Increasingly, Americans seem unable to agree upon much of anything. If one side approves of something, the other—seemingly reflexively—looks for reasons to distrust it. This strain of division runs deep through our culture. NASCAR belongs to red America, the NBA to blue. Conservatives get Yellowstone, liberals get—well, most everything else Hollywood puts out. Even something as pure and good as Willie Nelson fandom is a victim of the great American culture war. And yet: we all live in this country, and we need to find the things that unite us as members of a shared culture, that we can all agree on. And as a slew of Texas musicians from a wide array of genres have discovered over the past few years, we already know what it is. It’s Brooks and Dunn’s 1992 country hit “Neon Moon.”
This week, Fort Worth soul singer Leon Bridges tweeted a video of himself, guitar in hand, shirt rakishly unbuttoned, hat jauntily askew, letting his honey-sweet vocals unspool the first verse of the duo’s tale of heartache and honky-tonks.
Bridges’s take on the tune is wonderful—he’s relaxed, easy, and effortless as he finger-picks his way through a rendition that feels as comfy as your favorite pair of Wranglers. But he’s hardly the first Texan to pay homage to the song, written by Coleman native Ronnie Dunn, in recent years.
“Neon Moon” was released in 1992, the third single from Brooks and Dunn’s debut album, Brand New Man. (It also became their third consecutive number one hit on the country charts.) The single came just as nineties country began its explosion into mainstream dominance, and the verisimilitude of the song’s expression of heartache, its vivid depiction of the ways a soul looks for a place to put its pain, and its irrepressible hook clearly burrowed deep into the hearts young and old alike. Go to a honky-tonk outside Amarillo, rainbow-colored queer bar in Austin, nightclub in Houston’s Third Ward, or tejano bar in the Valley, put “Neon Moon” on the jukebox, and watch the dance floor fill up. But don’t take our word for it—artists who live in all of those places have put their own spin on “Neon Moon,” finding deeper connection among those who’ve lost their one and only and found room for the lonely as they’ve watched their broken dreams dance in and out of the beams of—well, you probably know the rest.
Golden native Kacey Musgraves took her spin on “Neon Moon” on tour while promoting her Grammy-winning Golden Hour, adding the synth-y drums and robot voices she used on the album to provide a more contemporary take on the song. In 2019, she recorded the song with Brooks and Dunn themselves, as part of the duo’s Reboot project.
Houston rapper Fat Tony, who was four years old when “Neon Moon” was released, began incorporating the song into his performances in 2020. Tony’s rendition starts with the song in its unadulterated form, before adding thumping drums and scratches to the track—then drops “Neon Moon” out entirely in favor of Oakland rapper Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle,” a pairing that would have seemed impossible in ’92, but which sounds downright perfect a few decades later.
The dreamy, ambient indie rockers in El Paso’s Cigarettes After Sex released a shoegaze-inflected version in 2018, taking the song well outside of its comfort zone—but also finding a common connection between lo-fi sadcore rock and boisterous nineties country (they both like to get in their feelings).
In 2021, Dallas-based norteño group La Energía Norteña released its second English-language album, El Crossover 2—a collection of tejano takes on pop, country, and pop-country hits. Alongside covers of Coldplay’s “Yellow” and Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places,” the Energy Boys deliver a soulful, heartfelt “Neon Moon,” reminding us that nursing a broken heart under the bar lights feels the same no matter what language you order your beer in.
Perhaps the most powerful testament to the enduring power of “Neon Moon” is that the performance doesn’t even have to be good to sound great. On a 2019 appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show, the Fort Worth native was accompanied by the coaches from The Voice—Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, and John Legend—as they traded verses while Carson Daly played guitar. The performance sounds like a bunch of pretty-good karaoke singers all crowding the stage at the end of the night, but the studio audience eats it up anyway—and ultimately, the greatness of “Neon Moon” is that it’s a song for everybody. It’s as effective as part of Fat Tony’s experimental mash-up as it is being delicately ached over by Cigarettes After Sex, or reinvented for a new pop aesthetic by Kacey Musgraves, or being sung along to by everybody in the bar before last call. There’s too much that divides us in these times, but at least we have “Neon Moon” to bring us together.