Ask Kix Brooks if he and partner Ronnie Dunn have any surprises lined up for their concerts this summer, and he quickly responds, “Maybe we’ll play in tune this year — that would be a big one!”
Of course, Brooks & Dunn have been in tune, and in harmony, with the country audience for nearly two decades.
The Nashville duo, which formed in 1988, has sold almost 30 million albums and notched 19 No. 1 hits on the Billboard country chart. They’ve won four Entertainer of the Year trophies from the annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards and this year won their sixth consecutive top vocal duo prize at the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards.
“Hillbilly Deluxe,” their 12th album, debuted at No. 1 on the country charts and at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and has so far sold 1.1 million copies with three hits — the award-winning “Believe,” “Play Something Country” and “Building Bridges.”
The success has exceeded Brooks’ and Dunn’s expectations — individually and collectively. But they don’t necessarily take the attention for granted.
“At the risk of sounding arrogant, after selling that many CDs, we know a lot of people have got Brooks & Dunn CDs,” explains Brooks, 51, a Louisiana native (born Leon Brooks) who moved to Nashville in the early ’80s, where he wrote songs and released some solo singles until Arista Records’s Tim DuBois introduced him to Texas-born Dunn.
“The big challenge is, ‘What are we gonna do to make something that isn’t just another Brooks & Dunn CD and keep ’em from buying something from somebody else?’ It’s real important to try and fi nd something special, something different and make people go, ‘Wow, I’ve got a lot of Brooks & Dunn already, but I want to get that, too ...’ ”
Brooks traces the creative process of “Hillbilly Deluxe” back to 2004’s “Red Dirt Road,” another chart-topper that he and Dunn feel began a new creative era for the duo.
“ ‘Red Dirt Road’ was sort of a ‘This is really the kind of music we want to make’ statement,” Brooks explains. “We started breaking away in terms of stripping stuff back and getting out of that kind of late-’90s pseudo-commercial pop creepiness that was kind of getting on some of our stuff. Neither one of us was really comfortable with that; we were just kind of letting it happen.
“So on ‘Red Dirt Road,’ we started taking more of a leadership role in terms of producing and really doing things our way. I think we really started feeling good about what was happening.”
Brooks & Dunn made themselves feel even better by enlisting country veteran Tony Brown (Reba McEntire, Jimmy Buffett, George Strait, Wynonna Judd) to co-produce “Hillbilly Deluxe.” Brooks says the relationship was even “freeer” than with their previous collaborator, Mark Wright, as Brown encouraged the duo to write — they’re responsible for nine of the album’s 13 tracks — and to use guests such as Little Feat’s Bill Payne, Willie Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael, former Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboardist Reese Wynans and James Taylor sideman Dan Dugmore, while Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill contributed vocals to “Building Bridges.”
“The fact we had a producer who didn’t feel like it was his job to go in and re-create something we already created was real refreshing,” Brooks says. “On a lot of it he just let us do our thing.”
One of the album’s big surprises was “Believe,” an inspirational-themed song co-written by Dunn. His own belief in the song’s commercial potential wasn’t strong, but Brooks says he was sure his partner had come up with something special — even if it was more serious than Brooks & Dunn material tends to be.
“It’s real different for us, obviously,” Brooks explains, “ ’cause we’re kind of known for our fun and games, and it’s an emotional moment. Even though I didn’t write it I think it’s something that Ronnie and I do have in common; we both have a spiritual side, and even for honky-tonkers it’s not so bad to let everybody see that sometimes.”
Now Brooks & Dunn — who will co-host the CMA Awards on Nov. 6 — are starting to figure out what people will hear next from them. Their 2001 hit “Only in America” appears in the opening scene of the new Oliver Stone fi lm “World Trade Center,” while they wrote another song with Five For Fighting’s John Ondrasik for the upcoming animated baseball movie “Everyone’s Hero.” And they’ve started working on their next full-fl edged album, which should come out in 2007.
“It’s just that nervous energy of, ‘Where is the next anything gonna come from?’ ” he says. “I think we’ve been pretty proud of one album after the other, and you look at it and go, ‘God, where do you come with a song that’s different or better?’ or whatever.
“It’s pretty exciting, to be honest. I love getting to this point and seeing where we go next.”
If you go
Brooks & Dunn, Sugarland and Jack Ingram perform at 7 p.m. Sunday (August 13th) at DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road north of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $56.75 pavilion, $27.50 lawn. Call (248) 377-0100
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