NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Ronnie Dunn Begins Anew

"Cost of Livin'" Becomes a Social Anthem

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

It’s not every year that a standout country song grabs the listener and creates that moment usually described as “I had to pull the car over to the side of the road when that song came on the radio.”

In recent years, that moment has come with such songs as Jamey Johnson’s “In Color” and Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” But not with anything else that notable. Not on a par with George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or his wife Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” or Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” or “The Dance” or Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.”

But this year’s new solo recording and performing career for Ronnie Dunn has yielded a genuine gem. With “Cost of Livin’,” Dunn and co-writer Philip Coleman have created a modern classic.

That song is a vital depiction of what is happening in the United States right now. There was a time not so long ago when country music immediately reflected what was going on in this nation. And not what was supposedly going on in those idyllic dirt roads and fishing holes where pickup trucks are always full of beer and babes and rockin’ music. It reflected a barebones economy starting to squeeze out marginal workers and the unemployed. It is not a pretty picture. And it does not make for pretty songs. But it does make for memorable — and lasting — songs.

“Cost of Livin'” is a moderate hit on country radio because such a sobering song does not fit the summer radio mix of good-time, rockin’, mindless ditties. It’s not just a song. It’s a social document. The video of the song is a graphic panorama of life in these United States, circa 2011.

Dunn has written and recorded his fair share of both good-time and serious country songs in his long career as one-half of the duo Brooks & Dunn. Now, after the duo split up last September following 20 years together, he has spent much of the last year assembling a second career after B&D.

The first step was deciding what to do next. Then came recording the first solo album of his career. Just deciding to launch a solo career was a daunting task for a veteran country star. The songs for the album, he said, were his first priority. And “Cost of Livin'” was a very high priority.

Of the song’s genesis, he said it came to him from Alex Torrez, a Nashville song plugger and veteran A&R executive.

“Alex came by in 2008 and brought me five songs,” Dunn told me recently, “and that song was the last of them. It was called ’The Application’ then. I listened to it, and the verses knocked me out, but it died at the hook line, at the title. I had never asked this before, and I asked Alex, ’How long has that song been around?’ He said it had been around for three years or so. I said, ’Do you think Philip would mind if I took a stab at maybe coming up with a hook line and kind of strengthening the payoff at the end?'”

Coleman was agreeable.

Dunn said, “I first came up with — at the time it was ’two dollars and change [now it’s ’three dollars and change’] at the pump, the cost of livin’s high and goin’ up.’ He called back and said, ’I love it!’ That song is one of the most real things I’ve ever come across.”

The bank has started callin’
And the wolves are at my door
Three dollars and change at the pump
The cost of livin’s high and goin’ up

Performing “Cost of Livin'” live at one of his concerts now is a humbling experience, Dunn told me. “I performed it in Alabama the other night, and there were so many people up front screaming, ’That’s me! That’s me!’ And it’s at about No. 25 on the chart, but they knew the words. They were singing the lyrics. It’s hit a nerve.”

There are a lot of people who now live in a constant dread, I mention to him.

“I have lived with that kind of constant dread,” he said. “People who have heard the song tell me, ’I’m afraid. … I’m afraid.'”

For the video, Dunn said, he and his production crew first thought about shooting a documentary with headlines and newscasts. Then, they went to Union City, Tenn., where a Goodyear tire plant was shutting down, thus eliminating 1,900 jobs and badly crippling the area. Coleman is from Union City. They filmed around the town and interviewed many of the workers who are now out of work.

“That provided reality and sincerity to it,” he said. “That’s real.”

“Somebody said to me the other day, ’You’re supposed to be a soaring singer and you don’t do that with this song!’ Sometimes you’ve just gotta get out of the way and let the song do its job. It’s not Pavarotti’s song.”

View the video of Ronnie Dunn’s “Cost of Livin’.”