It's a testament to the natural-born, arena-bred talents of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn that no matter how many well-worn formal elements, humdrum lyrical bromides or suspect views on gender roles the pair pepper their popular brand of country music with, they nearly always end up producing some of Nashville's highest-quality work. The duo's latest, Red Dirt Road, is no exception -- the two roam down so many paths, feel so much power in the night and feel the feelings you only experience when love begins so intensely that your Celine Dion collection might well become obsolete after one spin. It's disheartening, too, to find so many women characterized solely by the men they cling to: In wham-bam opener "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl" (I forgot about that cliché), Connie's a big-city girl who "lives in L.A." and "flies to New York City," but when she comes home for her second cousin's wedding, all she can do is run off to Cancún with the groom; similarly, the "she" in "She Was Born to Run" sounds exciting, but the only running she does is away from her father and toward her husband.
Brooks & Dunn, though, manage to transcend those generic conventions, enough to make you forgive their occasional laziness. "When We Were Kings" is a disarmingly sensitive (and briskly rocking) Vietnam narrative, in which Tommy's number comes up and he leaves behind his best friend and girlfriend; "I took her out after that a couple of times," the pal admits, "but we always just wound up talking about him." In the title track, another sturdy rocker full of well-drawn memories, Dunn describes how he "learned that happiness on earth ain't just for high achievers." And the sly transgression in unlisted closer "Holy War," a lucid indictment of wack TV-preacher politics set to a tent-revival gallop, almost neutralizes the preceding nonsense. A beer for their steel horses, please.