Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn have certainly established themselves as a force in country music. They've sold 22 million albums, scored 18 #1 hits, heard their names called as Entertainer of the Year three times and become one of the most consistent country music headliners today. They've also sponsored race cars, appeared on the front of Corn Flakes boxes and pioneered a torqued up brand of honky tonk music that brought the bars into a much more aggressive sonic place.
"My mother and father listened to hillbilly music all the time," concedes Ronnie Dunn of his familial introduction to music he didn't always understand. "He was a hillbilly singer, too, and man, I didn't always know what the words meant, but I knew something was going on when I'd hear those Marty Robbins, those Jerry Lee (Lewis) records...They just didn't rock enough for me. If the music hit as hard as the feelings, it'd've been perfect.
"So, when it was our turn, I was intent on making country rock. When we did that first album, it was coming off 15 years in clubs with real people -- we wanted to give them what they wanted, and we knew they wanted someone to turn the honky tonk up a little louder and really make it punch."
With "Brand New Man" a brand new sound was born. It was a sound that was virile and country to its core, yet hard-charging. It had a swagger, but also potent emotions. These were men singing of broken hearts, leaving, chasing their dreams and desires. It captured people's imaginations -- and it also updated the bravado that marked much of Texas' outlaw movement.
Since then, the duo who enjoyed the longest winning streak in the history of the Country Music Assocation has maintained their sound. But with Steers & Stripes -- named for an adaptation of Dunn's antique 45-star American flag used for a 4th of July party invitation -- B&D up the stakes considerably.
At a time when most artists would be content to ride into the sunset, the pair decided to seek new musical challenges. Enlisting producer Mark Wright, who is known for work with Lee Ann Womack and Clint Black's Killin' Time, the trio challenged each other to dig deep.
"We really took our time this time," Brooks allows. "We'd never done that...to really consider what we want the songs to be...and the record is a lot better for it. Before we'd always had time pressure, we'd just slam a record, blaze through, let the moment carry it and get back on the road. It would be real live, which we like.
"For the first time since the first record that no one was waiting for, we took seven months and we got what we wanted. Sometimes it was a little funkier or nastier, other times it was cleaner -- but we thought about what it should be to really fit the song more than what (the performance) was in that moment.."
"And Mark is real passionate about stuff," Dunn continues. "He's out there finding songs, making them great when you cut 'em, really getting you to sing your best. He's on fire about it all -- and that's what it takes, because his enthusiasm is contagious. You just get swept up in it."
In addition to working with some of duo's normal collaborators -- Terry McBride, Bob DiPiero, Shawn Camp, Don Cook, Tom Shapiro -- they reached beyond the comfortable to embrace songs by Paul Brady and Ronan Keating, Kim Richey, Angelo and Tom Littlefield, Charlie Crowe, Wayland Holyfield and Tom Douglas and Rivers Rutherford. To up the creative tension, they also brought in guests designed to push their limits: fringe soul country diva Richey's velvet alto on the swelling mid-tempo pledge of the heart "Every River", power vocalist Trisha Yearwood on the pumping song of lust and raw desire "The Last Thing I Do" and charts on the gorgeous ballad "The Long Good-Bye" from no less than David Campbell, also known as Becks' father.
"It's inspiring to have those songs to sing," the man The Washington Post proclaimed "one of the most convincing and soulful singers in country" says with relish. "As a singer, that's what it's about...songs that make you want to push yourself to be great (or at least better than you've ever been before).
"For me, I didn't know if I could sing some of these songs, if I could get inside them. So I'd take the tracks home...Paul Brady's demo of 'The Long Good-Bye' was intimidating...How do you do that? I'd work in my barn, explore the songs, try things, really learn where the song wanted to go, where I wanted to go.
"I have all this stuff inside me that I don't know how to put into words, so I put it into music, which is the way I came to this in the first place. I put all that stuff into the vocals -- that's my punching bag! Singing is the place I take what's churning inside me -- and I let it out."
To hear Dunn drop to his knees with absolute want in "There Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," the album's scorching lead single that broke the Top 10 in a mere 4 weeks, is to understand a man who's driven by music. Having left divinity school to sing country music in Texas when Gary Stewart was king, then moving to Tulsa and falling in with the Shelter Records crowd, Dunn cut his teeth in some serious company.
"It was shocking to hear Gary Stewart tear a vocal apart and just leave a song in shreds," Dunn says, still embracing the awe. "I ran with a crew right out of Emily Smith College -- hardcore rock'n'roll groupies who were my introduction into Hard Living 101. It was totally destructive, but also really creative: Leon Russell was around and Joe Cocker.
"Denny Cordell had a way of finding these unique artists, then pushing them to be even more so. The Shelter crowd was the most soulful. You get around those kind of people, and it makes you think because you've witnessed the difference. It certainly set the bar for me -- and you can't clear it every time, but it sure sets a standard you can feel good about."
For Brooks, the songwriting guitars linger, Steers & Stripes also strips away much of the swagger -- and offers a more honest glimpse of their outlook. "The songs really shape the records, because to do it any other way would be calculated. So what evolves as the songs come together is a sense of where you are as artists or as people. What draws you to the songs defines the record -- and those themes emerge from your life organically.
"To be a singer, you have to be an actor to be in that moment on the mic. You call on memories, really try to connect with different places. In a lot of these songs, people are in love and running or they're in love and grieving. It's knowing there's a way to go versus not knowing what to do or where to go -- and I'd say my soul was branded with those emotions, those memories."
Certainly, there are bittersweet moments on the duo's 7th studio project. "The Long Good-Bye" is an emotionally complex tangle of knowing "over" has happened, but not wanting to relinquish what was, while "When She's Gone, She's Gone" squares the realization with the ever-flowing tide of the Mississippi against the fading of New Orleans' famed revelry against the chill of the dawn.
