Brooks & Dunn are proud of the career they’ve built — and 16 years into it, the country duo continues to thrive.
“Luck is a big factor in what we do, but other than that, we just work as hard as we can to get things on the right track,” says Ronnie Dunn. “But probably more important than anything is to have the right perspective — knowing what you’re looking for, what you need to attain and how to get there.”
Their new CD, Cowboy Town, draws on the touchstones that made them so successful in the first place — patriotism, hard work, country music and maybe an occasional thirst-quencher. In this recent interview with CMT.com, the two ambitious musicians talk about driving a truck to church, trusting their instinct and the unique qualities of cowgirls.
CMT.com: “Proud of the House We Built” reminds me of people who have worked hard for what they have. Did you grow up around people who had a really strong ethic?
Brooks: Both of us did. My dad was out of the house at 7 every morning. He was very driven, very focused. He was a pipeline contractor. He worked hard all the time. When he was in town, he was back at the house at 5:30 every day. You could count on him.
Dunn: My folks were the same way, but the song is more about love sustaining you, no matter what you go through. When you start from scratch and you have nothing in that metaphorical field — all the way to when you have the house in suburbia and a pickup and a car in the driveway. It’s that one simple thing that keeps you together through all the ups and downs.
I like the line in “Cowboy Town” about wearing boots to dinner and driving the truck to church. That’s how it was where I grew up, although I suppose a lot of people didn’t grow up that way.
Dunn: But I think more people did than didn’t. I think we fail to realize sometimes that there are probably more people in that demographic than any other.
Brooks: I think a lot of people plug into lyrics like that, too, even though they’re not literal. We found from “Red Dirt Road” that people from Chicago, Detroit and New York City identify with the red dirt road, and it’s not because of the red dirt. It’s because of the attitude.
What is it about cowgirls and country girls that set them apart?
Dunn: The cowgirl thing is a theme they learn early on — to tough it out. It applies to horses so much with … with the principles you have to learn and the discipline you have to learn to keep the horses up. You fall off the horse, you get up. You don’t cry, or you cry a few times at first, and you get over it. They’re tough girls, but they’re sensitive, too. They’re women at the same time. They learn through the process to curb those emotions. It’s good to draw them out if you can. That’s what the last verse of “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” is about: You’re going to cry whether you want to or not.
Brooks: We’ve seen in concerts and festivals that country girls let their hair down, too. They’re not afraid to hang it out there and have some fun.
Dunn: I think all girls do, though. (laughs) I can think of some girls in New York and Chicago and L.A. — they’ll hang it out there, too. Just in a different way! (laughs)
What do you think a new artist needs for a long career, rather than just a few hits?
Dunn: It’s hard. Hits are primary. It’s song-driven, no matter who you are. Then, after that, you have to expose yourself to people. Personality will sell a lot, but it’s primarily — pretty much cut-and-dried — song-driven. It’s hard for a young artist these days. It’s slowed down a little bit with the singles releases. It takes a while to build up the repertoire for a good set. … It would take a long time — a couple of years. You get two releases a year on radio. There are alternate ways to do it, but radio is still the primary way to expose yourself in public. I think tours always help.
Brooks: It takes at least twice as long as it did for us in the ’90s. We were having four singles a year. Sixteen weeks was long, but 12 weeks was average, and eight to 10 weeks was fairly common. Now 24 weeks to 30 weeks is common.
How important is instinct when you’re making a decision?
Dunn: Instinct has a lot to do with it. There’s a lot of rationale and discipline, but having a good instinct is key to success in the long run. … We’ll talk through something and analyze it from all different angles, but at the end of the day, you’ll go home and your gut is going to do the talking. I think it’s very important.
How about your faith?
Dunn: Hey, faith is what got us here. This is a pipe dream we’re living right now. This is just the end result of stepping off into something that we had no way of attaining. As a goal, it was so far-fetched that few people are lucky enough — and I mean lucky — to experience. Faith had a lot to do with that.
Brooks: We talk to people all the time and they ask, “How do you make it in the music business? I can’t just quit my job and leave my home and move to Nashville.” We hear that all the time. It does take a lot of faith in yourself and the people around you. It’s about what you want to do. Like you said, your gut has got to take you there, and it is something inside you. You have to have faith. If it’s not going to work out, at least you’re going to enjoy the journey.