The world took notice in 1991 when Brooks & Dunn released their first album, Brand New Man, and Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn haven’t slowed down since. With Tuesday’s (Aug. 30) release of the Arista Nashville album, Hillbilly Deluxe, they continue to build on the artistic success of 2001’s Steers & Stripes and 2003’s Red Dirt Road. Co-producing the sessions with Nashville veteran Tony Brown, the duo recorded much of the new album at a studio located in a barn on Dunn’s Nashville-area farm.
In an interview with CMT.com, they talk about the work involved in recording Hillbilly Deluxe, but they also mince few words in discussing how they began rebounding in the aftermath of consolidation, cutbacks and management changes at their record label in 1999.
CMT.com: Much has been made about Red Dirt Road being a turning point for you creatively, but it seems you were already beginning to move in that direction with the album before that. Can you talk about the progression from Steers & Stripes to where you are now?
Dunn: You have to grow. You feel like that’s your obligation, and hopefully that’s what you can attain. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. … I think it’s maybe just been an evolution over time. We started out as the good-timing, shallow-water honky-tonk twins — and we still are. (laughs) But we try to think deep every now and then and put in little philosophical elements, like Red Dirt Road and things like that. It’s fun to paint those pictures these days as you write.
Brooks: I think you’re right from the standpoint of Steers & Stripes. We started to break our formula of just going into the studio, blocking out two weeks and kind of taking what we got. It’s funny: I was looking at the list of records the other day and the dates on them. We made a record every year. I didn’t realize it. We’re nine [albums] into it, and we’ve been out 14 years or something. It’s like [an album was released] almost every year, and it was just a matter of jumping off the bus and hitting two weeks [in the studio] with the best songs we’d come up with. With Steers & Stripes, we took more than a year. We took a couple of years digging and trying to write. Ronnie, probably more than me even, started working at home more, and we started working at his barn. Instead of having to meet an engineer on Tuesday the 14th of September — and you’ve got to be in good voice, and if you’re not, sorry, because that’s the day we’re recording it — with Red Dirt Road, we both started going home and really scrutinizing things and working out a lot of the slick stuff. I think that’s where we were compromising.
Dunn: We were compromising to meet corporate schedules, and that’s a downfall of this genre. I think the edge, in a lot of ways, that the rock acts has on us is that they have the luxury of spending a lot more time in the creative process. They don’t feel obligated to turn out a record in a cookie-cutter fashion every year or year and a-half. And that’s good. So we started trying to take our time.
Brooks: And it’s funny, because we found we were stripping stuff back instead of adding stuff on.
But unless you record three killer albums and then totally disappear, any artist is going to go through those lulls.
Dunn: Sure you do. That’s natural. Any artist does it, any business does it. Coca-Cola does it. You go through lulls. It’s how you treat that and then come back and reinvent the wheel, so to speak.
Do you see the lull when you’re in the middle of it?
Dunn: You probably don’t feel it a much, but I’d say we’re probably as aware as anybody.
Brooks: I think success, honestly, has a lot to do with those lulls. When you have real success at something — especially the kind of success you’ve never had before — your natural inclination is, “How did we do that? And can we do that again?” Even though you most likely will have some success again, you’re not going to keep it doing the same thing. People get bored, just like you do.
Dunn: I’m reading a cool book right now, called How Brands Become Icons. It talks about Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Volkswagen … all these companies that go through those lulls you’re talking about and how they reinvent themselves. … If you can do that in this business, that’s a real boon.
Brooks: You’ve got two choices: Either lull off into the sunset or come up with something fresh and get back on again.
Most acts end up having a lull commercially, but you never stopped having hit singles.
Dunn: We’ve been lucky in that sense. Radio has been kind to us.
But does that success also make you run the risk of not worrying as much about the albums themselves?
Dunn: I think what you’ve seen, maybe, is a result of us worrying about it a lot — maybe to the point of flat psychosis. (laughs) We worry a lot. We’re very concerned with the quality of the product that goes out, and we want to make sure that what we’re talking about are things our fans can relate to, things people can get their hooks into. … The real trick is not to write for radio. Not to write for that machine, but to write for people and try to say something they can connect with.
It seems like the rejuvenation came after Montgomery Gentry won the CMA’s duo of the year award in 2000. Was that, in any way, a wakeup call?
Dunn: We were already on track with that. On the record before that, [1999’s] Tight Rope, the label came unglued under us. That’s not to make an excuse, but that whole corporate structure and support system came apart before that record was out. I remember Tim DuBois, the head of Arista, meeting me in the lobby of the building going, “We can’t help you if you turned in 25 platinum hits right now.” Their doors were shut, and they were calling for jobs. … The wakeup call was how important that support system is — the label and the people that are around you.
After all these years of making records, what led you to Tony Brown to help you produce Hillbilly Deluxe?
Dunn: I think Tony is one of the purest song guys out there. Years ago, I used to listen to his records when I’d drive back and forth from Oklahoma to Nashville with my wife, Janine. We’d listen to those records and go, “Listen to the characteristics of that.” You know, we were moving back then … didn’t have a [record] deal. I was sort of trying to sneak up on one. Back then, you’d listen to everything with a lot of scrutiny. Tony’s records and the artists he worked with, for the most part, had a progressive edge — like Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle — that I gravitated to. At the same time, he has the ability to put elements in the music that work on a commercial level, as well, like with George Strait and Reba McEntire. It was fun to work with someone whose head was more into the music than the corporate shuffle.
How much had you previously watched him work in the studio?
