NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Ronnie Dunn Hits the Solo Trail Pretty Well

And Eric Church Approaches the 10,000-Hour Test

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I’m sure you’ve heard of the 10,000-hour rule by now. It posits that one is not really great in a skill or profession or job until they have amassed at least 10,000 hours of effort and practice. It grew out of a study of the Beatles’ formative period playing endless hours and countless shows in Hamburg, Germany, long before they hit Shea Stadium and the Ed Sullivan Show — and the world.

By the 10,000-hour mark — in a music artist’s case — they have thoroughly learned their instrument, know what their voice can and cannot do and how to make the most of it. They have learned how to really sing, how to perform and how to work and control an audience.

And, in some cases, if they’re not, by nature, sincere, they can learn how to fake sincerity — a very useful skill. As a performer friend of mine once observed, “Once you can truly fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”

But the 10,000-hour thing is genuine. You can quickly spot it in a performer who is working onstage. Thirty minutes in a season of American Idol is no substitute. And showing up as a pretty teenager in Nashville and getting the glam treatment and the glittery songs from the song factory and the shiny production from the production factory — that doesn’t work either. How many young career obits have been written after meltdowns in front of the real public?

But here’s an example of the real deal. After 20 years as one of the best lead singers in music during his tenure in Brooks & Dunn, Ronnie Dunn is releasing his first solo album on June 7. He wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 songs on Ronnie Dunn, and it’s a mostly satisfying addition to the current country scene.

As one of the few truly distinctive lead male voices in country music today, Dunn realizes he needs to be careful in what he records.

In some of the songs, especially “Singer in a Cowboy Band” and “I Don’t Dance,” Dunn looks back fondly at his developing years in the bars and honky-tonks, which were the inspiration for such B&D hits as “Neon Moon” and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” He’s glad he was there, but he’s not eager to return. Now, he can do a bit more of what he likes, whether it’s a torch song like “Love Owes Me One” or a bit of social commentary like “Cost of Livin’.” For me, that’s the best thing he’s done in a long time.

Dunn co-wrote “Cost” with Philip Coleman. It’s basically a job application being written by a recent war veteran. After detailing his military history, he sings, “I got a strong back, steel toes/I rarely call in sick, a good truck/What I don’t know I catch on real quick/I work weekends if I have to, nights and holidays/Give you 40 and then some, whatever it takes/Three dollars and change at the pump/Cost of livin’s high and goin’ up.” It’s a poignant cry for help, especially when “the bank has started callin’ and the wolves are at my door.” Unfortunately, it’s all too true these days.

I may be imagining things, but I get the feeling that the solo Ronnie Dunn voice feels freer than it did as the B&D lead vocal, a bit more liberated now. That’s a good thing.

Note to Eric Church: Eric, it’s nice to be compared to such great artists as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Just let other people do it for you. Trust me on this one, dude.

That said, I’ve liked Church from the beginning, despite some occasional lapses in musical judgment. (I don’t really want to hear “Leave My Willie Alone” again.) Compared to some other young artists who are still around, I would say he will make it. Overall, I think Church is on the right track in his career, with a string of songs that are getting better with time. He hasn’t hit his 10,000 hours yet, but he’s punching that clock hard and heavy every day. I’m sure he’ll get there.

Now he has turned out his best work yet with the lyrics, the performance and the video for his new song “Homeboy” (from his upcoming third studio album Chief). It’s well-written (with his friend Casey Beathard), well-sung, and the video stands out as one of the strongest in recent video history. Alternately preaching, condemning and cajoling, “Homeboy” is a 30-year-old telling his running-wild younger brother to straighten up and fly right before it’s too late. He sings, “You can’t hold back the hands of time/Mama’s goin’ gray and so is daddy’s mind/I wish you’d come on back and make it all right/Before they’re called home, boy.”