Brooks & Dunn - Biography
By J Poet
As individual country artists and songwriters, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn struggled for years without making much headway. But once teamed up as Brooks & Dunn they became a phenomena at the zenith of the western line-dance craze, selling millions of albums and selling out hundreds of live shows. Brooks & Dunn became the second best-selling duo in pop music history—Simon & Garfunkel the only one more successful—with an incredible run in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Their sincere ballads and high-energy honky-tonk anthems made them household names (especially among the ladies), and earned them critical accolades and Grammy awards along the way.
Kix Brooks was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and picked up the ukulele at six years old. By the age of 12 he was singing at parties for extra money, including a famous gig at the house of famed honky-tonker, Johnny Horton. During his years at Louisiana State University, Brooks studied during the day and played in honky-tonk bands at night. Upon graduation, he took a job on the Alaska pipeline before moving to Nashville, Tennessee. It was here that he landed a staff writing position at Tree Publishing, a prosperous gig that allowed him to scribe hits for John Conley, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Highway 101, Sawyer Brown, and Ricky Van Shelton. Meanwhile, his own singles and albums fared poorly.
Ronnie Dunn grew up in his father’s swing band in west Texas. His family moved often, and Dunn lived in Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas and Oklahoma while growing up. His mother was a devout Baptist and he studied for the ministry at Abilene Christian College, but he was playing honky-tonks with his band during evenings. After dropping out of college Dunn moved to Tulsa and began playing in bars and nightspots, eventually winning the Marlboro Talent Search. The prize was a recording session with producers Barry Beckett and Scott Hendricks. The producers were impressed with his talents and suggested he relocate to the heart of the action in Nashville. Dunn was soon a staff writer at Tree Publishing.
Arista A&R man Tim DuBois introduced Brooks and Dunn, suggesting they co-write a few songs together and work up some synergy. One of the first songs they collaborated on was “Brand New Man.” DuBois said he’d sign them as a duo if they wanted to cut the tune. Both men were set on solo careers, but DuBois felt their combination of hard-core country, hard rock and singer/songwriter sensitivity would distinguish them from other acts. Both men agreed to try it out, but they could have never anticipated the success they’d have.
Brand New Man (1991 Arista) took the country world by storm with its blend of hard-core country, hard rock and fast-rocking ditties. The album was an immediate smash, going platinum five times behind the hits “Brand New Man,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “My Next Broken Heart,” and “Neon Moon.” Brand New Man would remain on the country charts for five years. With a high-energy live show that sold out everywhere they performed, the pair only served to cement their overnight superstar status.
The follow-up, Hard Workin’ Man (1993 Arista), spawned five more pop-country hits running the gamut of gallantry, balladry and good-natured machismo. “We’ll Burn That Bridge” and “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)” were standouts, while “She Used to Be Mine,” “That Ain’t No Way to Go,” and the rocking “Hard Workin’ Man” were all chart-toppers. The album went 4X platinum, and the title track won them a Grammy in the Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal category.
Their success in the early part of the decade didn’t stop there, as the following year’s Waitin’ on Sundown (1994 Arista) boasted three more #1 singles in “She’s Not the Cheatin’ Kind,” “Little Miss Honky Tonk,” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” The album as a whole was not considered as complete as the first two, with many of the tracks working as filler, but it went triple platinum nonetheless.
Borderline (1996 Arista) was another double-platinum effort with two #1 hits, the Grammy-winning cover of B.W. Stevenson’s “My Maria” and “A Man This Lonely.” Brooks’ vocal work on the former showed an impressive range that only served to fuel notions in the world of country music that Brooks & Dunn were the act of the decade.
The Greatest Hits Collection (Arista) came out in 1997, a menagerie of 17 of their biggest tracks along with two new hit numbers—Honky Tonk Truth” and “He’s Got You”—and it sold over four million copies.
If You See Her (1998 Arista) was built around a duet with Reba McEntire, “If You See Him, If You See Her,” and the song climbed to a familiar #1 position on the charts. The final song on the album, “You’re My Angel,” showed off Dunn’s vocal prowess. The album led to one of the most successful co-headlining tours in country music history. If You See Her went double-platinum and was considered a return to the vintage stock of B&D’s early work, with a hit cover of Roger Miller’s “Husbands and Wives,” as well as the songs “How Long Gone” and “I Can’t Get Over You.”
The last album that Brooks & Dunn put out to cap off one of the most successful decades in record history was Tightrope (1999 Arista). The album contained a single hit—“You’ll Always Be Loved by Me.” Tightrope didn’t cause the same kind of sensation as previous albums, and some thought that the duo was resting on its laurels. Even still, it went gold and featured a cover of John Waite’s “Missing You.”
All that changed a couple of years later when the diversified Steers & Stripes (2001 Arista) came out. The duo’s ninth studio album restored them to the platinum ranks and featured a string of #1 hits, such as “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You,” “Only in America,” and “The Long Goodbye.” Also climbing the charts from Steers & Stripes were the southern-tinted “My Heart Is Lost to You” and “Every River.”
The holiday album It Won’t Be Christmas Without You (2002 Arista) was Brooks & Dunn’s first that failed to go gold or platinum, but the evolved songs on Red Dirt Road (2003, Arista) again struck a chord with mainstream America. With sharper writing and a broadened instrumental package, the album went platinum on the strength of the songs “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl,” “That’s What She Gets for Loving Me” and “Red Dirt Road.”
Hillbilly Deluxe (2005 Arista), a collection of vintage-feeling lean cuts that B&W made their name on, sold over a million units and featured the chart-topper, “Play Something Country.” The album also featured a cover of Nicolette Larson’s “Building Brides,” with Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill guest-starring.
Cowboy Town (2007 Arista) boasted another duet with Reba McEntire on “Cowgirls Don’t Cry,” and the sports bar tunes “Proud of the House We Built” and “God Must Be Busy.” It was another gold album in a long list for Brooks and Dunn.
Playlist: The Very Best of Brooks & Dunn (2008 Arista/Legacy) duplicates many of the tracks on their other hit collections The Greatest Hits Collection (1997 Arista) and The Greatest Hits Collection II (2004 Arista.)