Brooks & Dunn, Ronnie Milsap Lead Latest Wave In Long Line Of Duets Projects in Country

Chris Owyoung/Todd Owyoung
Brooks & Dunn

When Brooks & Dunn met with their manager, Maverick Management partner Clarence Spalding, to discuss the April 5 rollout for their Reboot album at Ronnie Dunn's barn, an unexpected visitor popped into the conference with news that provided a rare bit of promotional enhancement.

Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern surprised them with word that they would be part of the 2019 class of Country Music Hall of Fame inductees. The Hall press conference, as it turned out, would precede the Reboot release by 18 days, heightening the duo's profile in a key marketing period — not that they were thinking about the business ramifications for the album as Trahern revealed the honor.

"It was just a pregnant pause," remembers Dunn. His duo partner, Kix Brooks, "was more openly moved," he recalls, but for Dunn, "it was just like, ‘Whoa, I need to take this home and think about it for a while.' He started mentioning all the people that are in. I don't see me on a plane with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard."

Promotion for Reboot worked well — the project debuts at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart dated April 20 -- bringing attention to an album that partnered Brooks & Dunn with the likes of Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne and Jon Pardi, younger artists who, perhaps, view the duo with the same reverence Brooks & Dunn feel for Cash and Haggard.

Reboot is the highest-profile entry in a minor wave of country and country-connected duets albums. Ronnie Milsap assembled a guest list that includes Luke Bryan, Montgomery Gentry and the late Leon Russell for The Duets, a 13-song package that arrived Jan. 18. Sheryl Crow seeded a forthcoming collaborative album with such country artists as Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and the late Johnny Cash, in addition to non-country acts Brandi Carlile, Keith Richards and James Taylor. And Rodney Crowell just announced Texas (Aug. 15), a portrait of the Lone Star State that features such guests as Lee Ann Womack, Ringo Starr and Randy Rogers on seven of its 11 tracks.

"After we finished [Reboot], I read somewhere there was a Ronnie Milsap collaboration out, and I immediately called Clarence because I was under the impression this was a unique idea and concept right now at this time in the business," says Dunn. "I thought, if anything, that's where the project would have an edge."

Both Brooks & Dunn and Milsap endeavored to cut their projects with the guest artists in the room. That's part of the reason that Milsap needed a good two years to piece The Duets together.

"A lot of the trouble," he says, "was trying to coordinate schedules with other artists."

Pulling together their classic hits with a new set of creative eyes helped bring attention to the breadth of their careers. In Milsap's case, that means a mix of Southern rock (ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons joins him on "Southern Boys and Detroit Wheels"), traditional country (George Strait guests on "Houston Solution") and nostalgic titles (Little Big Town assists on "Lost in the Fifties Tonight"). Milsap's stylistic elasticity was, in fact, one of the reasons he signed in 1973 with RCA's country division, led at the time by Jerry Bradley, who ironically joins Brooks & Dunn as a new Hall of Fame inductee.

"He signed me to RCA, and I couldn't believe it when it happened," notes Milsap. "He said, ‘That son of a bitch can sing country.' He thought I was a rock'n'roll singer, R&B singer, and I was."

Reboot similarly demonstrates the wide-ranging impact of Brooks & Dunn. The album knits together Midland's ultra-country vibe on "Boot Scootin' Boogie," Kane Brown's gospel inflections on "Believe" and Kacey Musgraves' vocoder-tinged digitization of "Neon Moon." Thomas Rhett introduced modern loops and finger snaps into "My Maria" in a way that still works. Brett Young makes a blue-eyed soul connection on "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You."

Neither Brooks & Dunn nor Milsap used previous collaborative projects as a reference, though there have been plenty through the years. Willie Nelson has several, including 1985's Half Nelson, a compilation of mostly previously released duets; three live Willie Nelson & Friends albums in the mid-2000s pulled from USA Network concert specials; and 2013's To All the Girls…, featuring 18 pairings with females. Ray Charles banded a series of country acts together for his Nashville-built mid-'80s album Friendship and later won an album of the year Grammy for the collaborative Genius Loves Company. Waylon Jennings, John Prine, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley and Tammy Wynette had multiguest duet albums, too.

In more recent years, Lionel Richie's Tuskegee reimagined his solo hits and Commodores songs with country partners, while The Doobie Brothers put a Nashville spin on their catalog with Southbound. Reba McEntire's Duets matched her with country and pop artists on mostly new material.

There's a big promotional value to such projects — it's part of the reason that the Academy of Country Music Awards teamed Jason Aldean with Florida Georgia Line, Ashley McBryde with Eric Church, Miranda Lambert with Strait and actress Chrissy Metz with four country acts and a gospel choir on the April 7 CBS telecast.

Still, two artists don't always mesh, particularly when it comes to finding the right key for a song. Dunn recalls working in vain with Alison Krauss on a version of "Seven Bridges Road" that Don Henley had tracked that was outside of Dunn's range. He and Henley agreed that it better suited Gill in the long run.

"It's good to be there when the tracks go down so you can figure that stuff out," surmises Dunn, "not after the fact."

The mystery that's inherent in duets is part of the reason that artists, and fans, keep returning to collaborative albums. The ones that don't work are often locked in vaults. The ones that do sometimes bring a new dimension to familiar music. Dolly Parton did that for Milsap's The Duets by rewriting "Smoky Mountain Rain" to slip a jilted female perspective into the mix. ("She always refers to me as her blind date," says Milsap with a laugh. "That's my Dolly.") Cody Johnson's Reboot version of "Red Dirt Road" similarly turns Brooks & Dunn's driving landmark into a reflective, acoustic blues/folk ballad.

The successes reinvigorate the artists' feelings about songs they've played perhaps thousands of times. And the new versions invite listeners to look at artists and their body of work in a different way.

"That's been one of my favorite things through this Reboot process is the fact that people are talking about this music and how it stood the test of time," says Brooks. "Nobody's talking about confetti and inflatables and balloons. We spent thousands of dollars making these big messes [in concert] every night, and nobody's talking about it. They're talking about the music."