Red Dirt Road by Brooks & Dunn

In some lives, a moment arises when the habit of being reliably good is trumped by a bold desire to be great. Red Dirt Road sounds like the product of just such a moment, which is why it's easily Brooks & Dunn's finest album, and certainly one of the best yet of 2003.

B&D's previous effort, Steers & Stripes, was a successful bid for renewed radio and chart dominance, but RDR is something else entirely. Sometimes it's not radio-friendly—it's too rootsy, too raw, too complex.

Its music pulls in influences from The Rolling Stones to Memphis soul and Bruce Springsteen, but never takes its eye off pure country. Lyrically, Red Dirt Road is rich with bitter nostalgia, hard-won faith and the freedom to enjoy life knowing that every moment of pleasure has been paid for with past pain. Ronnie sings those words as forcefully and soulfully as he ever has, and he's evenly matched by Kix's passion and expressiveness.

Red Dirt Road's ultimate triumph is the cataclysmic "I Used to Know This Song by Heart." From a quiet piano-and-organ opening, it builds in four and a half minutes to a pounding gospel climax, with each turn in the journey as natural as a river finding the ocean. It's the album's crowning glory.

Will Red Dirt Road stand with country's classic albums? Only time can tell, but it certainly has a shot. That's what happens when good isn't good enough, when talented, ambitious people reach for something more, something real, something true—and grasp it.

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