Exclusive Interview—It’s been quite a journey for Ronnie Dunn, who releases his long-awaited first solo album, Ronnie Dunn, today after spending 20 years as part of one of the most successful duos in country music history, Brooks & Dunn. During a recent wide-ranging chat with Nashville.com, Ronnie talked about topics running the gamut from the weighty—forgiveness and a heart-to-heart with his wife about changes he was going through—to the ridiculous—his dancing ability (or lack thereof) and channeling Conway Twitty to sing one of his new songs. Along the way, he touches on forgiveness, the kind of woman it takes to be with a man like him and how he managed to turn “a pound-and-a-halfer” into a keeper song. It’s obvious Ronnie is a man who’s relishing every aspect of his life these days, personally and professionally. Here’s some of what he had to say.
Nash: Mr. Dunn . . . how are you? I think the last time we talked was in your barn before you and Kix started your last tour. How are things?
Ronnie: Were we talkin’ in complete sentences?
Nash: I was. I’m not sure you two guys were, but I tried to piece it together as well as I could later on.
Ronnie: (laughs) The barn can get you in trouble.
Nash: Let’s talk about the new record, which I really like by the way. What was the song selection like this time? In addition to the nine of yours you have on there, I’m sure you got pitched hundreds, if not thousands of outside songs. Was there a sense of freedom you haven’t had in the past in terms of being able to say on your own, almost immediately, “That’s a keeper.”? Or “No, I don’t think so,” instead of having to consult?
Ronnie: Yes, without having to hold court. You’re right. I did feel that way. At the same time, the downside to that is, hey, it’s your rope. So, you can hang yourself with it if you want to. Everyone around me, the guys at the label, were great about supporting me all the way and letting me go. Before it was all over, I recorded and demoed 34 songs. That’s the most I’ve ever been involved with. I think, to a lot of people on the outside lookin’ in, it was a chaotic way to go about it. But for me, it was a good way to kind of surf through a bunch of different things and find what I wanted to put on the record. Initially, I think I was supposed to be allowed to put 11 on, then ended up putting 12 on there.
Nash: Do you have any recollection, seriously, of how many tunes you were pitched? Was it thousands? Hundreds?
Ronnie: Yeah, it’s probably close to a thousand at least.
Nash: You’ve said this is the record you’ve waited more than 20 years to make. Can you talk a little about how this record is different than what you might have made 20 years ago? Are you a better singer? Are the songs better? Do you have a different outlook on life? What’s better now than it would’ve been 20 years ago?
Ronnie: I don’t know, and that’s a really good question. Other than just bein’ prettier today . . .
Nash: (laughs) Or those around you don’t have the vision they had back then!
Ronnie: (big laugh) Or my vision’s not as good! You know, I don’t know . . . 20 years ago . . . I don’t know. I came to Nashville. It happened really fast when it did. I spent a lot of time in clubs playin’ in Oklahoma and Texas . . . a lot. Twelve years, 15 years, almost as long as I was in Brooks & Dunn. But I remember comin’ here and things took off fast. As soon as I moved here, we were introduced to one another. We didn’t even know that we were being courted to become a duo. Then, all the sudden—bang—there’s a hit on the radio and we’re going, “Hey, okay, we’ll take a job. Let’s go.” It happened fast. With this record, no, I was just ready for it. I’ve been layin’ for this record a long time, I have. It’s somethin’ I had to do before I got too old, lost my voice . . . whatever. It’s just somethin’ I needed to do.
Nash: Let’s talk a little about “Bleed Red.” Was that one of those no-brainers when you heard it the first time, “I’m cuttin’ this”?
Ronnie: No, actually, I had to chew on it. We were havin’ first single anxiety. I had cut all these songs and I was goin’, “I just need that first single, to get it out there to radio.” We were going, what criteria are we going to have to meet to make that first single be the all magic song? They kept saying, “Just give us something different. Something different.” So this one came along at the end of the process, and it sounded like a U2 song to me. The demo was set up that way, and it was a big, cosmic message. Bigger than life. I called it something Gandhi would’ve written. A friend who wrote it, Tommy Lee James, came over and he said, “If you’re into givin’ it a shot, we’ll go into the studio and see what we can make happen.” I said, “You know what? They keep tellin’ me to do somethin’ different, so we’ll try it.”
(Play the audio clip below to see how Ronnie managed to nail the tune).
Nash: There’s a powerful theme of forgiveness in the song. Who’s quicker to forgive—you or Janine? Or should I ask who needs it more often?
Ronnie: I need forgiving more often, no doubt. And she’s quicker to forgive. I have to stew in it for a while before I get there.
Nash: Another tune I really like is “Singer in a Cowboy Band.” The lyrics talk about “being raised so right and goin’ the other way.” Do you really think you have gone the other way? Or have you maybe just gone in a direction toward what’s right for you?
Ronnie: That’s just it. I feel like it’s just striving to go in a direction I would choose to go. I think I spent most of my years tryin’ to please other people, you know? My mother and grandfather who all wanted me to go off and be a preacher. I studied for years in religious school down in Texas. And it was not for me. I knew as soon as I got there it was not for me. I’ve always wanted to do this. Finally, I just came apart at a certain age and found that I’m a singer in a cowboy band. I always will be. I’ve got it tattooed from my elbow to my wrist now.
Nash: The irony is that, with a song like “Bleed Red,” you’re ministering to greater numbers of people than you ever could have in a pulpit on Sundays. Whether that’s the intent or not, there’s definitely a healing power in those lyrics.
