Ronnie Dunn headlines Saturday’s Bonfire Jam on Pensacola Beach. / Special to GoPensacola.com
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After 20 years of topping the charts with songs like “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “Believe,” “Only in America” and “Play Something Country,” you would think that America would be pretty familiar with Ronnie Dunn. But the country superstar said that he’s been going through a bit of a re-introduction the past two years since he and Kix Brooks split up their longstanding partnership as Brooks & Dunn.
“It’s kind of an uphill ride,” Dunn said. “A lot of it feels like starting over. It seems ironic, but we’ve spent a lot of time out doing radio promotion shows, and that entails reintroducing yourself to radio.”
But for Dunn, who’s scored solo hits with “Bleed Red,” “Cost of Livin’ ” and “Let the Cowboy Rock” from his self-titled 2011 album, the differences aren’t that dramatic.
“I have a bunch of great guys on the road with me,” he said. “The band is a lot of the old Brooks & Dunn band, they’ve just grown their hair out and let more tattoos show.”
Dunn discussed the process of oing solo and his long career during a phone interview with the News Journal to promote his headlining appearance at Saturday’s BonfireJam on Pensacola Beach.
Q: What’s different about being a solo artist?
A: A lot of people in Nashville, especially, thought I’d have to make an effort to distance myself. A year into the process, I realize there’s no way I’m gonna do that. I probably should have known that going in. That voice and those songs are going to be a lot. It’s the same guy writing, the same guy singing.
Q: In your bio, it talks about how, with the encouragement of your wife, you had to “find yourself” in order to make your solo album work. Talk a bit about that process.
A: I’m not sure, that process is still ongoing. I’m not sure it will ever end. After all that time when we were going through the farewell tour, I went through a little … maybe a breakdown isn’t the right term, but I was over-thinking the process of going solo. I was letting a lot out that I had repressed over the years. I was out in L.A. with about 4-5 shows left in the tour, and I thought it would be a great idea to go to LA Ink and get tattoos. I came home and Janine met me at the front door, and she said, “let’s talk.”
She said, “I think you need to slow down a bit. You quit the band, we’re good with that, and now you come home with ‘Cowboy’ tattooed from elbow to wrist. I think you need to slow down and assess what you want to look like and how you want to sound. I don’t think it’s as dramatic as that. Why don’t you go to our place in Santa Fe and let stuff come to you?”
I was frantic, writing all the time, and I overcompensated. I wrote 35 songs and was flailing everywhere, trying to home in on it. I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. I’m still working on it. The record came out and I’m proud of what’s on it. I’m totally in synch with that. (My wife’s) advice was to slow down. I haven’t yet.
Q: Why do you think you haven’t been able to slow down?
A: Sometimes you get the cart before the horse. You’ve got people on salary who depend on you and things you feel like you have to take care of that can make it a little more intense than just shutting everything down. It’s hard to cut everybody loose. I remember Johnny Cash talking about it when he was starting to slow down. He said, “I told the boys in the band years ago to find other businesses they could fall back on.” These guys had been with him 30 years. It’s kind of that same scenario.
A good friend, Craig Wiseman, who I wrote “Believe” with, said, “you’ve gotta get small to get big sometimes.” I think I’m still working through that process.
Q: How much of your new material is autobiographical? What do you see of yourself in these songs?
A: “Singer in a Cowboy Band” is definitely autobiographical. It’s all about playing clubs early on, paying dues in general. I went to Texas and ended up in a religious university, and part of the breakdown is about that. My mother’s still wondering what I’m doing in a cowboy band. Anything that I write has a touch of experience and reality in it.
Q: You’re doing videos for every song on the album. Why did you decide to do that?
A: Since the music business is kind of coming apart, in a lot of ways it’s having to restructure at light-speed. One aspect is that it’s primarily becoming a numbers business, and labels are all paying attention to that bottom line more than ever before. They’re scrutinizing every dime that’s spent more than ever before.
The goal with this thing, though, was to take a crew of guys that I found, some college guys just out of school that can take these two cameras and shoot videos for a tenth of the cost of a mainstream video. Being in a viral environment where content is king, I can do 10 videos for the price of one. The goal with this project was to do a video for each song, and we’ve done 6 or 7 now. It’s really been fun to go out and do this stuff on a shoestring and prove that it can be done. I’m not sure people who have been doing videos for years are going to embrace it, but it shows that it can be done.
Q: A lot of artists can make people dance, but very few can be said to have started an actual dance craze. But 20 years on, people are still doing the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” How do you feel when you see that?
A: It’s crazy. I couldn’t get my head around it the first time, I sure can’t now. I came from a world where if you played in a club and people didn’t dance, you couldn’t come back. It’s the same today. I can remember club owners saying, “so-and-so played last week and the liquor sales were here. You guys are here, so you gotta make ’em dance more.”
I didn’t write (“Boot Scootin’ Boogie”) as a line dance, but I think it was absorbed in the times. But people still live it, still want it. There are some songs you just have to do, no matter if you’re Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn or Brooks & Dunn.
Q: So you’re still doing some of the Brooks & Dunn tunes in your show, then?
A: Yeah, I mix ‘em up. I could pull a John Fogerty and say “I’m not playing any Credence (Clearwater Revival),” but I think I’d pay a price for that. I’m as proud now as I was then of what we did in Brooks & Dunn.
Q: When you first moved to Nashville, Johnny Cash was your landlord. What was that like?
A: He’s really the primary reason I was able to move to Nashville. He and June gave my wife and I a place to live the first couple of years we were in Nashville. Janine had been married and her first husband died and June called her “the widow.” They invited us to live in their log house, it was two Civil War log cabins put together, and we had a warm welcome. It was a really cool place to live.
Q: Was he at all intimidating?
A: He was the coolest guy in the world. He was kind of quiet, and I experienced some of that intimidation in the beginning, but after a while, he was just like one of the guys. I’d take him the rent money and he wouldn’t take it. He’d say to use it to get ready for the record. He was so cool. They were just that way. After we got up and running, there were no better friends and advocates (than Johnny and June).
Q: What else would you like fans to know about your show on Pensacola Beach?
A: I read something that scared me to death. It said the promoter was rolling all his dice on me. I wouldn’t do that (laughs). Do not lay that on my lap.
After 20 years of topping the charts with songs like 'Boot Scootin' Boogie,' 'Believe,' 'Only in America' and 'Play Something Country,' you would think that America would be pretty familiar with
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