For a world-class vocalist, Ronnie Dunn is surprisingly humble — even insecure — about his considerable abilities.
Joking that he’s “neurotic,” Dunn admits, “I’m scared every time I walk up to the mic. Never have I felt like I had a perfect performance. Not one time.” Onstage, he says, the moment he starts thinking, “It feels really good up here tonight,” he will “subconsciously trip myself up.
“I’m analyzing every note and crook and cranny I crawl through,” he adds. “I just beat myself up harder than anyone else would.”
That level of perfectionism presents a challenge for any producer, but when Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts was enlisted to helm most of Dunn’s new album, Tattooed Heart, he more than rose to the occasion. The album, due Nov. 11, marks Dunn’s debut for Nash Icon Records.
With vocals recorded at the comfortable, Southwestern-themed barn/studio behind Dunn’s Nashville home, the album fully captures the singer’s talents that fans first came to know during his two-plus decades as half of superstar duo Brooks & Dunn, winner of 19 Country Music Assn. Awards, 14 of them for vocal duo of the year. Before beginning work with DeMarcus, Dunn remembers thinking, “This should be interesting,” but he came away impressed with his fellow star’s talents behind the board.
“He really brought things up to date with certain instrumentation,” says Dunn of DeMarcus. “I was pleasantly surprised. It was beyond cool to watch him work in the studio. He’s a very musically talented and knowledgeable guy.”
The album includes current single “Damn Drunk” (currently at No. 52 on the Country Airplay chart), on which former partner Kix Brooks makes a guest appearance. Also included is a separate collaboration with Reba McEntire (“Still Feels Like Mexico”), a longtime friend who now co-headlines a Las Vegas residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace with Brooks & Dunn that resumes Nov. 30. But the album’s biggest surprise is the title cut, a remake of an Ariana Grande song. Dunn’s daughter suggested the song choice while she was interning at the publishing arm of Big Machine Label Group (parent of Nash Icon Records).
Unsure about doing the song at first, Dunn says he recorded it in secret. “I didn’t tell anybody I was cutting it. I just snuck back and did it,” he says. “I thought I’d crash and burn on my own without anybody hearing it.” He didn’t. Reimagined as a country song, “Tattooed Heart” is one of the consistently excellent album’s standout tracks.
Because radio chain Cumulus Media partially owns Nash Icon Records, Dunn knew going in that signing with the label would be a trade-off. While there would be the certainty of airplay on Cumulus’ Nash Icon-branded stations, airplay elsewhere was less certain since programmers at some competing chains think spinning a song from that label is akin to putting money in the pocket of a radio rival.
Dunn says of the compromise, “It’s a moving target because … radio is so competitive these days … There’s such a big sinkhole in the system. Hopefully, we’ll find a way to get over that.” The first single from Tattooed Heart, “Ain’t No Trucks in Texas,” peaked at No. 42 on the Country Airplay chart in October 2015.
Still, even after the hit-making run he had with Brooks & Dunn, the singer says he doesn’t feel like airplay is guaranteed, although he’s certainly grateful for it when it comes. “Never have I felt like I was entitled to anything, especially now,” he says. “I was lucky — Kix and I — to have the run that we did. It was an exceptional run by any standard.”
As a solo artist, Dunn has run afoul of radio and previous labels in the past as a result of his unfiltered social media activity. Those troubles began in 2012 when he asked fans via Facebook to pick his next single, then informed those fans that executives at his then-label, Arista Nashville, told him the move cost him a single that was already struggling, “Let the Cowboy Rock”: It plummeted on the airplay chart. He next took the unusual step of lobbying radio through Facebook for airplay of a song he hoped would be the next single, “Once.”
“Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the fans are just as savvy as most record executives when it comes to what music they like and don’t like to hear,” explained Dunn to this writer at the time for a RadioInfo.com article. “Why wouldn’t I want their input? Ultimately, they decide whether a record is going to be a success or not.”
In 2013, while working a new project on his own Little Will-E Records label in conjunction with indie HitShop Records, Dunn got into hot water again when he took on radio — and specifically then-Clear Channel executive vp Clay Hunnicutt — for not playing his music, writing in one post, “The system is corrupt.” The posts were so surprising in an industry where artists rarely make waves that one trade publication questioned if Dunn was in the midst of “a public meltdown.”
When he was launching Little Will-E, recalls Dunn, former Sony Music Nashville chief Joe Galante told him, “ ‘You’re going to look behind the curtain, and you’re not going to like what you see.’ Sure enough, I did not care for it,” says Dunn, particularly what he calls the “politics” and the “bad apples out there.”
But Dunn says he wasn’t trying to slam the industry, particularly radio, by taking to social media with his concerns. “It frustrated me, and I was trying to explain to people how the business works,” he says. “I was trying to help [fans] understand without throwing sour grapes out there. [But] I got involved in probably talking too much about inconvenient truths.”
Asked if he has any regrets about those incidents, Dunn hesitates only for a moment before saying no. At a recent party at his barn to launch the album, he even had the good humor to joke about them. So while Tattooed Heart finds Dunn’s own heart perhaps a little more guarded at this point in his career, it remains as open as ever to the power of great music.