For Brooks, who was raised outside Baton Rouge, country music was around the house and it was what he learned to play, plinking out the songs of Hank Williams and Johnny Horton on his first guitar. And it was on his grandfather's dairy farm, he made an important discovery about music's roots. "The guys who worked there -- for them, the music was all spirituals, Leadbelly and Robert Johnson. From my few chords that I'd learned, I realized country and the blues were from the same roots.
"The same three chords that moved me moved these other people who liked a whole other kind of music in the same way. Rock and roll may've turned the guitars up more, but it's from the same place to."
Both men were secure in their understanding of the overlap. It fired up their will to push country's edges, maybe make it a little dangerous again. Not in the sense of killing, per se, but in the way they bring an intensity to their attack. For Steers & Stripes, Brooks, Dunn and Wright enlisted engineer Gregg Drummond, known for his work with Fleetwood Mac -- and they decided to plumb some territory that was a bit forbidden in today's Nashville.
Grazing the gritty rural overlap that is ZZ Top's adjacency to country, Brooks & Dunn took their always bird-dog sensibility a bit further out. Against a crunching backdrop, the pair found a frontier that most in today's politically correct Nashville are quick to sidestep: lust, sex and abandon. It's not cheating. It's not breaking any laws. But it is about the sweep of hormones and the quickening of the pulse.
"The emotional current was a drug to me," Dunn slyly acknowledges. "The undertow of sex in songs was just electric. Even when I was young and I didn't know what sex was, I knew something was up! Before I ever had a shot of tequila or a beer, I was listening to music and trying to make out, to connect those dots I couldn't even explain!
"Heck, even Willie Nelson admitted he picked up a guitar to get girls! Music always has that dangerous element of seduction to it, which keeps you on edge all the time. It's just frought with that and it makes music very, very powerful."
"Hey, look, let's be honest," Brooks adds with a shrug, "people are pretty much geared that way, so why ignore the obvious? We're not about misuse of it, but sex and love should be fun. Spring Break fever never hurt anyone! It shouldn't always get bogged down in some emotionally ladden thing, either, because while sex doesn't necessarily make the world go round, it's definitely the fuel that keeps things running.
"And it's not about a double standard. Women should be just as free, have just as much fun. Because when you're honest and let it be fun, you take the shame away and can have a really healthy perspective!"
So, listeners can bet "The Last Thing I Do," with Yearwood going lick for lick with Dunn on the heightened choruses, is a promise to be delivered, while "Good Girls Go To Heaven" celebrates free spirits who are ready to kick out the jams -- and "See Jane Dance" knocks back the ZZ Top heroine owning her sexuality with brazen abandon.
And the men who embrace their roots both musically in a classic Buck Owens romp on the shuffling "Lucky Me, Lonely You" and the comedic twist of vintage Roger Miller in the tale of the morning after a night ill-spent "Deny Deny Deny" -- and thematically with the driving down one's destiny in the innocent yearning "Go West" and the endless possibilities celebrated in the pumping "Only In America." Interestingly, the latter not only paints the obvious American Dream,, it also embraces the notion of the stakes as it confesses "one may be going to prison/one may grow up to be President."
"It's a great country and we should love it," Brooks says. "But to love it, you have to see it for what it is. I think that can make you love something more..."
Indeed. For Brooks & Dunn, whom no less than The Dallas Morning News proclaims are "filled with thoughts on yearning and loneliness...Brooks & Dunn are really just good storytellers at heart," Steers & Stripes is a record to re-pay their fans in full and push the possibilities in ways they haven't since forging a new kind of revved up country almost a decade ago.
"There's a lot more undercurrent on here, and a lot more danger to these songs than meets the eye," the Arkansas/Texas/Oklahoman Dunn admits. "These songs are turning points in people's lives, moments that are decisive, things will change. And the best part to me is that some of these songs -- like the songs that really captured me as a kid -- are about what they don't say -- or know. You're not told and may never know, but those moments are there.
"I think there's an element of danger, of things changing involved somewhere. For some, it can be through the music or the lifestyle -- that dysfunction is part of the appeal. I mean, Kurt Cobain is just another Johnny Cash, except he didn't make it. But look what they meant to so many people! People who thought they spoke for them...
"At the end of the day, everybody has demons -- and everybody wrestles them."
"For us, our competitiveness fires both Ronnie and I to push harder as artists, as musicians," Brooks picks up. "Sometimes that gets in the way of our creativity because letting that tension drive the music misses the point. But we let it make us better. When we do that, like we did here, our drive unifies us..."
"It's true," Dunn adds. "When you nail a song, it's like racing a car...you get this pure adrenalin rush, especially when you hear that roar from the crowd. That's what we're pushing for! We want to do to the crowd what we want to do to ourselves: have as much fun as we can, give everyone a release, let 'em feel a bunch of emotions and send 'em home exhausted."
"Yeah," Brooks agrees, "hopefully we're a party band with some substance to us. Our main objective is to show people a good time -- and they come to be lifted up. But then you'll be playing 'Neon Moon' or 'Husbands and Wives' -- and you realize they're really listening, maybe even thinking about it. That's cool -- it shows they're looking for something deeper, too.
"To me, there's a really cool thing about entertaining everyday people because they want to have fun, get lost in the music and the moment. I come from a pretty average background -- and I'd say our fans are a pretty average cross-section. They speak in plain terms, live in regular houses, wait for the weekend, don't love their job, but do love their family...
"It's not very glamorous, but it's the truth. And the last time I checked, it's the truth that drives country music."
--- from the official Brooks & Dunn website