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Ronnie Dunn: Let the Cowboy Rock… and Talk!

Our Country

Ronnie Dunn says that he can do things more on-the-fly now as a solo artist. And he proved it, at his Ram Country taping, by improvising a new, more honky-tonk-sounding arrangement of "Cost of Livin'" with his band on the spot. The two other tunes he performed for our cameras, "Let the Cowboy Rock" and "How Far to Waco," meanwhile, hew a little closer to the versions found on his self-titled solo debut. It's all terrific stuff that proves that Brooks is in no way... done. (Sorry.)

Besides bringing him into the studio for an exclusive performance, we sat down with one of country's greatest voices to get his perspective on quitting Brooks & Dunn, his massive new tattoo, and how to balance -- or not balance -- life on the road with domestic tranquility. Here are excerpts from our revealing conversation...

RAM COUNTRY: So, we heard that "COWBOY" tattoo on your right arm turned out a little bigger than you thought it would be. Is that right?

DUNN: Yeah. It just didn't look right. I went into a place in L.A. at 9 or so at night to get it, and all these big biker guys are standing around -- big heavy cats with piercings all over the place. I go walking in there with my skinny little arm. He puts a stencil of COWBOY on my arm, and it's about this long. [He holds his fingers a few inches apart.] And he says "Stand in front of the mirror and see how it feels." I did all the poses and everything, and they were kind of snickering in the back. And I went, "It's not big enough, is it, guys?" And they were like, "Nah, it's not big enough." So we get a stencil that's a little bit bigger, and "It's not big enough, is it?" "No…" So finally it's from here to here. [He shows off a tattoo that runs the entire length of his forearm.] It just had to scale out right! That's the art.

Let's talk about the song "How Far to Waco." You have a 10-piece female mariachi band on the studio version that you found in New Mexico. And that song speaks to your roots in that area as well as Texas. Can you tell how that song came about?

I had come off tour with Brooks & Dunn after the last string of shows in 2010. I guess I was kind of blowing it out, thinking this is obviously the end. I went out to L.A. and got this tattoo that I'm obviously real proud of right now. And I came home and Janine met me at the front door, which she hadn't done in a long time. She said "Why don't you come back to the back porch with me, and let's sit and talk for a while?" I went back and sat down and she had an iced tea sitting on the table. She said, "You seem to be moving pretty fast without talking to many people. So I said, okay. She said, "Sit down and look out the back. Isn't it pretty out there?" "It's gorgeous," I said. "Do you want to keep that?" (He laughs) I said "Yeah, I do." She said, "You didn't tell me about quitting your day job. Now you come back from L.A. and you've got COWBOY tattooed from your elbow to your wrist. You know, you're really too old to be going through a midlife crisis!"

She said, "Why don't you let the dust settle around you and maybe just you go out to Santa Fe and spend some time by yourself?" We have a little house out in Santa Fe, and my wife and kids and I go out every now and then. It's kind of my safe place. She said, "Spend some time settling down there, and see if you can come to terms with what kind of music you want to play, how you want it to feel, how you want it to look. And then deal with it over the next couple of years. Don't try to just dive right back into something." At that time, I had just come off the road with B&D, and I already had almost 34 (solo) tracks recorded, or in process. And I was just all over the place, trying to overdo everything, and hit it too hard. I'm worried about being too old, and you always hear the old theory: If you stop, there's gonna be someone else running right by you -- or ten somebody-elses running right by you.

So at the end of the day, I slowed down, went to Santa Fe, got hungry after two days being by myself, went into a little Mexican restaurant, opened the door, and there was a 10-piece all-female mariachi band. I thought, "It's a sign from God!" I had a shot of tequila and an enchilada, and I went back to the house and wrote "Waco."

Of course, you weren't able to take the 10-piece female mariachi band on the road with you, but "How Far to Waco" still sounds great live.

Well, you know, I'm a fledgling solo act right now, and I have to treat it like that. We had to trim everything back from eight or nine semis and six buses and all that stuff [from the Brooks & Dunn era]. The band and crew are in one bus now, and we have another bus and one semi. We're lucky to get that. My Christmas card that we sent out had a horse trailer out in the field behind my house, and the caption says, "Okay, we've downsized. All the amps and gear are in the trailer. We're ready to roll after Christmas."

So you didn't develop an incurable addiction to arenas while you were out with Brooks & Dunn?

No, no. I didn't expect to step out of a headlining position in a band and whatever status is related to that, and then go right back into that scenario. My preference is 3,000, maybe 5,000-seat venues. Long term, we're in a good spot, and there's no real intent to get back out there in those big amphitheaters. I really am enjoying the intimacy of what's going on right now. I know that probably sounds crazy, but after doing what I've been doing for 20 years, it's good to look people in the face and be able to talk between songs and feel the room stop just for a second. You can feel it. Those big rooms, they're rolling all the time, and you just have to blow through it.

This is music therapy here, what I'm doing now. It's fun to be able to move and be quick and be nimble. We're trying to come up with a new template and a new model, versus what we've been accustomed to. The band's right and tight. We arrange songs on the spot. We were just in the bus a few minutes ago talking about a new way to do "Cost of Livin'" for this Yahoo! shoot today. You can be more creative this way.

But there are humbling moments?

