Ronnie Dunn Reflects on Grammys

Talks About Dolly, Emmylou and Joe Nichols

Grammy nominations were announced on Thursday (Dec. 4), and Brooks & Dunn found themselves in the long-winded category of “best country performance by a duo or group with vocal” for the hit “Red Dirt Road.” But as Ronnie Dunn tells, they’re up against stiff competition. Nevertheless, he has nothing but praise for his peers, from Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, to Joe Nichols and Dolly Parton. It seems like you’re nominated at every awards show there is. Do you think the Grammys are tougher because this isn’t just a duo category?

Dunn: Yeah. The cool thing about it is, there are people like Ricky Skaggs in there wailing away, and Marty [Roe] from Diamond Rio … Lonestar … The Oak Ridge Boys. … So, there are some people in there with some vocal gas. It would be hard to take a guy on like Ricky, with his credibility at the Grammys.

Are you a fan of bluegrass?

I’m a fan of Ricky Skaggs, period. I opened for him in Oklahoma in a club when he first came out with his first song. He had Ray Flack playing guitar for him. Great! They just blew us away; they were so cool.

With nominees like Skaggs, Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss this year, are you sensing a shift to traditional music?

I don’t know if there’s a shift, but there’s more attention paid to it since the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? It got a little momentum from that, but these people are legitimately talented and good at what they do. That’s something that we all strive to attain. A lot of times, commercial success and credibility aren’t necessarily stablemates. On occasion, on a song like “Red Dirt Road,” I feel like I could stand there and hold my head up proud. That’s not always the case.

I know you were friends with the Cashes, and June got three nominations this year. What did you think of the music she was making at the end of her life?

They were always very organic with their approach — the Carter Family. I remember first moving to Nashville, and she and John invited Janine and me to the Carter Family Fold up there and sitting in awe of people coming out of the hills and dancing to them. Awesome stuff.

The Louvin Brothers tribute also got a nomination for best country album, and you’re on there too, singing “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” Why did that project appeal to you?

I was brought in at the last moment. That cut was supposed to be for Alan Jackson, but they said he had trouble meeting the schedule. So Tim [DuBois, at Universal South, which released the album] called me in the middle of the night. It was 7 o’clock, and I was supposed to leave at 10 to go out on tour. He said, ’You’ve gotta come over here and help me with this.’ We hadn’t been able to talk to anyone at my label, so finally I said, ’Hey, I’ll do it, but there’s no guarantee. I haven’t heard the track, I don’t really know the song.’ He said, ’If you come over really quick, we’ll see if we can get it done.’ I flew over to the studio, and they were finishing up the guitar parts on the track. I said, ’Well, I’ll give it a shot.’ Luckily we were able to get a vocal on it.

Are you happy with the way it turned out?

Yeah. Yeah. Just like any neurotic artist, I wish I could have been there [longer]. It’s never quite finished. You never want to walk away, but yeah, I’m really proud to be a part of it though. There are some really great singers on there and that was my plea to Joe [Galante, at RCA Label Group]. I said, ’Please, for that alone, just to be on there with some of those singers, let me do it.’ And he was kind enough to do it.

Are there any tracks on that album that stand out to you?

I like Joe Nichols and Rhonda [Vincent] on the front. I thought Joe did a great job. I was very surprised and impressed with what he did. I’ve never heard him really stretch out like that. He’s a new artist, and I’m not familiar with what he does, except for what his radio stuff is. He has some really good chops. … Dolly. You know, Dolly blew me away on that Crossroads special you guys are airing with … who was it? …

Melissa Etheridge?

Yeah. … Dolly! She’s a lot stronger than I thought. I mean, she’s good! She just stepped up and hit it! She did a great job on that.

In the contemporary folk category this year, there’s Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. Are you a fan of music that falls into that slot?

In terms of being a fan of Emmylou, I’m a fanatical fan. Coming up through the ranks, I listened to her as much as anybody. I never give her enough credit when I’m asked who my influences were. I listened to Rodney [Crowell] and Emmylou. Every time Rodney Crowell had something new, even a discreet project, I would suss it out and same with Emmylou. They have a hip factor to them.

How do you think they have sustained that hip factor throughout the years?

I don’t know what it is, but if I can get a handle on it, I’m going to see if I can steal some of it. (laughs)

The Grammys are in February 2004, around the same time your Red Dirt Road tour kicks off. What else is going on for you early next year?

That’s it. We’re just working on this tour, seeing if we can get enough highway signs on the stage for a Red Dirt Road theme, and then we’re off and running. We’re off to parts unknown, in cold weather! We haven’t done it in a while. I don’t know how we’re gonna be able to handle it. I’m looking at Mankato [Minnesota] in February! (laughs) It’s not quite Detroit in early spring. San Francisco, Sacramento or places like that. It’s going to be a trial.

Any holiday plans this year?

I’m gonna go to Santa Fe. I’m taking my family. I’ve got some friends coming out. I’m gonna hang out with Tony and Anastasia Brown.

As a producer, Tony may have the best ears in the business. Do you get nervous when he’s around, that maybe you’ll put on the wrong record?

(laughs) We’re good friends, and yes, I do! (laughs) That keeps you on your toes! I’m always afraid of that with Tony, that he’s going to turn around and say, ’You can turn that off. That’s not cool.’ (laughs)

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.