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CMA Close Up: Ronnie Dunn – Writing the Next Chapter

Ronnie Dunn photo courtesy of Sony Music Nashville.

By Deborah Evans Price
© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

With the release of his self-titled solo debut album, Ronnie Dunn just might be the best-known newcomer in country music history. For 20 years he was half of the phenomenally successful duo Brooks & Dunn, which won 19 CMA Awards and dominated the country duo scene. Now the veteran singer/songwriter is starting over as a solo act, though he admits this transition hasn’t exactly been easy.

“I just panicked,” he said. “I just pushed the panic button and took off running in circles and recorded 34 songs before it was all over. I finally had to bring it down to 11 and went back in and negotiated to get it up to 12. But I was all over the map.”

At the same time, lots of well-meaning folks were offering advice. For example, in suggesting a way to establish an individual identity after his long partnership with Kix Brooks, “I had one guy at the label tell me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t say “honky-tonk”’,” Dunn said. “There were people in my own camp who said, ‘Hey, you just left a really good paying job, dude. What was that about? Did you think about this before you said “I’m going off on my own”?’

“I was certainly helped by a lot of good people, but I’d never felt so alone in my life,” he remembered. “All of a sudden, everyone just went, ‘OK, well, go do what you’ve got to do and I hope it works out for you.’”

In the process of defining himself as a solo artist, Dunn acknowledges that he began to overthink and overanalyze. He credits his wife Janine with helping him regain his focus by encouraging him to take some time alone and evaluate who he had become as an artist. “She said, ‘You came home off your tour, you got ‘COWBOY’ tattooed from your elbow to your wrist. Are you off to be David Allan Coe? Or are you on a quest to become Willie [Nelson]? You need to figure that out and put it down on a record.’”

That process of making a solo statement proved very different from how Brooks & Dunn had worked together. “The song selection was different,” Dunn pointed out. “I didn’t have to keep in mind as I was picking songs that, ‘Hey, there are two guys here, two guys onstage, two guys performing’ and deal with that. This is much more personal and subjective; it gave an entirely different slant, obviously. I’d cut three or four demos sometimes and the players were great about working with me. They said, ‘We’ll do a demo first, and then if it makes the record, we’ll come in and bump it up.’ They were really, really good. I’ve got to hand it to them. It allowed me to find myself.”

And what exactly did he find in the process of writing or co-writing nine of the album’s 12 tracks, producing the sessions himself and working on his own? “A great epiphany: I found out that I’m totally confused and I’m good with that,” he responded, with a laugh. “I’m consistently inconsistent. I’m all of the above. I’m OK. I’m a work in progress. That’s my next tattoo somewhere.”

He also found that, for all the freedom he enjoyed on this project, echoes of Brooks & Dunn linger in the final results. “That’s not going away,” he said. “It’s on this record. It’s there. That’s a part of my DNA that I can’t wash off.”

“Ronnie Dunn’s voice is Ronnie Dunn’s voice,” said his manager Clarence Spalding, President, Spalding Entertainment. “You’re not going to be able to hide that, whether he’s the lead singer of Brooks & Dunn or whether he’s moving forward in his solo career. From a song standpoint, there are some that are going to remind people of things Brooks & Dunn have done in the past. But there are others that Kix and Ronnie wouldn’t have done, ‘Bleed Red’ (written by Andrew Dorff and Tommy Lee James) being one of them and ‘Cost of Livin’’ (Phillip Coleman and Dunn). Ronnie worked really hard on this record and it shows.”

“Clarence and I were committed to allowing Ronnie the freedom to craft a truly extraordinary album,” added Gary Overton, Chairman and CEO, Sony Music Nashville. “And whether you trust your own ears, those of the fans or those of the critics who have raved about this record, Ronnie accomplished that goal. I would put this album up against the greatest records in country music.”

Dunn’s first solo performance was a promotional set in Las Vegas, but he considers his first “official” show to have been April 16 at the Belterra Casino Resort in Florence, Ind. “The show in Indiana was the real telltale thing because I’m thinking, ‘You know what? They are either doing one of two things: They’re coming in to watch it explode or they are here to get onboard,’” he recalled. “After the first two songs into it, they were dancing in the aisles and we were having a good time.”

