Since Brooks & Dunn’s debut, Brand New Man, came out in 1991, the country music duo has sold more than 30 million albums. There have been 28 Academy of Country Music awards, 19 Country Music Association honors, a few Grammys and a slew of No. 1 hits thrown in there, too. We can’t even begin to count the number of people who’ve seen B&D live. Calling Brooks & Dunn one of the most popular acts in country music history isn’t an exaggeration; it’s more like a requirement.
And the funny thing is that Kix Brooks, 64, and Ronnie Dunn, 66, have no end in sight. In fact, the twangy twosome is preparing for a December residency at Caesars Palace’s Colosseum with fellow country legend Reba McEntire. Then, a few weeks after that, Dunn is releasing RE-DUNN, a collection of 24 covers near and dear to his heart.
In Forbes Travel Guide’s following interview, Dunn not only speaks on his new album and his lasting popularity, but he also discusses his genre’s fresh sound, his old road routines and his favorite European cities. Just because Dunn sits atop the country music hill, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like filling up his passport, too.
I won’t profess to be a country music aficionado, but I have a few country tracks on my Spotify playlist. One of those is Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe.” That song means a lot to me. Does that ever get old — hearing fans say how much your music means to them?
No, man. That’s why you do it. I mean I live for that. Sometimes you’re out in public [and a fan] asks you for an autograph or something and people will go, “Does that ever bother you?” I say, “No, it would bother me if they didn’t.” That’s what we do it for. Songs like that are written to reach out and touch people — as many people as you can.
One of the frustrating things is that we put genres together and box us all in. I was just talking to somebody a few minutes ago and they said they got us [stereotyped] sitting on bales of hay, you know, whistling and listening to coonhounds running around. That’s not it. I listened to as much R&B growing up as I did anything. My grandparents were from south Arkansas, right on the Louisiana border, and that’s all that was played down there.
Speaking of not putting yourself in a box, when I look at the songs you’re putting your own touch to with your new album, it goes from George Strait to Van Morrison. How did you go about making these choices for the songs?
Well, I have over 54,000 songs on my iTunes playlist. I spend hours and hours and hours when I’m on a long flight or on a bus ride or something [listening to music]. I just sit and it’s my therapy.
I make these playlists. There is one that is general and broad. It’s called “Groovy.” It’s got a little bit of everything on it. I just turn to that playlist and, of those 54,000, it comes down to just a few hundred that these songs [for the album] came from. They are my favorite songs. “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes is one. Ask people who the lead vocalist on that was. They won’t know. It’s Teddy Pendergrass.
Some record executive came to me a few months ago and said, “Well, you want to do a thing for Spotify, an experiment where we run in and pick three or four songs, like classic rock songs, R&B, whatever you want to do, that you think fans would be listening to back in the Brooks & Dunn era, back in the ’90s?” And I was like, “That’s easy, man. I already got those on my playlist. Thanks.” And away we go.
Brooks & Dunn’s sound is a little different from some of the country music of today. What are your thoughts on Lil Nas X and the fresh approach he’s bringing to the genre?
Yeah, he made a big splash. It’s funny, because all this stuff, and we were talking a few minutes ago [about it], it’s all just culturally, a generation at a time, based on what we grew up listening to and how we were influenced, right?
The combination of what he’s doing with hip-hop and country lyrics [reflects that]. My daughter is 24 years old, just graduated from Ole Miss, and, I mean, it wasn’t an hour ago we were on her phone looking at all this stuff that is just in that vein. I guess what I’m supposed to say is I think it’s cool. I’m not against it at all. It’s like you’re talking about line dancing and two stepping…with a healthy beat. I’m all about it, man.
Do you have any particular routines you go through when you’re about to hit the road?
These days it’s kind of routine. Just the mode of getting there, we’ll either fly or, for the most part, get on our buses — in our time capsules as we call them — and show up somewhere. The girls at the house will go in and put enough healthy food on the bus for us to get there and not starve to death for a two- or three-day run.
There’s not any real routine. It’s already established. I guess I’ve been doing it so long. I make sure my laptop’s there with all my music. As soon as I walk on, music starts playing. I’ve got a sound system better on the bus than anything I have in the house, and probably in the studio. Now we have satellites and any kind of streaming we want as we roll down the road. To me, it’s better than a jet. I’d rather have a bus than a jet any day, and commercial flying is a bad way to go.
