The Academy of Country Music's multiple Entertainers
of the Year, the Country Music Association's five-time Duo of the Year,
CMA Entertainers of the Year, and the men who sold more than 13
million albums are more sober when the spotlights are off. Long before
stardom, Brooks & Dunn experienced the solitary lifestyle of
the country song craftsman. Insiders on Music Row have long known of
their "other" lives. Few were surprised when the team agreed
to host the city's annual Harlan Howard Birthday Bash songwriters'
Wade Hayes included a
Brooks & Dunn song on each of his star-making albums
("Steady As She Goes" and "Our Time Is Coming," the
former co-written by Don Cook, who produces both acts). In 1992, McBride
& The Ride hit the country top 10 with Brook's "Sacred
Ground" (co-written with Vernon Rust).
Kix Brooks also provided
hit songs for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ("Modern Day
John Conlee ("I'm Only In It For The Love"),
Highway 101 ("Who's Lonely Now") and others.
All of that is in addition to the string of stirring
anthems the duo wrote for its own rocket ship ride to fame.
"Brand New Man," "My Next Broken Heart" and
"Whiskey Under the Bridge," all co-written by the duo with
Cook, are the sort of up-tempo romps that have helped define the
"new country" sound of the '90s.
Dunn's solo composition "Boot Scootin'
Boogie" was among the songs that ignited the country line-dance
craze; yet he's also capable of plumbing the emotional depths of sad
ballads like "Neon Moon" and "She Used to Be Mine,"
or celebrating his blue-collar pride with the rocking "Hard Workin'
Man" and "Little Miss Honky Tonk."
"You can't ignore the realities of everyday life when you
write," Brooks comments. "Average people is what country music is all about."
And if that means dancing, drinking and carrying on, then that's what they write about. "Borderline,"
another Brooks & Dunn album, is one of the few in these
politically correct times that dishes up the honky-tonk lifestyle in all
its abject pain and unbridled joy.
Both men have the perfect voices for their creations.
Kix Brooks brought a drawling, conversational quality to his "Lost
And Found" (co-written with Cook) and a burning ember of regret to
"You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone" (Brooks/Dunn/Cook).
Ronnie Dunn is simply one of the best country singers alive today,
capable of the scorching tenor pyrotechnics of "That Ain't No Way
To Go" (Brooks/Dunn/Cook) and "She's Not the Cheatin'
Kind" (Dunn), as well as the more subtle moaning of something like
"I'll Never Forgive My Heart," which he co-wrote with his wife
Janine and songwriter Dean Dillon.
"It doesn't bruise my ego a bit that Ronnie is
such a great singer," Brooks says. "I love to hear him sing
and I'm glad that radio likes it as much as I do. In fact, on the album
there's a song I wrote with Tony King called 'One Heartache At A Time.'
I really liked it and played it for Ronnie to see what he thought. He
said he thought it was a real good song. I said, '. . . if you really
feel that way about it, sing it.' Ronnie can really sink his hooks into
that kind of shuffle a lot better than I do. I'd rather him cut it than
Theirs was one of the most unlikely partnerships in
Nashville. Kix Brooks is the natural-born ham who wrote songs for others
on Music Row while waiting for his turn at the mike.
Ronnie Dunn is the
quiet introvert who made a living singing nightly in the smoky clubs of
Oklahoma, while dreaming of the day he could make records. The thing
they had in common is years of experience.
"It is weird, but I think if we had been a lot
alike it wouldn't have worked," says Dunn. "We are so far the
opposite in philosophy and personality. But we came to the table being
as old as we are and knowing how to compromise."
"Both of us were probably right at the edge of
giving up," Brooks remembers. "Having been in Nashville as
long as I have, I've seen a lot of acts yo-yo up and down. I know how
fleeting fame can be. As a result, I think we both approach the business
end of what we are doing with a pretty cool head. And we definitely
don't take anything for granted."
"My dad was a fanatic country fan," says
Dunn. "It was like our religion: We were country music fans and
then we were Baptists." Ronnie Gene Dunn played in bands as a teen,
got kicked out of a religious college for performing in honky-tonks and
settled in as a local hero in Tulsa's nightspots. He recorded for the
city's Churchill Records label in 1983-84. Drummer Jamie Oldaker (now of
The Tractors) entered Dunn in the Marlboro national country talent
contest, which he won in 1988. This led to his first Nashville recording
Louisiana native Leon Eric "Kix" Brooks grew
up in Shreveport, just down the street from country legend Johnny
Horton. He cut his teeth as a performer in the bars of New Orleans.
Brooks came to Nashville in 1979 and was soon writing tunes for
Gayle, Sawyer Brown, the Oak Ridge Boys
and other acts of the day. In 1983 he recorded singles for the little
Avion label. They failed. In 1988 he issued a solo album on Capitol
Records. It failed, too.
Both men were after new solo recording contracts when
they made tapes for Arista Records in 1990. Label chief Tim DuBois heard
something in their different styles that he thought would mesh. He
introduced them over an enchilada lunch. At his suggestion, they
co-wrote and did some recording. When they submitted the result to him,
DuBois said, "That's what I thought, fellers. If you want a deal
together, you got one."
"Ronnie and I just kinda looked at each
other," Brooks reports, "then we said, 'Yeah'." Neither
was in a position to turn down offers of any kind.
Dunn was still living in Oklahoma: "I remember
driving back and forth from Tulsa to Nashville all the time. We had a
Ford Explorer and I put 100,000 miles on it that year. In 1991 I heard
'Brand New Man' for the first time on the radio while I was coming into
Nashville. That was one of the last trips." The single hit No. 1
that fall and the Dunn family moved to Music City.
The follow-up, "My Next Broken Heart," was
the first song Brooks & Dunn wrote together the day after
DuBois had suggested the collaboration. It, too, went to No. 1. So did
"Neon Moon" and 1992's "Boot Scootin' Boogie," which
was one of the songs Dunn had won the Marlboro contest with. "Brand
New Man," the duo's debut album, sold five million copies.
Workin' Man," the 1993 follow-up, sold four million. "Waitin'
On Sundown," the 1994 Brooks & Dunn collection, is
now at double Platinum. "Borderline"
is already near the same mark.
Their shows were wild celebrations of "new
country" merriment with Brooks rampaging all over the stage and
Dunn transfixing listeners with his electrifying voice. A variety of
amusing high-tech gadgets added to the circus atmosphere.
Despite their prowess as songwriters, several of their biggest
records came from outside the team. One of
finest performances was 1994's "Rock My World (Little Country
Girl)," written by Bill LaBounty and Steve O'Brien. The duo created
a sensation this year with Dunn's hair-raising revival of "My
Maria," written by Daniel Moore and the late B.W. Stevenson.
"The country music market is changing. All of
these young people have come over to us. And maybe there's a fickle
element to that," says Brooks.
Ronnie Dunn, "If an act was ever flying by
the seat of its pants, we were. We walked into this together just as
tentative as anyone else. We worked with one another because it just
felt natural." And Kix
Brooks concluded, "Why this combination
worked, I don't know. But I'm glad it did."