It’s hard for Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn to get too sentimental about their success when they’re crammed on a tour bus with nine other guys. So as the silver behemoth they call home swings past Bourbon Street and north along the Mississippi River to the outskirts of New Orleans, the subject is … beef jerky. ”Mmmm, there’s nothin’ like good nutrition,” says Brooks, 39, the tall (6’2”), dark-haired, cowboy-hatted half of country’s new monster act, as he stuffs another gamy strip of meat into his mouth. His partner, the even taller (6’4”) Dunn, 41, looks slightly repulsed. ”It’s how he keeps what he thinks are his good looks,” Dunn says.
But less than an hour later, when Brooks is standing alone on stage during a sound check at the Lakefront Arena, he’s more reflective. It doesn’t seem so long ago, he says, that he was playing in a cowboy bar on Bourbon Street from 9 p.m. until sunrise. But it was a long time ago — like 15 years — and there were too many small-time gigs in between.
”Man, I used to have a lot of nights staring at the ceiling, thinking, ‘This is never going to happen,”’ Brooks remembers, gazing out at the empty seats. ”Now that it has, I almost can’t believe it. It’s like a dream.”
It’s not a dream. Brooks and Dunn, who’ve just won the Country Music Association’s Vocal Duo of the Year award for the third time in a row, are now second only to Reba McEntire as country music’s top touring attraction. They’ve had eight No. 1 singles, including 1991’s crossover blockbuster ”Boot Scootin’ Boogie”; have sold more than 6 million records; and last month released the third album of their trademark honky-tonk, dance-club-flavored tunes, Waitin’ On Sundown. But the story of their careers, at least until they teamed up in 1990, was anything but the Big Easy.
Before they met, Kix Brooks (named for his vigorous kicking in the womb) had carved out a respectable, if anonymous, career as a songwriter on Music Row, churning out hits for acts like the Oak Ridge Boys and Ricky Van Shelton. Ronnie Dunn, who once studied for the Baptist ministry, did years of hard time in country-rock bands. ”It was degrading,” Dunn recalls. ”You show up and you’re a human jukebox. That’s why I really wanted everything we have now. I worked every angle.”
So how did two guys whom Brooks calls ”hillbillies with attitude” turn two decades of going nowhere fast into Nashville’s new cash machine? ”Sheer blind determination,” drawls Dunn, his long legs splayed on a couch in a makeshift dressing room. ”Psychotic need. There are a lot of people who make it who don’t have a thimbleful of talent. They just want it more than anybody else. That’s what it takes.”
Well, persistence coupled with talent doesn’t hurt. But in this case, Brooks and Dunn didn’t become Brooks & Dunn until 1990, when Tim DuBois, who runs Arista/Nashville, noticed similarities in their music and suggested they team up. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight: At an early gig in Texas, Dunn — who tends to be stolid and commanding when he performs — was so startled by Brooks’ wild stage antics he thought they might get beaten up by the locals. But eventually they developed a chemistry built on their contrasting styles. ”We never could have made it as big separately as we have together,” Brooks admits. Says Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association: ”There’s never been a male pairing that’s turned into this kind of sociological phenomenon. They have an electricity and a camaraderie together that’s infectious.”
Their appeal stems from the way they mix styles — the music is part lonesome-hearted country, part stomping rock & roll, overlaid with a ’70s singer-songwriter sensibility. The song that put them over the top was ”Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” which was No. 1 on the country charts for four weeks and spurred a resurgence in dance-club music. ”Their music is unapologetically fun and straightforward,” says Pam Tillis, who just won CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year. ”I think it’s great that country people can be part rock & roll and get people on their feet.”
Togetherness is key to Brooks and Dunn’s success — whether they’re putting on a high-energy stage show, cowriting songs in the recording studio, or jammed inside the bus that will take them to about 120 venues this year. It’s a grueling performance schedule — and then there are the countless obligatory ”meet ‘n’ greets,” in which Brooks and Dunn shake hands and pose for pictures with long lines of big-haired, adoring fans. Does all that togetherness mean they sometimes fight? ”Never have,” says Brooks, who’s steady and low-key off stage. ”I think we’re both pretty strong-willed and we’re afraid of what might happen if we did. We both live in fear because of how old we are and how long we’ve been playing in bars. We don’t want to destroy what we have. We’re in it for the long haul.”
While Brooks strums his guitar and models the duo’s best-selling line of flame-colored shirts in the dressing room, Dunn snaps silver buttons on the sides of his ubiquitous black jeans. It’s less than five minutes to showtime, but the two are so relaxed it’s as if they were suiting up for an ice cream social. Still, their easygoing reserve barely masks a shrewd business sense and a take-no-prisoners style. Brooks calls himself the ”good cop” and refers to Dunn as, well, ”the bad cop. Ronnie shoots from the hip.”
Actually, they both do. ”I can remember one night in one little bar,” says Brooks. ”I was on top of the world and one of my so-called friends said, ‘You know, you do pretty well in this kind of work, but don’t ever try to make it in the big time.’ I’ll tell you, the phrase ‘I told you so’ is one of the greatest single motivators.”
When it comes to real motivators, though, Brooks and Dunn both cite their fathers. The Louisiana-born Brooks, whose mother died when he was 6, has always been close to his dad, Leon, a pipeline contractor who attends many of his son’s shows. ”Years ago, I kind of wanted to stay in Shreveport and own the house bar,” recalls Brooks. ”But my father said, ‘Don’t be a big fish in a small pond.’ It was a scary proposition. I was living a wild life. But I sobered up and went for it.”
Dunn, who grew up in a Tulsa trailer park, describes his father as a ”typical redneck dad, a maniac. He was very domineering.” They reached a watershed early in his career when Dunn Sr., a hard-drinking sometime guitarist who had his own band, criticized his son’s demo tapes, saying they weren’t ”country enough.” ”I thought, ‘No way, Hoss, not tonight,”’ says Dunn. ”I punched him in the face and he went down. Then he pulled a pocket knife out. I couldn’t believe it. So I punched him again and he went down again.” The two eventually reconciled, but Jesse Eugene Dunn died in 1986, before his son became a star.
Today, Brooks and Dunn have acquired all the trappings of country stardom: millions in the bank and sprawling homes not far apart outside Nashville (Brooks, married for 14 years, has two children; Dunn is married for a second time and also has two, with another on the way). ”But we’ve always got our eyes open,” says Dunn. ”It’s so damn competitive out there. You can’t really relax.”
Still, they do a pretty good job of faking it. After the show, shirts soaked through with sweat, the boys are back on the bus. In the dark, as a Steve Miller CD plays on the stereo, Brooks and Dunn lean back on velour couches and tear into the delicacy du nuit: Kentucky Fried Chicken. ”Our songs are pretty simple,” says Brooks. ”Love, heartache, cheatin’, drinkin’. We don’t live in that world anymore, but we’ve got a lot of memories.”