These days, Ronnie Dunn and his band are traveling on one tour bus. That's a far cry from the way it used to be for Brooks & Dunn, the superstar duo that ended 20 years of touring in 2010.
"In September, we had eight semis and six buses," Dunn recalls with a laugh. "I'm down to one bus and a horse trailer now. And I love it! Of course, it's easy for me to say, but I really enjoy doing this -- playing venues and staying under the radar, tightening up the band and getting a sound and a vibe of just how this solo thing feels. The few dates that we've played are a blast."
During a visit to CMT, Dunn opened up about the music on his self-titled debut album (which debuts at No. 1 this week on Billboard's country chart), his ongoing connection to country fans and the "meteor" that led to the end of Brooks & Dunn.
CMT: Your daughter is the beginning of your "Bleed Red" video. How did that enhance the message of the song?
Dunn: We winged that video for a while. We were not exactly sure where we would have to go. ... We took Haley down to the old rusty horse trailer out behind my barn where we were going to do some still shots. As we talked, I remembered that she had broken up with her boyfriend the weekend before that. It was during their spring break, and we got to talking about that. That's where she came up with the line, "Dad, I just never want to see him again." Well, they're back together now! (laughs) At the moment, it was a little heavy! We just started talking about how this song deals with forgiveness and we went from there.
"I Don't Dance" has that classic double meaning. How long have you had that idea?
It's a hook line that I had. Craig Wiseman and David Lee Murphy were meeting me up in the barn one day to write. I was getting water out of the refrigerator, and I came up with that line. I said, "How about this? What if we take the meaning of "I don't dance" -- meaning I actually don't dance -- and at the same time, you're staying true to love." You work that in as a guy being in a band and how you deal with that dynamic -- and how you hold a marriage and a relationship together. It sounded like a Southern rock song.
What did your wife Janine think of that song?
She liked it, but she said, "Don't even try to manipulate me with a song. You're digging out a deep hole here. You better write a bunch. ..." (laughs)
At what point do you play your new songs for her?
It's so intense for me. I'll wear you out. I'm doing it all the time, so she encouraged me at one point in the process to stop. Stop writing. Stop doing all kinds of things. She said, "Settle down and see if you can figure it out. I know it's a big step for you." I quit a good-paying job, and she said, "You didn't talk to me about that. You came back with a tattoo of 'COWBOY' all the way from your elbow to your wrist. I think you might need to slow down and stop being so impulsive." She said, "You'll figure it out. Don't panic." As soon as she said that, she turned around and patted me on the head. (laughs) You get the message. She walked off and went to the bedroom. And as soon as she did, I dove for a pen and pencil and wrote "Last Love I'm Trying." You never know where inspiration is going to come from. It's good to have someone like Janine with her dynamic personality in your head.
Is it easier for you to express what you want to say when you have a guitar?
It's easier for me to do it with music than it is to actually talk. If it weren't for that, I'm not sure how I would get by.
In "Cost of Living," the narrator doesn't come off as a complainer. Instead, he's ready to earn a position and to prove himself. Did that cross your mind when you were writing it?
I've had the song since 2008. I tried to cut it a couple of years ago for a B&D project. It was back when gas had caused the economy to start its slump and go into this recession. One of the guys at the label said, "Well, the economy will come around by the time we get this song out if you were to cut it." They weren't that crazy about it. They were lukewarm. So I said, "OK." It came around this time to cut. Here we are in 2011 and the economy is the same. I get ready to do it and someone else in an executive position told me I was too wealthy to sing this song. Come on. I grew up very blue-collar. That just made me want to do it even more to prove I could fully sell it.
Philip Coleman is the primary writer on it. He did most of the heavy lifting. He's mowing yards in the summertime and he works for FedEx, sweeping the trailers out, just to pay the bills while he's trying to catch on as a songwriter here in town. We played it for radio and a lot of people in the industry when we finished the record. This is the song that they said, "I need it. I want it now." They're like, "Give us this song now. Let us have it." So here we come. We're coming with it.
As a songwriter, what is that sensation like, when you're tapping into something? Is there a sense of exhilaration that goes along with that?
Yeah, it's hard not to take off running and run past them. I remember on "Love Owes Me One," Bobby Pinson was involved with writing that. He stood up at the end of the day when we got through and he said, "There's about a two-pounder," meaning it was not a big fish. That night, I went home, and it stayed in my head. I got up the next morning and went to the piano and worked on finding that really simple piano-and-vocal thing. What do they say? "Sometimes in life, the important part is between the breaths you take." It's that kind of song.
I didn't realize you played piano.
I don't. If you heard me play piano ... . (laughs) If you hear me play piano, it's not pretty. I can get around the chords, but I'll hit a clunker every now and then. More than every now and then.
To me, "Love Owes Me One" seems to be about knowing when it's time to move on, even when you've tried your best.
That's it. At the end of the day, I gave it all I got. How many people stay in marriages and relationships for years and years and years and have it fall apart? They can turn around and say, "I gave it all I got. I gave it everything I had. Love, you owe me one."
Does that theme apply to Brooks & Dunn, too? You gave it everything you had.
Yeah, we just rode that horse -- a good, good horse -- as fast as we could. We didn't want to lead it to being in a bad place.
I can't tell you how many people called me, looking for the inside story.
(laughs) There is no inside story. No, the meteor just kind of hit, and we went, "OK, we're done. Let's go do other things." Kix [Brooks] is out doing movies and he's doing his [syndicated radio] countdown show. So, everything's good.
One time at an awards show, you told reporters you hoped the fans understand just how much they have meant to you. Could you tell me more about what you meant?
This is just a neurotic thing on my part. I look at all these awards shows over the years and think, "How many times -- and I should have right up front -- did I say thanks to the fans?" You're so concerned with being able to get everything out, especially when you're in a group or duo. One of the things that inhibited me more than anything else in that scenario was hosting. You know they're back there watching the time tick away: "Five seconds, four seconds ... Get 'em off! Get'em off!" I just wanted to take an opportunity to say thanks to the fans for doing what they've done and for sticking around. And supporting what I'm doing now.
Do fans approach you? You've always seemed pretty approachable.
Yeah, I'll chat with you. We go back and forth on Facebook almost every day just to see what's going on. I think that's something you can't turn your back on. It's very relevant. You're looking at thousands of people on your website or your Facebook page giving you vital information. I describe it like walking down Main Street in a small country town. You can get a feel for how things are stacking up by the way people react to you.
For people who come to see your solo show, what can they expect?
We don't know. Truly, and I say "we" in the sense of me and the band, we are winging it. We're making it up along the way. There's no fixed set list. It's so much fun just to hear people shout out a song. Then you go, "Oh, yeah. Got it! Hit it!" Then you turn around and do it. It breathes the life back into it. With the big production thing, the lights are computerized. You have to go to a certain place to stand and sing. [The new way] is a lot of fun.
What are your touring plans?
Right now, we're doing a few dates under the radar. We're talking now. Our agent was out last week, asking me what I'd like to do. I think the songs will dictate that. That's the big thing. We don't have to do a lot of planning right now. Just let these songs and the record do their work. Everything else will take care of itself.
Have you considered headlining or maybe taking a middle slot on a big tour?
No, I don't think I'll do any of that. I think I'll stay in smaller venues -- just for fun for a while. I really do. It's different now that I'm up there by myself. I'm able to slow down and set the pace and talk back and forth with the crowd. It's a blast.