Prior to joining forces with fellow singer-songwriter Kix Brooks to form Brooks & Dunn, arguably country music’s most heralded duo, Ronnie Dunn spent years writing songs and playing dance halls and dusty barrooms across Texas and Oklahoma.
“The dance floor dictated your success in those places,” Dunn tells Billboard. “The club owners would say, ‘You get ‘em to dancing, and they’ll drink more.’ They didn’t care if it was the best band or not—they looked at the tab at the end of the night, and that’s the band they hired back.”
It’s a mentality that has stayed with Dunn for the better part of three decades, helping the 2019 Country Music Hall of Fame-inducted Brooks & Dunn notch 20 chart leaders on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, and win 19 Country Music Association awards, including entertainer of the year in 1996. The duo’s trademark blend of classic country and rock is a template that also runs through Dunn’s own albums. His fifth solo project, 100 Proof Neon, comes out Friday (July 29) on his own LWR label.
As a plethora of today’s biggest stars and newcomers attempt, with varying degrees of success, to play into the ‘90s country music resurgence, one of the original architects of the ‘90s country music canon — and one of the genre’s most iconic voices — proves he has plenty of classic country left in his arsenal.
“I feel lucky that it’s swinging back around to that and it’s right back in my wheelhouse — it also motivates me to keep creating, so I’m digging that,” Dunn says. “We went through a phase in country music where it was pretty much boxed into one sound. Now, it’s opening up in a big way. We [Brooks & Dunn] were chasing the ‘70s and ‘80s thing back in the ‘90s, and we integrated as much rock as we felt we could get away with.”
Dunn wrote on seven of the 11 tracks on 100 Proof Neon, including the solo-penned “Two Steppers, Waltzes and Shuffles” and “The Road to Abilene,” the latter of which features vocals from Texas native Parker McCollum.
“I went to college in Abilene, Texas, and we used to call it the belt buckle of the Baptist belt of West Texas, which is a super conservative, cowboy world,” Dunn says. “I just got into painting this picture of the music scene in Abilene and dodging the religious, church ethos of the school I went to — and trying to paint pictures of that eternal wind that blows, tumbleweeds and a young guy leaving town and his girlfriend to go chase that six-string dream.”
On “Honky Tonk Town,” Dunn is joined by another newcomer, Jake Worthington, whom Dunn says is “as real as rain. He’s from Texas, and he’s a welder by trade, but he sounds like Lefty Frizzell.” Throughout songs such as “Where The Neon Lies” and “She’s Why I Drink Whiskey,” he drowns heartache in two-steps, neon lights and liquor.
But on “The Blade,” one of the few outside cuts on the album, acceptance and regret are wrapped in Dunn’s enviable, tender tenor. The Marc Beeson/Jamie Floyd/Allen Shamblin-penned song previously served as the title track to Ashley Monroe’s 2015 album, which earned a Grammy nomination for best country album. “That’s one of those songs that just drops out of the sky, like ‘The Dance’ or ‘I Hope You Dance,’” Dunn says, “Those are just magic cred songs.”
Dunn recalls that the song was brought to him by Big Machine Label Group’s executive vp of A&R Allison Jones, before Monroe recorded it (Dunn’s 2016 album, Tattooed Heart, was released via Big Machine’s Nash Icon label). “But by the time I pressed go on it, they came back and said Ashley is not only recording it, but making it the title of her new record,” he explains. “So, I kind of got out of the way of it. But that’s the kind of song you want to write as a writer, and the kind of song you want to record, because it is just magic.”
Dunn is not only collaborating with relative newcomers such as McCollum and Worthington on his new project, but he has also been mentoring younger songwriters through the recent launch of his publishing company Perfect Pitch Publishing. He’s signed writers Hayden Baker, Dakota Striplin, Ariel Boetel and Thomas Perkins.
With Perkins and Matt Willis, Dunn wrote 100 Proof Neon’s first single, “Broken Neon Hearts,” a ’90s country-soaked track, with the twang and steel cranked high and a lyrical nod to late country star Keith Whitley and his 1985 hit “Miami, My Amy.”
“I just love being around creative types. Here, we have writers coming through and it’s not too many to manage,” Dunn says. “It’s rare to see a song that comes through today without having like three or four writers. Four writers — to me, it’s like, ‘Why does it take four writers?’ When you are writing a song by yourself you are forced to stick with the concept and follow through. That’s what I did in Oklahoma because I didn’t have anyone to turn to before I moved to Nashville. And it’s ok to let a song lay there, move on and come back to it. The first thing I tell writers is to take your time.”
Dunn was the sole writer behind Brooks & Dunn’s 1992 breakout hit “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” as well as “Neon Moon,” and is a co-writer on numerous B&D hits including “Brand New Man,” and “Believe,” as well as songs recorded by Reba McEntire (“I Keep on Lovin’ You,” “No U in Oklahoma”), Shenandoah (“Darned If I Don’t (Danged If I Do),” and more. While other songwriters and artist-writers have increasingly sold their music publishing catalogs for hefty sums, don’t count Dunn, who is managed by Maverick’s Clarence Spalding for both his solo work and Brooks & Dunn, among them just yet.
“I’ll have advisors and I’m tempted to take that big multiple and run with it. I’m stuck in the middle,” he says. “But I don’t need it. Guys will get to a certain point in life where they want to cash [their catalogs out] and take care of their family. But I’m too selfish right now. I’ll hang with myself a little while.
“But watch, maybe I’ll sell it next week,” he adds with a laugh.
Dunn is in the homestretch of Brooks & Dunn’s 2022 Reboot Tour and says he’s considering a smaller solo tour this fall. “We may do a run of cool clubs and smaller theatres,” Dunn says. “We’re talking about that now.”
Even before 100 Proof Neon’s release, Dunn is already putting the finishing touches on his next album, which he describes as “a cowboy record. Not campfire songs, but cowboys, rodeos, all that stuff.” He estimates he’s recorded around 15 songs for the project, and that while it is currently a solo album, “it could end up anywhere,” including as a collaborative set.
“There are some outside songs, too, bringing back a couple of classics to make it unpredictable. But I’ve got a couple of buddies, Phil O’Donnell and Ira Dean, and we’ve become kind of the cowboy trio when it comes to writing this stuff.”