Ronnie: Yeah, I’ve found over time that songs are pretty healing. I turn to them, probably more than people a lot of times, for relief and guidance or whatever in times of trouble.
Nash: “The Last Love I’m Trying” is another one I really like. I know this is one you wrote. How does Janine react when you play her a song like that for the first time? Do you play it live on the guitar? Put in a CD? How does she react when she hears something like that?
Ronnie: (chuckles) I brought it to her from the studio, and there’s a great story behind it. I was in the process of doing those 34 songs, chaos everywhere. And we’re sittin’ out on the back porch one night and she’s going, “Holy cow. You just quit a pretty good-paying job. You didn’t talk to me about that. What’s goin’ on with you? And I look over at you and you’ve got ‘Cowboy’ tattooed from your elbow to your wrist. Are you comin’ apart? What’s happening here?” I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Are you gonna go out there and be David Allan Coe? You gonna go be Willie? What’s goin’ on with you?”
And I said, “I don’t know. I’ve gotta figure this out. I feel a lot of changes comin’ on . . . obviously.” And she said, “I see you frantic. I see what you’re doing. Why don’t you go somewhere in the desert or whatever. You’ve got a little place in Santa Fe. Why don’t you just go sit on your rock out there and stare out into space and kind of figure out what you want to be, what you want to say, what you want to sing, how you want to live?” I’m thinking now, she was probably thinkin’, “Are you gonna walk in here and tell me you want a divorce? Have you lost your mind?” So, she gets up and goes to the bedroom and I pick up a pen and paper and write that song to her. It was my way of saying, “Hey, I’m gonna stick with you . . . if you’ll have me. You’re the last love I’m trying, baby.”
Nash: How’d she react to it?
Ronnie: She was tryin’ to be a tough Okie cowgirl . . . you know, “Hey, don’t work me with that stuff.”
Nash: You got to her; you know you did. (laughs)
Ronnie: I know I did. Surely I did. I can’t do any better! That’s the best I got!
Nash: What kind of woman does it take to hitch her wagon to a guy like you, a bar singer in Oklahoma, who may never have gone beyond that. But whether you did or not, you were going to be gone a lot of the time and encountering temptation around every corner. What kind of woman does it take to put up with that?
Ronnie: A very strong woman. She’s a very strong individualist. She was friends with people in this business and was fully aware of the risks when she, as I say, reached down into that bar and took me by the hand. June Carter even took her and read her the riot act about that. She said, “Even if . . . you have a few hits, the possibility of staying around and making a living and having any kind of life . . . and all the other pitfalls that go with this, are tremendous. They’re just unfathomable.” For her to do what she’s done, and stick it out . . . and she’s the one who said, “Hey, you’re going to Nashville. You’re gonna get out of these beer joints, and you’re gonna go do this. You’re gonna go give it a shot.” I give her more credit than I give me.
Nash: “I Don’t Dance” made me wonder if it was a big sacrifice for Janine, marrying a cowboy who won’t dance with her? Does she like to get out there and dance?
Ronnie: (chuckles) She’s a great dancer. She does all that stuff. She’s a great two-stepper, swing dance, she does it all.
Nash: Did you ever do it?
Ronnie: It doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it. It just doesn’t look right.
Nash: Do you slow dance with her in the living room when no one’s around?
Ronnie: Maybe, maybe, (laughs). It’s not pretty.
Nash: “Love Owes Me One.” What a great way to phrase that. You gave it your best shot and sort of feel like, okay, I’m due one here.
Ronnie: Yeah, Bobby Pinson came up with that hook one day. We had written a song in the barn and he was getting ready to leave. And he said, “I’ve got this idea. Let me just throw it out real quick.” Terry McBride was with us, and we wrote it in about 15 minutes. And Bobby’s a big sportsman, always huntin’ and fishin’ and things like that. And he’s one of those guys who’s so colorful when he talks. He’s from Oklahoma. I say he talks in song titles. So, he threw that out and said “Love Owes Me One.” And we took off and wrote it. Then he stands up and he’s puttin’ his guitar in his case. And he says, “Aw, that’s about a pound-and-a-halfer.” Like that’s not a very big fish. But something about it just stuck.
So the next day I got up and went into the living room to the piano. I’m not really a piano player, but I can get around with chords and kinda poke around on it. And I just kinda found a rhythm sequence and a chord structure that worked. And a friend of mine, Thien Phan, went out into the desert in New Mexico and cut a video that’s just awesome. It’s really fun. I can’t wait for it to get out. But, yeah, it’s just that simple. Talkin’ about love, givin’ it all you got. Hey, I tried, I did everything I could. I’m gonna walk away, or else I’m gonna get pushed away, but you’re gonna owe me one.
Nash: How do you view your solo career now? Is it chapter three—solo, duo and now solo again—or is it just a continuation of an ongoing musical journey?
Ronnie: I’m gonna downplay that solo at the first of the run. That wasn’t even really on an official record label. Kix had a solo run. He was on Capitol Records. I never got that far. So, for me, this is solo one. I’m down in casinos and small festivals right now with the boys in the band trying to put it together, making the show happen. We’ve got a great crew and started off with the sound guy from the Rolling Stones (laughs) so, we’re lucky right up front. I feel like it’s off to a good start.
Nash: Thanks for your time, Ronnie. Good luck with the new record.
Ronnie: Appreciate it. Good questions.