10 Questions With Ronnie Dunn
August 23rd, 2015
As half of Brooks & Dunn, the most successful duo in the history of Country music, Ronnie Dunn – with partner Kix Brooks – compiled a resume that includes 28 Academy of Country Music Awards, 20 Country Music Association Awards, two GRAMMY Awards, 20 #1 singles and more than 30 million records sold.
After 20 years as a duo, Brooks & Dunn called it quits in 2010. Dunn Subsequently released his self-titled solo album on 2011 on Arista Nashville. In 2013, Dunn formed his own label, Little Will-E Records and released a second album, “Kiss You There.”
This year Dunn has signed with Nash Icon Records, a partnership between Cumulus Media and Big Machine Records. His first single on Nash Icon is “There Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” and is impacting at Country radio now.
1. Ronnie, thank you for taking the time for All Access “10 Questions!” After years with Sony as part of Brooks & Dunn – and also as a solo artist – you went the independent route for your last solo project. While technically independent, NASH Icon/Valory feels like a major label. How did you decide to partner with them for this album?
Narvel Blackstock told me about the NASH Icon initiative and encouraged me to look into it. I called the label head, Jim Weatherson, one Friday afternoon and introduced myself. The first thing he said was, “your voice needs to be heard on the radio.” I kind of booted him around a little bit and said, “I kind of question your sanity a little bit for saying that.” We laughed and had a good visit, and shortly after that, I signed with them. But I think if you’re going to record, you need to be heard these days. The internet is a good outlet, but it’s still not the 400 pound gorilla that radio is. I got a quick lesson in Radio 101 with both of the last solo projects. Maybe I learned too much.
2. Was that your own label, “Little Will -E Records?” What did you take away from being an artist running their own label?
Yeah, it was Little-E. The first thing that[Former Sony Nashville Chairman] Joe Galante said to me when I was even kicking around the concept [of the record label] was, “You’re about to see behind the curtain, and I’m not so sure you’re going to want to handle what you see with this business of music.” He said, “You’re probably much more comfortable in front of a microphone and singing and doing what you do and letting someone else handle the other stuff.” And sure enough, he was right. I would love to be a part of the behind the curtain stuff! But I’m not sure that it’s healthy to be involved to such a degree and try to wear the artist hat at the same time.
3. I don’t know how people juggle it. And you know, I’m just guessing that – like with everything else in music – you just get so emotionally involved in it, that you want to drill down and get super-involved in it, and it can get in the way of what you need to do in the studio and on stage and stuff.
It can, if you let it take up that much space. I’ve always said – and talked to my wife a lot – that I have three full-time jobs as an artist and a songwriter. They’re all full-time, and they require 24/7 attention. And to try to take on more than that, as numerous artists have tried to do over the years, you have to be well-staffed and very well-funded. And then the odds are against you – which wouldn’t at all stop me from trying to do it. But the NASH Icon thing is the best of both worlds for me. There are people that have direct involvement. There’s John Dickey with Cumulus. And then the help from Scott Borchetta and Big Machine with Valory Music and the NASH Icon group. It’s the best of both worlds right now, and it’s growing, too. The dynamic is expanding, and they’re working on that as we move forward.
4. Changing gears here a little bit, as you get the wheels rolling on this solo project, you’ve just recently finished a run of shows in Las Vegas with Kix and Reba, with more dates coming in December. How was that experience for you, and do you see more Brooks & Dunn shows beyond the Vegas experience?
The Vegas and Caesar’s thing is hands-down the most fun I’ve ever had. I love Reba, and we’re having a great time with Kix. The crowds are great – phenomenal! So we’re all looking forward to round two in December. They spoil you rotten! It’s pretty surreal. It’s not the old Vegas back in the Wayne Newton days. It’s tremendously evolved!
5. I think I saw some comments leading up to the dates in Vegas where people speculated that there was some sort of drama between you and Kix. Just being around you guys in the last part of your time with at Arista, I never sensed that. And you’ve always downplayed that, said there was nothing going on there and you enjoyed being around each other – but that it was simply time to move on.
That’s exactly it. That’s it. People want to think there was some big falling out or rift, but there wasn’t. We just looked at one another one day – it was almost as fast as we were put together, when we looked at each other 20 years ago and went, “Whoa, we’re a duo! Off we go!” And 20 years later, we did that again and went, “Well, I think we’ve done everything we can do here.” And we thought if we were ever going to have a shot to do anything else, which is really more out of fun now than out of anything else and certainly coming at it from a different perspective than we were 20 years ago, then now was the time to do it.
6. I want to talk about the single, “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas.” This song – production-wise and your voice – is just as vibrant as anything on Country radio right now. Your voice sounds stronger than ever. What are YOUR expectations of this?
This business is in such a state of flux right now that it’s hard to really have expectations. I always tried not to set myself up – from day one, regardless of the current state of affairs – with expectations. Things happened that far exceeded any dream I could have. I still think we are at a point where if you come up with the right song, it will resonate with the right people and you get the right support, so the right things fall in to place and you can make headway.
7. What about the rest of the album. There will be an album, is that correct?
Good question! Yeah, there will. I started out just under the agreement that we were going to do a couple of songs just to feel things out. Then once we got in to it, Scott and Jim came to me and suggested that we follow through with a full CD and probably – maybe – more. So we’re doing that now. I was in the studio with Jay [Demarcus] on Monday and recorded three more songs; I’m working on vocals and putting the finishing touches on the tracks yesterday and today.
8. Of course, you’re talking about Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, who produced it. That’s an interesting combination, because here you have part of arguably the greatest duo in the history of the format, and a member of the best-ever groups. And we know he’s been producing and working on other projects. But how did you feel working with him? Does he have an artists’ feel for what you’re trying to do in the studio?