Dunn says that he invested more time in rehearsal with his new band than he’d ever done before. One question presented itself immediately: What should the balance be between new songs and Brooks & Dunn classics in the live show? “It’s that same old quandary that a lot of people face: ‘Hey, do I do Eagles songs too or do I do Creedence songs?’” he said, alluding to the situation faced by Don Henley of the Eagles and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival when they stepped out solo.

In the end, Dunn decided to feature six or seven tracks from his solo disc, mingled with Brooks & Dunn hits. His set now includes “Let the Cowboy Rock” (Dunn and Dallas Davidson), “Singer in a Cowboy Band” (Dunn and Craig Wiseman) and “Your Kind of Love” (Maile Misajon and Jeremy Stover), along with the album’s first single, “Bleed Red,” and “Cost of Livin’.”

“It’s crazy,” Dunn said, describing the response especially to “Cost of Livin’,” the album’s second single. “People are standing up and throwing their fists in the air on that one. And during the Country Radio Seminar (CRS), we had 30 or 40 radio people in a Sony suite at the hotel, and they were going at it, wanting that record as soon as they heard it. They were like, ‘We can’t get it fast enough,’ so it’s going to be interesting to see how that does.”

The poignant lyric paints a portrait of a proud man desperately seeking a job in this tough economic climate. “I had one guy tell me that I was too rich to do that,” Dunn said. “I said, ‘Let me send you the picture of me standing in front of that trailer house in New Mexico when my dad was working on the Navajo Dam.’ I didn’t grow up middle class. I grew up poor. That song hits home. I get it. I feel every note.”

Dunn describes this time in his life as both “exciting and frightening,” with more reason for excitement than fright. On its release in June, Ronnie Dunn sold more than 45,000 copies and debuted at No. 1 on the Country charts and No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200. Still, as he plunges ahead as a solo act, he has renewed his appreciation for what new artists have to do as they lay groundwork for their debuts.

“The label took me around and we’d bring in around 30 or 40 people in each of the different regions,” he said. “We started in San Francisco and invited representatives from iTunes and radio PDs and DJs out there. Then I went to Dallas for two days and met with Clear Channel. In Florida, we had a house on the beach and a listening party. And then I went to South Carolina. I made the rounds. It’s been from the ground up. I remember doing this years and years ago and working it hard.”

“We went out to radio with Ronnie Dunn as a new act,” confirmed Spalding. “He visited radio and we held events for radio. We wanted them to touch and feel Ronnie Dunn. Being part of the duo, they knew who Ronnie was. But they didn’t really know Ronnie, so we made sure program directors spent time with him and he got to talk about his record.”

From a record label perspective, Overton remarks that while there are challenges in re-launching an established star, Dunn’s passion goes a long way. “Ronnie still has the fire to make new great music,” he noted. “So we consider his past successes a tremendous starting point for this next chapter in his career. I can’t imagine what country music would be without Ronnie Dunn’s voice.”

On the road this summer, Dunn confronts a different scenario than he experienced with Brooks & Dunn. “There are some festivals that are booked that I heard we are going on at 4 in the afternoon,” he said. “I’m used to headlining, but that’s fine. We’ll play at 4 and do what we have to do. It’s time to back up and instead of having eight buses out there, I’m pushing to get just two — one little truck and horse trailer to pull our amps and stuff behind us. It’s just a growing experience.”

Will he miss having his old partner on the road? “Hell, no! And that’s exactly how he would answer that question,” Dunn said, with a laugh. “Do I miss him? We’re still good friends. I hear from him every few weeks or so. Kix and I were able to work it smoothly as I think it can be done in a partnership, and I’m proud of that. I’ll be forever proud of that. That is something that I can look back on and go, ‘Man, what a feat for two ne’er-do-wells to accomplish!’ And I’m happy that both of us can walk away in great shape and good spirits and tackle things that we like and look forward to doing.”

Dunn’s goals at this point are simple yet ambitious: “To keep moving forward in a business that is tremendously hard to do that in and derive satisfaction from the music I make — that’s it,” he said. “I didn’t do this to get rich or make money. I didn’t do it to become famous. I did it because I was a shy kid and it was about the only thing that I could do. I gravitated early on in life to something that I love and chose as a way of life. I don’t think I could change that if I wanted to.”

On the Web: www.RonnieDunn.com

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