Kix Brooks Re-Energized With New Solo Album

He Talks About New to This Town and Musical Journey After Brooks & Dunn

Kix Brooks may be the only country artist who sold more than 27 million albums in the 23 years between releasing his two major label solo albums. Having delivered his self-titled debut album on Capitol in 1989, his second solo offering, New to This Town, was issued last week by Arista Nashville.

Of course, he was busy during the past two decades with another project — Brooks & Dunn. When he and Ronnie Dunn performed their final concert together in September 2010, Brooks kept himself busy writing songs, venturing into film projects, overseeing his Arrington Vineyards winery near Nashville and hosting his weekly syndicated radio show, American Country Countdown With Kix Brooks. And he’s launching a second syndicated radio program, Kickin’ It With Kix, an overnight show to air weekdays throughout the U.S.

In the meantime, Brooks has been hitting it hard to promote New to This Town.

During a recent visit to CMT’s offices in Nashville, he talked about the process that led to the new album, his expectations for it and some thoughts about his role in Brooks & Dunn. He co-wrote eight of the songs on New to This Town, including the current single, “Bring It on Home.” However, the conversation began with a discussion of “In the Right Place,” an album track written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip, that includes a reference to one of the greatest soul music singers in history. I appreciate any song that name checks Otis Redding.

Brooks: Oh, hell, yeah! How ’bout that, man? My sister, when albums first started happening, she had the 45’s stack and dance parties and all that stuff. She was real into R&B music. She had Otis Redding Live in Europe. And I had a couple of albums. I had the first Beatles album and a Rolling Stones album. I had “Satisfaction.” That was the first song I learned to play on my guitar. I was in her room one day kicking around and asked, “What’s this album.” And she goes, “It’s Otis Redding.” And there’s that’s cool picture of him on the front in that pink jacket.

And then I see “Satisfaction” on there. I put it on, and he just freakin’ blew the top off of it. … And I’m like, “Holy cow! This is freakin’ awesome.” It made the Stones seem bland — and they made the Beatles look bland. And I was done. I was so into R&B music after that. It was Sam Cooke and the Supremes and you name it. I just totally got that soul music. For me, as a kid, I loved that stuff.

You had a lot of success between your two solo albums. From a critic’s standpoint, how would you assess the first one from years ago?

I would say it’s not great. (laughs) It’s hard because I’m sensisitve to people I work with. As far as our approach went — having our band play and all that stuff — I think the idea was good. Sonically, I don’t think it’s very good. … And the songs are kind of all over the place, but I guess they kind of are now. It’s what I felt like were the best songs at the time, but I was writing some things and trying to do this and that. It was maybe trying a little bit too hard. More than anything, musically, it felt a little stiff to me.

During your time in Brooks & Dunn, had you been thinking about doing another solo album and what it would be like?

No, I hadn’t. I’m kind of a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other guy. I sort of deal with whatever I’ve got to deal with today and tomorrow. Even right now, I’m not even looking toward next year. I’ve kind of got a full plate for the rest of this year, and I need to eat what’s on it.

It seems like you’ve been getting back to the grassroots level to redefine yourself.

Again, it’s not intentional. I think the thing that really drove the freedom of this record was coming off the road, and I got offered a role in a movie. [The Western, titled To Kill a Memory, premieres in October at the Austin Film Festival.] And I asked them what they were doing for the music, and they hadn’t really attacked that yet. And I asked them if I could do it. They said, “Yeah, if you think you can, take a shot at it.” So I just really dove into writing for this movie. … I got a lot of my great singing artist buddies who were between deals at the time — Leslie Satcher, Chris Stapleton, Randy Houser — and made what I feel like probably musically is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done since I’ve been here.

But I wasn’t writing for radio or anything. I was just writing Outlaw songs and revenge songs or whatever, and I came up with this body of work that was so exciting and fun. And when I went into the studio for my solo album, it was the same thing. I’m not trying to get these songs on the radio or anything else, and I realized, “This is really fun! I’m making music and completely free making music. And it feels and sounds great.” … I got real fired up, and then I was ready to make my album. Hell, I love doing this. It just kind of turned me loose.

It’s such a simple concept but yet so complicated.

I know. And for so long, I think with the success of Brand New Man, Ronnie and I were both so shocked. I mean, I’d been writing songs for a living for 10 years before I met him and had bad deals. And he had, too. We were both so shocked that it worked, we go, “OK, what is this? Why does this work, and what kind of music are we making?” With Hard Workin’ Man, we chased our tail a little bit. We were like, “Here’s what we’re doing. This is working. And, yeah, it worked again.”

So then we kind of branded what kind of songs we did, and I felt like we had a good diversity of material throughout our albums. At the same time, we did have some parameters of what two guys onstage are comfortable singing. … And we wrote that way. I always had in the back of my mind, “Does this work for Brooks & Dunn? Is this something Ronnie was going to like? Is this something he wants to sing?” And it took me a while to get that out of my head and to go, Dude, forget about it.” Really, doing that soundtrack really helped me get back to making music, or this album probably would have been different.

What are your expectations for the new album?

It’s wrong to say, “Not very high.” I guess that’s just in terms of sales. I’m a realist. Again, you want your music to be accepted, and you want people to buy your music. You’ve got a record company that believes in you, and they’ve invested in what I’m doing and have worked really hard. At the same time, the reality is that people have a lot of Brooks & Dunn music, this and that. They probably have some kind of preconceived notions of what this music will or won’t be. I think it’s just going to take time and work for me. I’ve got a great band. I’m really just having fun playing. I’m having fun hitting the stage every night.

Was there a point where Brooks & Dunn wasn’t fun?

No, I don’t think there was ever a point when it wasn’t fun. Fortunately, I had some hits along the way [as vocalist], so I do have those songs to play that people are familiar with. But it was getting to the point where Ronnie was obviously the voice for Brooks & Dunn. Really, at this point in my career, I wasn’t interested in being a side guy, just to play guitar for Ronnie. It was a good band and a good business, but we both kind of both started out singing here and there. It was a little more give and take, and it just sort of evolved into that. It wasn’t that we weren’t playing for big crowds or that I wasn’t still getting to sing three or four songs a night. But it wasn’t something I was anymore looking forward to and yearning to do. I think I wanted to contribute more. I think that’s the best way to say it.

I’m sure it was great once you were onstage, but did it ever start feeling like a job?

I can’t really say that it did, honestly. I still would wake up and pinch myself in a parking lot, going, “I get to go play golf, and I get to play music tonight. This is what I do — and God bless me for this opportunity.” It wasn’t an ego thing with Ronnie. I admire his singing. There were plenty of nights onstage when I’d just shake my head, going “What pipes this guy has got!”

At the same time, the growing up where I did in Louisiana, the people I really admired were Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker and Willis Alan Ramsey and even Johnny Cash and Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall — those great storytellers. That’s what I wanted to be. I still remember Cash doing “John Henry,” just talking it onstage, and I’m thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” I never aspired to be a crooner. I never had that voice or anything, but I always loved telling a story onstage and looking at the eyes of the audience and going, “We’re connecting. This is fun.” And I kind of missed it. I wasn’t doing that anymore. I wasn’t having that opportunity anymore.

Again, it wasn’t about ego. It wasn’t that I was envious of Ronnie. That was really cool. It was like I wasn’t getting what I wanted to do. So it’s kind of fun now to get back and play — even in clubs — after that first couple of nights where you go, “Crap! I’ve got to sing the next song — and the next one, too.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.