We kind of know from an artist’s perspective what we’re dealing with. It’s funny, ya know, the first time through, considering the personalities of both of us combined, we were amazingly restrained. I’m kind of watching him, and he’s watching me. I’m trying not to jump in his business, and he’s trying not to jump in mine. Amazingly, it worked. I told my wife the other day, I can’t remember working with a producer that is as talented as Jay is. And that’s saying a lot. When his name was first brought up from the A&R people at Big Machine, I kind of stepped back. I know Jay well, and I just said that I would have to hear what he has done. So I listened to it and immediately thought, “You know what, I think we can do it.” And “Trucks” was the test; the experiment. I did one song with him, one with another producer in town, and one with another buddy. And I’m doing stuff on my own throughout the project, too. But Jay’s stuff locked, and it resonated. It was the perfect fit.
9. The process of finding and writing songs for this album, what has been the combination there? Are you going to have a hand in many of the songs on this album, or – I mean, it’s so hard to out-write this town – are you getting songs pitched?
I think it’s a mistake for me to try to come and say, “I’m going to make myself do everything that comes through for the most part.” I’m just going to continue to write as I always have, and if something – if one of my songs punch through – then I’ll use it. But if not, I’m more than happy. I’m actually elated with the outside songs that I’m getting. I think it’s the best group of songs that I’ve ever had collectively.
10. Last year you were very visible and outspoken on social media about a lot of industry topics; your music, radio, the music business in general. You’ve been an artist for 30 years, and you’ve watched all three aspects evolve dramatically, particularly in the past 5 or 6 years, right before your eyes. Can you share what most concerns you – and what you remain optimistic about – as it relates to the business?
Well, I think the one dominant factor is that the internet has changed the way almost everything is done. Every facet of the music business, including radio, is just in a state of disruption right now. I guess in today’s business of music, everything is about advertising alignment and advertising. They underwrite touring expenses for most major acts, if not minor acts, too. Large radio players are moving towards digital platforms, and NASH Icon was on the optimistic side. On the positive side, to me, NASH Icon was probably the first effort to reconnect with the more traditional listener and fan without alienating that contemporary fan base. So, I think so far, it’s receiving favorable results. But there is a lot to be said in between what I just didn’t say, you know. I have a huge, highly-edited script that I wrote. It’s red-lined. It’s all upside down now. There’s a lot of things I can probably talk about now in private that I probably shouldn’t – I have no business airing maybe in public. I don’t think there’s anything negative.
1. A specific question about Country radio. When you and Kix broke back in the early 90s, in 1991, there were no major radio groups as we know of them today. How important is it for you to maintain a relationship with radio. Do you still place a high premium on airplay and on being aligned with it?
I really do. But the playing field has changed so drastically, just in the past three or four years. Five years, more specifically. There has to be a better idea than to do what we’ve all done for the past 25 years. We obviously can’t keep doing and going through the same motions. Social change is taking place, technology, I think music is being consumed in so many different ways than it has in the past. But radio still remains, and it’s still the most powerful medium in Country, and in music, period. I don’t think we need the same ideas, since we face new challenges to the listeners. Some things are going to have to be changed for it to be successful over the long haul
2. As you look around and see this new generation of artists in the format right now, they’re putting their definite stamp on it, and these are folks whose influences go deep. It’s Hip Hop, it’s R&B, it’s Pop, it’s Rock, it’s just everything. And that’s helping drive a very strong 18-34 listener base for the format. Long term, do you think that has been good for the Country genre?
You know, that’s an ongoing issue. Music is, and it will continue to be, in a position of change and growth. And I’m glad it is. There was a time when they didn’t allow drums on the Grand Ole Opry! But Country music has been the voice of an entire generation – for generations. It has changed along the way, in subtle ways. And maybe some in not-so-subtle ways. But it has morphed and changed, but never as fast and radically as it is doing today. This group comes with its own nuances, and its generation’s music comes along with it. And I think the problem arises when the growth pains happen so fast that you get a pronounced imbalance in the marketplace. Then we start to polarize large groups of people who feel left out in the cold. And the internet, I will attribute to that change. The dust will settle; it WILL settle. And I saw one of your questions, you wanted to ask if I foresaw a chart split. I don’t know how that works out or how it pans out, but I know there is a business dynamic that poses a challenge for the business to address that. Especially Country music with the labels and everybody. But we’ll just have to watch it and see how it happens.
3. Just looking at the number of awards – you probably have a whole barn filled with these things, because they probably won’t fit in your house – that says, well, there’s nothing else to prove. And you said earlier that the shows in Vegas were relaxed and more about fun. But on the solo project, is it just like, “Hey, I’m having fun here. I just want to see how this goes.” Or are you determined to reconquer the world of Country radio and music again as you did in the 90s?
Ronnie: RJ, I have something to prove every time I step up to the microphone. Music, it’s still a full-contact sport, and I enjoy playing all facets.
4. How do you react when people refer to you as one of the greatest vocalists in the history of this format?
I love hearing it, but I’m too neurotic to be able to accept that. I run scared every day. Every time I open my mouth to sing, I’m scared. I’m scared it will come out wrong; that it’s going to be out of pitch, or something is going to squeak or break. That’s the bar in my sick mind. And I’m saying, “Come on, you’ve got to get over this.” I’m going to hang up the phone and walk down to the barn and go in to the studio and go to work on a song that I’m not sure I can sing. Just like I did with “Believe” and “Neon Moon” and “Red Dirt Road” and “My Maria.” It’s all the same – still. Fighting that voice in my head that says I can’t do it.