Here's a good one. It happened today. My sister just called from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I'm playing the Hard Rock there. This is the first time I've played there since I was in the Bank of Oklahoma Arena in 2010 with Kix [Brooks]. And the picture in the paper is Kix way up front with a big distorted lens, and I'm way back in the back -- and it says "Ronnie Dunn returns to Tulsa with solo career." So, yeah, it can be brutal! [Laughs]

You have two polarized sides of your personality that come out in your music. "Cost of Livin'" is in the sober tradition of "God Must Be Busy." But then "Let the Cowboy Rock" is a rowdy album opener that's in the tradition of some older rowdy album openers from the Brooks & Dunn days, like "Play Something Country" or "Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl."

Well, you can't throw heavy, analytical, thought-provoking songs at people 24/7. It's been my experience over the last 20 years that on a rare occasion, in a live setting, if you can slow people down to listen to two good ballads, then you're doing pretty good. Then throw a tempo at 'em. Then have fun. Where I came from, Oklahoma and Texas, everybody wanted to dance. That's a big deal there, and part of the culture. They want to move. And I'm into that. I'm trained to do that!

On tour, I'm not gonna let go of those songs or walk away from that. I mean, I wrote "Play Something Country." We can go through the B&D catalog and cherry pick the songs that I did. I'm proud of 'em; I love 'em. And I love the intellectual recoil sometimes to some of that stuff, like "Play Something Country."

With "Cost of Livin'," it seemed like it was a cause for you and some of the people at the record company and at radio to get that song heard. In the end, as you pointed out on your Facebook page, it fell short of the top 10. But if there were a top 10 for songs that really meant something to people, that might be no. 1. Why was that song such a cause and a commitment?

"Cost of Livin'," first of all, it's written absolutely from an honest perspective. It's straight up. It's not trying to manipulate the system to write a hit song. That's a guy writing a song about what he's going through in everyday life. It's a real guy sitting there with a pencil and a piece of paper filling out a job application. And it just so happens to be about something that millions of other people are going through at the same time right now. I probably am guilty of commercializing it by changing the hook to talk about gas and the cost of living. It was originally called "The Application," and it'd been pitched around for a long time. I think through the process of co-writing [and revising] it, we brought it home. And I'm really proud of it. Songs of integrity, they don't walk the streets of Nashville every day, and they certainly don't make their way into the mainstream commercial world a lot.

Didn't you say somewhere that some people had cautioned you against recording "Cost of Livin'," saying you were too wealthy to record a song about the working man?

I had a couple of just really stellar comments when I first started playing the song around. One was from the boardroom at the label -- and it's a different regime now that said that, so I'm not gonna throw the new guys under the bus. But one of the comments in 2008 when I first played it was, "Well, the economy will be turned around by the time you could ever get that song on a record. And it's not as if it's not gonna come out as a single anyway." So I said "okay" and kind of tucked it away for a while. So when I got ready to do it for the solo record, one of the comments that came back was, "Well, you're too wealthy to do that song." But I can't find a lot of rich-guy country songs out there to do! I didn't grow up that way. I drove a Mercedes here, and I still feel guilty and bad about driving that car. I grew up very modest, and I never forget that. So I'm good with my status to sing that song.

Do you really feel that much more freedom now? Because in Brooks & Dunn, you were the voice of most of the singles, so people thought of you as dominant, maybe. And personality-wise, people probably thought of you as the more intense one and Kix as the more easygoing one. So people maybe think, "Oh, Ronnie probably always got his way, anyway, so what's so different now that he's solo?"

"Ronnie always got his way"? [He laughs.] No matter how much of your way you get in a situation like that, there's a tremendous amount of compromise that comes with that, any time you hook up with anybody else, in a partnership. In a creative situation, you're gonna compromise on both sides. I'm proud of what we did, for the years that we did it, and Kix felt the same way, I'm sure. But it was just time to make a change. Time to do something else more creative. We'd created all that we could within that, I felt like. And there are reasons that I won't go into, to talk about. But we went as far as we could.

On the solo album, is there anything on it that you felt like you hadn't really been free to do before?

In terms of songs? Yeah. Put 11 songs on an 11-song record! I mean, it sounds silly and trivial. But in order to establish true continuity on a product from song 1 to song 11, that takes some work. Kix and I didn't work at that. We showed up and said, "Have you got one? I want to record this, I want to record this." Then we'd sit down with that pile of songs and try to put 'em together and hope that there was continuity. But the way I was able to do this, I could kind of see the painting from start to finish.

Do you have a favorite song on the record?

You know, I like one called "I Can't Help Myself." It's a song about… well, the Nashville term is "cheating," I think. The universal term is "infidelity"! It just has a haunting vibe to it that's something I haven't kind of pulled off in a long time.

You've talked about how you're driven by music, not money. And that's apparent — and it's not necessarily a given for everybody in Nashville. How important is the love of music to you?

I can't quit it. It could be a problem, someday! [He laughs.] I don't want to quit… I talked to a marriage counselor years ago. When we first hit the road, I mean, all hell broke loose, with all of our lives. I dropped in to see a friend who's a shrink, a marriage counselor. I said, "Man, it's coming apart. I had no idea." We were gone 100-plus days a year, and when we weren't, your head's not in the game. He stopped me on the way out of the office, put both hands on my shoulders, and said, "Someday you'll be in here to quit this addiction." [He pauses.] And I won't be. [He laughs.] He wants me to be. He wishes. It may not be pretty!

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