It was the height of the Urban Cowboy movement, and Ronnie Dunn—a Coleman, Texas native—had moved with his family to Tulsa where he picked up the revered position in the house band at Duke’s Country. The old furniture warehouse, stripped out to make room for a bandstand, welcomed in the likes of George Jones and Ricky Skaggs with a rowdy crowd of nearly 3,000 a night. Dunn credits his role opening for those acts as pivotal exposure that led him to Nashville where met Kix, the other half of Brooks & Dunn.
This was around the same year that The New York Times headline proclaimed that ‘Country Music is Dead.’
“It was a great time in country music,” Dunn tells American Songwriter.
“And as odd as the Urban Cowboy movement felt to traditional country fans—it was progressive at the time, no doubt—but it breathed life back into country music. Every Rexall cowboy in the world was showing up with this new hat wanting to line dance. It just took off and did it. The kind of music that was happening boiled down to ‘Hey, it has a good beat, I can dance to it.’”
Seemingly simplistic, that is the criteria Dunn upheld for his latest single, “Broken Neon Hearts.” Released February 11, the track traces Dunn’s country music lineage back to the searing steel guitar sounds native to the late 1980s. The veteran artist co-wrote the song alongside longtime collaborator Matt Willis and Thomas Perkins. Perkins is a signee of Dunn’s recently announced Pitch Perfect Publishing alongside Hayden Baker, Ariel Boetel, and Dakota Striplin.
With the help of former Big Machine executive Braden Carney and Dunn’s daughter, Haley, this publishing company is a hands-on opportunity for Dunn to pass the torch to an emerging generation of country artists — and maybe learn something from them along the way.
With 28 Academy of Country Music Awards, a record-breaking 19 Country Music Association Awards, two GRAMMY Awards, and more than 30 million Brooks & Dunn records sold, Dunn’s imprint on the genre is undeniable. “Broken Neon Hearts” ushers in a new chapter for the enduring artist ahead of his forthcoming solo album, 100 Proof Neon—due Summer 2022.
The project, Dunn says, is one he has wanted to make for a long time. And the pandemic finally allowed him the time necessary to explore his influences to write and record this reminiscent record. 100 Proof Neon marks his fifth solo effort following Re-Dunn in 2020. Like a walk down memory land, the new record stops in the sights and sounds that shaped Dunn’s legendary career.
“Broken Neon Hearts” sets the scene for the rest of the story. Tried-and-true traditionalist elements on the track transport the listener back in time to country yesteryear. Like the droning buzz of a burned-out ‘Open’ sign, or a go-to barstool at the local watering hole, the single offers refuge in a modern music era.
“It’s a sound that we’re obviously not hearing right now, and I’ve been wanting to hit it for a long time—since a few years into Brooks & Dunn,” Dunn says. “We found ourselves doing a little bit of a different sound, but this is where I came from. If there’s any record that’s going to define how I wanted to sound, how I want to go about it with my music, this is it: women, whiskey, lost love, neon lights.”
American Songwriter: What was the timeline of this album coming together? How did COVID affect this process?
Ronnie Dunn: I had a little more downtime than I was accustomed to, and I’ve driven the tractor up and down around the farm about as much as I can stand. Then I caught myself by default sitting down to write and listen to songs that took me back to where I came—Oklahoma, Texas, playing cars, and beer joints. It’s the kind of stuff that people would dance to. I could even throw twin fiddles on there now. And that’s the stuff radio is not playing, so thank God for streaming.
AS: What do you feel is missing from modern country music at the moment, and where does this album fit in with that?
RD: Down in Texas, culturally, for hundreds of years, there are these traditional dances, like folk dances: the Two-Step, a German dance called the Schottische, the Bunny Hop. It’s the kind of stuff you just roll your eyes at; it’s ridiculous, but that‘s the culture. And there’s nothing more fun than to get out there and have a crowd, as we now call, “dancing in the aisles,” filling up a dance floor; and that’s what this is about.
It’s always going to circle back at some point to what some people are going to say is traditional, by their standards. I would look back and go ‘Well, Johnny Lee, Haggard, George Jones’ for traditional country and swing country. But there’s something at the core of this kind of music; something I know we’re always gonna circle back to. It boils down to ‘If it’s got a good beat, I can dance to it.’
AS: What are you able to accomplish on your own, versus working as a pair on Brooks & Dunn albums?
RD: Well in any partnership—and thank God we were only a duo—you have to compromise. You have to go ‘Well, I’m not crazy about that sound, but if you want to cut it, cut it. It was never one of those. We never argued over that, we would just say it, and pick it up and go.
But by doing stuff on my own, I can pick up every song I like. There is no editing other than my own—what I write, and what I can sing. For instance, with Brooks & Dunn, there were certain songs you would have to say, ‘No, two guys can’t be on stage and sing that. It’s not cool—not cowboy.’
But that’s the only thing that’s different. We’re out on the road, and they’re showing up in droves. We all have that cat-out-of-the-cage syndrome. They’re coming, and hey, we’re just happy to be there.
AS: We’ve discussed how much has changed about country music, but what do you feel has remained true to your sound or songwriting over the years?
RD: I can’t tell you how many people over the years come up to me say, ‘I just don’t like country music because it’s all about cheatin’ and lyin’ and all that stuff.’ And I say, ‘Well that just didn’t happen in today’s world, does it.’ So we’ll sing around it.
When you want to write a country song I feel like you gravitate toward slower, sad songs. I don’t know why; maybe I’m wrong. But the first piece of advice I got as a songwriter when I came to town was from Don Cook, who produced our first record with Scott Hendricks, and he said ‘Always, if you can, leave a light at the end of the tunnel. ‘ Even if this guy’s been cheated on, and his heart’s been broken, he’s in that bar working on his next broken heart the next night. And so that is something I’ve always done.
AS: When recruiting talent for Perfect Pitch, what were you looking for in prospective signees? And given your veteran status, what do you feel you have to offer them?
RD: We wanted to just keep a small, elite group, tight-knit group that we work with, massage. They don’t have to show promise. Braden has a great ear for music and songs. My daughter, Haley, discovered two of the artists that are probably a little more progressive—we’ve got somebody that can just about service any genre and keep things hopping. In one room you walk by and you’ll hear some guys working on a honky tonk song and then in the next room, you hear something awesome, pop sound. It’s gonna be exciting.
I’m impressed by how acute their ears are. You look for that, and the feedback they have to offer. It shows they have a sense of what’s going on—more so than you sometimes expect. And it’s gonna be fun to watch all these kids do it. They want it so bad. It’s like a racehorse trying to hold them back. But I’m trying to give them insight into what I’ve learned from being here in Nashville. You can save a lot of time that way.
And the bottom line is, I get to walk through the room and act like I’m the boss—and I’m not. I’m just the old guy. So I’m pretty good. But I just brought in my songwriting plaques, just to try to motivate them, and remind them that ‘maybe he does know something every now and then.’ But more than anything I’m learning from them.
Listen to “Broken Neon Hearts” HERE.
Main photo by Dustin Haney