What kinds of foods are you eating on the road?
It’s hard to eat healthy on the road, almost impossible. We stock up. We have Sub-Zero refrigerators and all that on there now. We stock it with breakfast quiche and our oatmeal for those who really want to be boring. And proteins — we try to mix that up at the same time. Just keep a healthy mix. Just stay away from chips, keep sugar away and make an effort to work out, especially cardio, while you’re out there.
How do you keep the communication strong back home with the family while you’re traveling so much?
My wife is a serial texter. I give it about 24 hours then she’ll blast me with a short novel of things that are bugging her about me. But that’s what we do for the most part.
You know, when we started touring, there were no cell phones. Hello! I mean, holy cow, I’m really dating myself now. But there weren’t. And the TVs that we had were those little TVs, where you put the VHS tapes in the bottom.
I can remember when satellite came out. I took my driver, who had an iron business way down South with his brother, and we bought a satellite dish. We kept it under the bus. We got a coax cable and we would hook all that up to the bus TV and dial it in. We set the satellite dish up out in the parking lot, dial it in and we’d have satellite TV.
And now you can stream a thousand channels on your phone.
Yeah, but I think we were the first people in the world to do that. I remember all the guys laughing at us. We’d spend an hour out there going, “No, turn it to the left! Turn it to the right! Up! Whoa! Freeze it.” Now you’ve got everything. You don’t want to get off [the bus] when you get home.
You have a few months of downtime and then you go to Las Vegas in December?
Yeah, we’re in our fifth year of residency at Caesars at the Colosseum there.
What makes that relationship with Vegas and Caesars so strong?
We went in five years ago thinking we were going to do maybe a year. And now, like I said, we’re up to five years. The room is sonically perfect. You can talk and hear a pin drop. It’s just acoustically dialed in to where I’ve never been in a place that that’s good.
They treat us like kings and queens. We all have our massive, way-too-big suites with our own butlers. And they pay you way more money than you’re worth. And you’re not chained to the bus and doing 300- or 400-plus miles a night for 60 or 70 dates a year. So, what’s not to like?
Internationally, where else do they treat you like kings?
Very few places. I think we are well accepted wherever we tour and play here in the U.S. Canada is great. We didn’t try to develop a market overseas in Europe. I hear that places like Ireland are strong for country music. We did, at one time, slip over and did a beer festival in Frutigen, Switzerland, years and years ago. But that’s as far as we have pushed the music thing. It’s always been fairly successful, well, very successful, here in the States.
No real need to go elsewhere?
No. If you go to Europe, it’s like having to start over. You start in bars and clubs, smaller venues and things like that. You’d really have to work it. There have been people in country music who’ve done it. Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others have made the effort to go over there and seed those markets, and have done so successfully.
I travel to Europe a lot. We were just in London a couple months ago. And I’ve been doing a thing with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center’s Celebrity Fight Night charity for the last six years. We hooked up three years ago with Andrea Bocelli in Italy and go back there every September and work over there together.
What do you love about London?
I’m way into photography. Anywhere I go, I’ve got a camera with me. I got into it several years back and it’s become almost an obsession — as much as music. I started this little group of buddies [called the Lensmen Project], who are all accomplished photographers. One is Ron Modra. He has like 70 covers of Sports Illustrated. And another guy is Jim Arndt from Santa Fe, who was, back in the heyday of Marlboro, the Marlboro Man ad photographer. So, we’ll gang up every now and then and head off to some place like Tanzania, Europe and Alaska to shoot, as in photograph, bears and chase things like that.
London is fabulous. But I’ll tell you where I spent more time than anywhere: Florence, Italy. And Rome. Italy is a blast. And the architecture in France is over the top. I’ve never seen anything like that.
Italy and South Africa are my two favorite countries, so I totally get you on that.
Same deal. I just got a call the other day from a buddy who’s been over there. There’s an issue of poaching black rhinos, so he’s putting a trip together for four or five of us to go. They embed us with the rangers over there and take us into the bush to go see and photograph that.