A couple of years ago, country singer Ronnie Dunn was at his good friend Reba McEntire’s home in Mexico, enjoying the peace and quiet after a multi-decade career as one half of Brooks & Dunn, the best-selling duo in country music history. He realized, “I could just chill out here until the end of the road.”
Dunn, 63, wasn’t sure whether he wanted to completely leave country music. He had released two solo albums since Brooks & Dunn split in 2010, although he faced challenges in the competitive market. Either way, he barely had time to think it over – soon after the Mexico trip, he got an offer to reunite with his old bandmate, Kix Brooks, for a joint Las Vegas residency with Reba at Caesars Palace. How could he say no?
Around the same time, Dunn also signed a new record deal with Nash Icon Records, an imprint of Big Machine Label Group. Launched in 2014, Nash Icon serves as a place where veteran country singers have major label resources without the pressure to chase contemporary trends. Suddenly, Dunn went from pondering full-time beach living to a regular Vegas performing gig and working on a new album, “Tattooed Heart,” which was released last week.
“I didn’t plan all that, it just kind of happened, the same way Brooks & Dunn just kind of happened,” Dunn said recently of his career turnaround. “If you sit around and make plans in this business, you kind of get smacked down. I try not to do that.”
Now, Dunn has to walk the line between satisfying his longtime fanbase and trying to evolve – he admits “it’s a slippery slope.” Dunn’s new album has classic country songs about broken hearts and small towns, although he experimented with small changes. When he first heard the demo of “That’s Why They Make Jack Daniels” that included a keyboard synthesizer, he assumed they would lose the sound in the studio version. But his producer, Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, convinced him to try it out.
“You can’t run from innovation,” Dunn said. He compared it to when he and Brooks recorded “My Maria” in 1996, which was considered “a bit too progressive for the marketplace at the time,” and became a gigantic hit.
Oh, and there’s the fact that Dunn covers a song from 23-year-old pop star Ariana Grande. Dunn’s daughter, a college senior, made him listen to Grande’s music – as he scrolled through the playlist, he stopped at the ballad “Tattooed Heart” because he liked the name. He was impressed by the tune and thought it could be a great country song. He sneaked into the studio with friends, figuring his countrified version would “crash and burn,” yet he loved the final result so much it became the title track.
Dunn is a vocal critic of commercial country radio (considered the primary way to build a mainstream country career), writing that it prioritizes advertising over actual music, and hinted that Brooks & Dunn broke up because Brooks got a job as a radio host for a major conglomerate.
When Dunn recorded his second solo album, he met with internet marketing gurus to explore new avenues other than radio, which typically plays the same playlists of top artists. His current single, “Damn Drunk” (featuring Brooks), is at No. 43 on the charts. Although he’s excited by other avenues such as streaming services, radio is “still the 400-pound gorilla,” he said.
And speaking of the genre’s traditionalism, what did he think of the Dixie Chicks and Beyonce at the Country Music Awards a couple of weeks ago, which caused much-hyped controversy and made some fans furious that there was a pop star at a country award show?
Dunn, who performed “Brand New Man” at the CMAs with Brooks and Jason Aldean, sidestepped the question: “I wasn’t in the room, I was backstage doing press – I’m off the hook, I didn’t see it!” he said. However, he acknowledged, “It’s always a stir when country awards bring on a major rock or pop mainstream artist.”