Ronnie Dunn had the enviable duty Thursday afternoon (Aug. 4) of listening to people tell him what a great songwriter he is — and then document their praise with statistics.
This barrage of kudos came during a lavish party BMI, the performance rights organization, staged in Dunn’s honor at its Nashville headquarters.
Most of the bigwigs of Music Row attended the event, including Dunn’s longtime singing partner, Kix Brooks, who stood diplomatically near the back of the crowd and chatted with friends as Dunn took the spotlight. The two friends dissolved their act last year.
Dressed in a black suit and open-collared shirt, the willow-thin Dunn looked decades younger than his 58 years.
Jody Williams, BMI’s vice president of writer-publisher relations, told partygoers he first encountered Dunn in 1988 when he served as a judge at the finals of the Marlboro Country Music Contest in Nashville, a competition Dunn ultimately won.
Two songs Dunn wrote — “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and “She’s Not the Cheatin’ Kind” — figured prominently in his Marlboro win and the ensuing national tour. Both songs would go on to become No. 1 singles for Brooks & Dunn, the former in 1992, the latter in 1994.
Looking back over the string of Dunn-penned hits that followed, Williams said, “He now inhabits the same rarefied [songwriting] air as Merle Haggard, the Bee Gees and Gamble & Huff.”
By BMI’s count, all of Dunn’s recorded songs taken together have been performed more than 60 million times.
Of these, Williams continued, 14 songs — which Dunn co-wrote or wrote alone — have racked up 1 million or more performances each.
According to Williams, those songs and their totals are “Believe,” “Cowgirls Don’t Cry,” “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up for Nothing,” “Play Something Country,” “Proud of the House We Built,” “That’s What She Gets” and “You’ll Always Be Loved by Me” (1 million performances each), “Little Miss Honky Tonk” and “Red Dirt Road” (2 million each), “Brand New Man,” “She’s Not the Cheatin’ Kind” and “That Ain’t No Way to Go” (3 million each), “Neon Moon” (4 million) and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” (6 million).
Returning to the present, Williams asserted that Dunn’s current single, “Cost of Livin’,” which he co-wrote with Phillip Coleman, is “as compelling as [any song] he’s ever sung.”
The party was a good deal more elaborate and expensive than the usual Music Row celebration. Organizers had erected a large elevated stage at one end of BMI’s cavernous reception hall.
At the back of the stage stood a mammoth picture of Dunn clasping his guitar and baring his right forearm with the tattooed word “Cowboy” running from elbow to wrist.
Six metal pillars, three on each side of the stage, held framed plaques that cited the most popular songs Dunn has written or co-written and the numbers of performances each has earned.
The tables where guests stood were covered with tan, fibrous cloths, and each sported a centerpiece of red and yellow flowers. There was a full and busy bar, as well, and a yards-long table topped with an infinite variety of delicacies.
Troy Tomlinson, president and CEO of Sony/ATV, the company that handles Dunn’s publishing, said he first took notice of the tall, gangly Texan when Brooks & Dunn performed on the 1992 New Faces Show at the annual Country Radio Seminar.
After the showcase, Tomlinson said, Dunn was naïve enough to give him his phone number. At the time, Tomlinson was pitching songs for the Acuff-Rose publishing company.
For the next 10 years, he said, he tried every method he could think of to get songs to Dunn in the hope that Brooks & Dunn would record them — from simply leaving messages on Dunn’s answering machine (which the singer ignored) to enticing him into co-writing with Acuff-Rose most reliable hitmeister, Dean Dillon.
Tomlinson said he finally solved the problem of accessing Dunn when Sony/ATV purchased Acuff-Rose and brought Tomlinson along with it.
Tomlinson unwrapped an award — which he described as “a little pointy thing” — and handed it to Dunn.
Dunn said he’d just returned from two weeks on the road and, fueled by “guilt,” had agreed to take one of his daughters shopping the day before. One gathered from his tone of voice that this pastime ranked somewhere in his affections between chewing glass and taking Tomlinson’s phone calls.
Dunn made it clear he doesn’t give speeches and then thanked his publicist by name for compiling the few remarks he was offering.
He acknowledged Brooks in the audience, thanked the crowd for coming and flashed back to the days when he was a new songwriter in town.
In an early co-writing session with super-composer Don Cook (who also produced some Brooks & Dunn albums), Dunn said he was finally able to come up with a line that fit the song they were working on and that he was feeling pretty proud of himself.
Cook, it turned out, was markedly less euphoric. As Dunn remembers it, his co-writer listened to what he had written and grumbled, “Even a monkey with a typewriter gets a line once in a while.”
Aspiring monkeys may wish to peruse Dunn’s royalty statements.