Brooks: He actually co-produced the duet [“If You See Him/If You See Her”] we did with Reba, way back when. … Tony was one of the first people I met when I moved to town, like, 25 years ago. But he was always at MCA [Records], and we were at RCA [the RCA Label Group’s Arista imprint] , so it was never even an option. We both love Tony. To get that much talent in a guy that’s that much fun — and that we get along with so well — we just didn’t think the opportunity was ever going to happen.
How did his approach differ from what you’d done before?
Dunn: Tony turns us loose. I think that’s a real forte of my take on an ideal producer. He lets you go. There are three, four, maybe five songs on this record that were actually demos. Tony walked in, heard them and goes, “How are we going to beat it? We’re not going to beat that.” We do that all the time. There’s that old saying in Nashville, “You can’t beat the demo.” And nine times out of 10, you don’t. You just take it and go into the studio and try to beat something to death that’s already happened.
Brooks: It’s so refreshing. If we do the same thing and … use the same musicians when we cut our songs, they’re really shooting from the hip [when they play on the demos]. They know we’re going to cut it again and make a record. Everything they do is in the pocket … but it’s loose and feels good because there’s no pressure. It’s not like everybody’s staring each other down, like who’s going to have a note out of place. All of a sudden, the magic’s down. And then you go back in and try to recreate it, and half the time, you screw it up. It was so cool for him to listen to the music we’d already made and go, “I’m not messing with that.”
There seems to be some sonic differences on the new album. How would you describe the sound?
Dunn: There’s always technical things going on and new gadgets coming out and stuff like that. But I mixed three of the songs at my place just to see if we could do it. … It’s another artistic freedom if you can get in there and make it sound like you want it to, as an artist. To not only write it, but get the production like you want and get the technical aspects in line. I’m more pleased with this record than anything we’ve done just because of that. And Tony allowed us to do that. He didn’t sit back and go, “That hasn’t been done before. You can’t do that.” He went, “Go do it. I love that.” Good for Tony.
He gets excited when he hears something he likes, doesn’t he?
Dunn: He does, and he’s quick, too. His instinct and his gut. … You get halfway through a song and he goes, “That’s a hit.”
You found some fairly good background vocalists for “Building Bridges.”
Dunn: Yeah, Sheryl Crow came in. We caught her in town.
Brooks: She’s been all over us for a lot of years. We’ve had to change our phone numbers a couple times. We finally said, “You can sing on the record, Sheryl.”
Dunn: Tony also brought Vince Gill in. Vince was kind enough to come in. He’s a guru when it comes to harmony parts.
Just to hit upon a couple of the album tracks, I wanted to ask about “Her West Was Wilder,” the song Kix wrote with Bob DiPiero. It seems like the best songs always take you someplace else.
Brooks: It’s just one of those fantasy things I think most guys, in the back of their mind, would like to run into. As Ronnie describes it, that good-looking girl standing on the side of the highway with her thumb out. Just this wild girl.
Dunn: You see this scene in the desert with a convertible and a girl in a mini-skirt, thumbing a ride.
Brooks: That’s part of the whole Hillbilly Deluxe concept. It’s just that whole Route 66 thing. There’s something there that’s real romantic and just a little edgy and just a little scary.
Dunn: When we got through with this record, I bought a place in Santa Fe. (laughs) I’m moving. I’m out of here. I found it. We painted the picture. I want to live there.
On the other hand, “Believe,” the song you wrote with Craig Wiseman, sort of rips your heart out and is sort of like gospel, soul and country all rolled into one.
Dunn: It’s all just milking influences that I was around. I spent time studying for the ministry when I was a young, misguided man. (laughs)
As opposed to being an older, misguided man.
Dunn: Yeah, exactly. As opposed to being an older, much more misguided man. (laughs) I saw the light and went the other way. And I’m glad I did. I didn’t step away from it, but it sure shed light on a lot of stuff that would have held me back in a lot of ways. I love that song. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.
With the Deuces Wild tour, it sounds like you’ve come up with a more subtle way of opening your performances.
Brooks: We’ve shot ourselves out of cannons and blown ourselves up and come in with artificial smoke and magic tricks for the last 15 years. So this year, we sort of just wander out there in the middle of the intro and play some music.
Dunn: We’re about Spinal Tapped out. We thought, “Hey, what would happen if just walked out and played the music?” It almost works. We spent a lot of money goofing off, man. I want some of it back.
Do people seem confused?
Dunn: That’s the point. You kind of catch them off guard.
Brooks: They kind of did have that look like, “Can you do that? Can you just walk out there and play?”
You recently taped a live concert at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla. Had you ever played there before?
Dunn: I have a contract on the wall in my bathroom in my barn studio. It was a $300 contract to open in 1977 for Hank Thompson, and they cancelled the show. But that was for a six-piece band — $300 — so we were cleaning up.
What is the venue like?
Dunn: Cain’s is the original home of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. His brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, came along after that, and they did a radio show in the ’40s that became huge. So that was a premier spot around Oklahoma and that region to go hear swing music. It’s got a spring-loaded dance floor, a big arched wood roof with these cool, vintage black & white sepia pictures all the way around the top near the ceiling. It’s an awesome vibe. Big red curtain — just like something at your old high school gymnasium — in front of the stage. Everybody from Bob Wills to the Sex Pistols has played there. You name it, it’s all happened there. Like everything else, it’s been hot, it’s gone down, and they’ve almost torn it down until some people came in and revived it. It’s back. A doctor in town has bought it. They’ve actually put neon inside. It’s kind of odd to see that tech edge, but it’s happening. We just recorded a Live at Cain’s concert that’s going to be out in Regal Cinemas.
Is that going to eventually be released on DVD?
Dunn: I believe it probably will be. If they can get my hair right.