Barack Obama was leaving the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
"This guy is fixin' to be president," he said. "And I'll be damned if he doesn't start playing this song."
After that happened, Brooks said he got an immediate text message from John Rich, a staunch supporter of the Republican candidate at the time, John McCain, saying "Uncool, dude. Uncool." But really, when Brooks sang "Only in America," it was obvious the patriotic song stands for the American dreams of people living on either side of the political fence.
The Band Perry closed the show with their haunting hit "If I Die Young." Yes, the one about dying tragically young. But somehow, either because of the hypnotic mandolin or because of the contentment in the lyrics like "I've had just enough time," this song became the absolute standout of the night. Even with a set list packed with hits spanning the past two decades, this one -- the newest song from the newest act, off an album that has yet to be released -- reaped the biggest reaction from the fans. Most of them stood, most of them sang along, some even cried. Funny how a song about death can make a room feel so alive.