NEW YORK – Brooks & Dunn (search) have been making music together for barely more than 10 years, but in that relatively short time, the honky-tonk duo has managed to snag 10 Country Music Association Awards (search) and score 20 No. 1 hits.
Not bad for two guys who were virtual unknowns before they teamed up.
"I was way too old for this to have happened," says 49-year-old Ronnie Dunn (search). "I was literally at the point where I thought my only two options were to make it in music or pump gas for the rest of my life," he told The New York Post.
Nobody's told Dunn to "Fill 'er up" recently — especially after the success of the duo's latest album, Red Dirt Road, which takes them slightly off the honky-tonk trail with a few heartfelt ballads.
In the beginning, the pair were testing the waters as songwriters in Nashville, without great success. Tim DuBois, a producer and president of Arista Nashville (search), wanted to sign Dunn, but Arista owner Clive Davis (search) preferred to pass.
That's when DuBois introduced Dunn to Brooks. They were supposed to be just writing partners, but they wanted to perform their own stuff, too.
Among their first projects: the future No. 1 hit, "My Next Broken Heart."
Twenty-five million albums later, these boot-scootin' men are still hitting pay dirt.
Now, when they're not recording or performing, Dunn lives in Nashville with his wife, Janine, and their 8-year-old daughter, Hailey, on a 20-acre farm, complete with barn.
Post: Why does music mean so much to you?
Dunn: Music is my therapy, my comfort zone — it's my drug. When I was a kid, my family moved around a lot. I was in a very unstable family environment, and when times were tough, music is where I ran to. I was a very, very shy kid, and music is an area where I was always able to succeed.
Post: Why'd your family move around so much?
Dunn: I never really understood. My dad would always just be going from job to job. I remember we lived in Mexico, then Arkansas, then Tennessee, Oklahoma, Colorado — all over the place. My dad drank a bit, too. I didn't realize until I was about to go to college that he spent seven years in Leavenworth, in prison.
Post: That shocked you.
Dunn: Yeah, it did. I thought I was being called. I was about to go to a small religious school in Abilene, Texas, when I found out about dad.
Post: How would you describe your mom?
Dunn: She was a very strict Southern Baptist, just short of a hard-core Bible-thumper. They were completely different, but you know, opposites attract. All this made for an unstable family life.
Post: You're a family man now, but by profession, you're a rolling stone. Do you see any of your father in you?
Dunn: Yeah. I respect a lot of what he did now. Early on, out of high school, I went off chasing what I thought was going to be the righteous path. Once I got into it, I realized that taking a hard-line religious view of everything made for a very radical lifestyle.
Post: So your pop didn't have the whole answer, and neither did your mom.
Dunn: The answer is in the middle.
Post: Red Dirt Road walks down the middle, doesn't it?
Dunn: Yes, it's metaphorical, but it's universal. There's a real Red Dirt Road, it's the old Route 3. My cousins and me used to do everything on that road. We'd sneak the cars out and experiment with alcohol, make out with girls — do all kinds of stuff.
Post: This album is different from anything you've written to date. Why?
Dunn: Maybe it's a little more introspective than some of the previous stuff. When we first got together, in the early '90s, we took on a pretty tough honky-tonk stance. We never expected it to go on this long.
Post: Brooks & Dunn places a high value on showmanship. What inspired your performance style?
Dunn: Where I learned the most was when I was living in Tulsa and watching Leon Russell (search) and his bands. I loved the way they played hard and pushed everything he did. I learned honky-tonk is putting rock drive behind country lyrics.
Post: How do you know when you're doing it right?
Dunn: It's instinctual — you feel what works and what doesn't. I also look at the audience every minute I'm on stage. I look at who's reacting to what. I was in therapy early on, and the guy I saw told me that I was the kind of guy who'll look for that one person in the crowd who's looking like he's not having a good time and I'd play the entire show for that guy.
Post: Was your therapist right?
Dunn: Yeah. I can't help it. All I think is, Why's that guy sitting down? Why can't I get him to have a good time? That used to wear me out.
Post: How are you and Kix Brooks different?
Dunn: He's more social, more outgoing. He's comfortable with the public. That's a big part of why this works so well. Our strength is that we have each other.
Post: Who does what?
Dunn: I look at Kix's contribution in terms of the live shows. The true force of our duo comes through there. It would be a pretty boring show just watching me sing without the eye candy that Kix brings to the table. He has the gift of being able to get close and personal with crowds. I'm just too shy and standoffish to do that. I admire Kix for that. I wish I had it, too.
Post: It doesn't sound as if you ever want to work solo.
Dunn: I do, but I'm a little afraid to make that step. When you have something that's this successful, you get accustomed to the lifestyle.
Post: Would a solo record hurt your relationship with Brooks?
Dunn: He'd understand. I really think he would.