Ronnie Dunn’s criteria for choosing songs to record is simple – if it has a good beat and people can dance to it, chances are the song caught his ear.
Dunn is gearing up to release a solo album later this year and recently released the album’s debut single “Broken Neon Hearts.” If the title sounds like it could be a track from Brooks & Dunn’s 1991 debut album “Brand New Man,” that’s all the better for Dunn. As half of Brooks & Dunn, country music’s most-awarded duo in history, Dunn’s creative interest is sparked by two things – his Texas roots and ’80s and ’90s country music with a beat so undeniable it jerks people onto the dance floor. He thinks “Broken Neon Hearts” will get people in their dancing boots.
“You could go back to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, all the answers would be from the kids after they played the songs, ’What about it did you like?'” Dunn quotes. “They’d say, ’Well, it had a good beat, and I could dance to it.’ That’s the culture we came from in Texas and Oklahoma.”
Dunn paid his musical dues playing the Texas/Oklahoma bar circuit where he said bands were judged by the number of people they could get on the dance floor.
“If they dance, they get thirsty and they drink,” he said. “So the more they dance, the bigger the bar tab. I just fell in love with that music. Our world revolved around two steps, waltzes and shuffles.”
Dunn says he knows his perception of country music is different from some, but it’s important that his new album aligns with his view of the country format. For him, that falls with the sound of mid-’80s to ’90s country music.
“I’m sure there’s a generation before me who looks at it and goes, ’That’s not country,’ like a lot of people tend to do today,” he says. “But it’s all cultural. It’s generations and stuff changes. I’ll go back and listen to Merle Haggard all day long, and a lot of those artists had influences on what I do. I know there’s a huge audience out there (for ’80s and ’90s country music).”
Dunn co-wrote “Broken Neon Hearts” with Thomas Perkins and Matt Willis. He estimates he co-wrote a little more than half of the album. The ratio is important because he thinks that only recording songs he wrote would limit his album.
“I always like to pull in outside stuff,” he says. “I think that can be the kiss of death sometimes to think you have to do it all. And we really did that with Brooks & Dunn. We were like, ’Bring it!’ Even though we were both songwriters, it tests you and keeps you honest.”
When choosing songs to use, Dunn says the tracks have to blend with the right combination of melody, content, rhythm, beat and lyrical content.
“I kind of like that dysfunctional thing about a guy sitting in a bar with his heart broken,” Dunn says. “There’s a positive side, too, about just going out on Friday and Saturday nights, which is what everyone did in the world I came from in Texas and Oklahoma. They just danced and had great times. It goes back to that rhythm and content. It doesn’t have to be crazy heavy, just something to have a good time to.”
At 68, Dunn has a lifetime of experience choosing songs that resonate with fans. At an age when some people are considering retirement, slowing down is the last thing on his mind. He recently founded Perfect Pitch Publishing, where he wants to focus on a small number of young, hungry writers he believes have potential. He recently signed his fourth writer.
“It’s my job to be hard,” he says. “They’ll throw songs at me, and it’s, ’Back to the gym, pal!”
The “Neon Moon” singer says he’d get bored doing anything else.
“This is what I wanted to do all my life, and I love it,” Dunn says. “My wife and kids will argue with this. It’s my second love – probably my first, in a lot of ways.”