With Red Dirt Road, Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks began a soul search that saw them strip away much of their bulked-up honky tonk in the name of a more organic kind of country. Not the archaic Smithsonian-type, per se, but something that rocked harder and dug deeper into what the music meant to them as men, musicians and writers. It was the beginning of a journey that would bring them to Hillbilly Deluxe, a potent cocktail that merges the influences, moments and reasons for kicking up a cloud of dust in a beer joint in the first place – and in these 13 songs, the pair offer up a collection of songs that run the gamut and hit the mark of what lights up the night and saves the morning after every time.
Rowdy. Bawdy. Raucous. Revel-ready. Hillbilly Deluxe is music for late nights, juke boxes, car radios and anywhere that people jettison expectation in the name of high-timin’ and good-livin’. Hillbilly Deluxe is a state of mind and a frame of reference that’s about scraping back the high tech, drop and rolling into the arc of Saturday night and the occasional pounding in one’s head on the way to church on Sunday morning.
“It all started with ‘Play Something Country’,” Dunn confesses. “Writing that made me want to go back to what we do, where we come from…. you know, the root of this sound ‘cause it’s always at the source where it’s most intense. And the way I grew up on country – whether it was Cash or Haggard or whomever – they didn’t hide inside a lot of production and they hit hard.
“And in a lot of ways, too, ‘Play Something Country’ became a mission statement for this record… in a very simple redneck way. It was as much a reminder to me of what matters as anyone. It’s what we do, who I am – and that hardcore country thing is something we can wear comfortably ‘cause we know it. That’s what we do naturally – and it’s a pretty extreme deal.”
Indeed, one listen to the buzz saw guitars that open “Play Something Country,” the band’s fastest moving single in a history of fast moving singles (“My Maria,” “There’s Nothing ‘Bout You,” “Red Dirt Road”), it’s obviously a call to arms for the people who believe in beer joints, buzzing neon, sweating long necks, longer nights, good looking women, fastbacks. And during the course of Hillbilly Deluxe, Brooks & Dunn take their fans on a survey course of the music that got in their blood and drove them to redefine the possibilities of what modern honky tonk music could mean.
Whether it’s a vintage jukebox weeper like Dunn’s tear-stained “She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get,” Brooks’ Tom Petty-esque gamble on love “One More Roll of the Dice” or Dunn’s rap/rave/wailer about the transformative power of brown liquor “Whiskey Do My Talkin’,” Brooks & Dunn reach back to their roots, even as they push the envelope to create a hybrid that merges what’s happening in American music now with the sounds, songs and aesthetics that originally inspired them.
Ronnie Dunn grew up in 13 schools in 12 years, a vagabond son of a man looking for his place in the world and a mother who clung to her Bible as the only permanence in a transitional world. His father was all hard-hitting honky tonk music – and his oldest son found himself torn between the worlds of salvation and sin.
After almost finishing “church school” – a degree intercepted by the invitation to either pick school or playing in beer joints – Dunn set out to chase the music. Landing in Tulsa during the height of the Shelter Records/Mad Dogs & Englishmen/Leon Russell/Eric Clapton era, the quiet bass player was set on fire – quickly becoming a local force to be reckoned with as a genuine country singer.
“I was the only one in that world doing what I was doing,” he admits. “But they got it, and they respected it – and I saw a whole other way of approaching music, too.”
Meanwhile Kix Brooks was growing up in swampy Louisiana country, where beer joints weren’t reverential temples to high honky tonk and country, but more combustive places where the people onstage were just an extension – and even instigators – of the party everyone had come to have.
“People didn’t come to dance so much as to raise hell and have a good time,” Brooks remembers. “It was about having fun…. And we played everything from Hank Sr. and Johnny Horton to Frank Zappa songs, Tom Waits, Willis Alan Ramsey. Sometimes I’d get to open for folks like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Asleep at the Wheel, George Thorogood – all these great midlevel rock/country/blues acts.”
Each man was following a different path to the same place: the intersection of white hot musical meltdown and the sorts of lyrical truths that set crowds on fire, be it loving, laughing or weeping. For Dunn, who went into the recording studio with members of Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt’s bands at Russell’s now infamous the Church to cut a demo that led to his eventual victory in the Marlboro Country Music Talent Search, it was about the intensity of his brand of straight-up, no chaser Oklahoma/Texas country.
While his Marlboro win became – the same as it had been for his honky tonk playing father – one more dead-end, Dunn’s music was meant to be reckoned with. A tape with “Boot Scoot Boogie” and “Hard Workin’ Man” had made its way to Arista head Tim Dubois, who called about the former for Asleep at the Wheel.
The songs had also sustained Brooks on his journey. After journeyman bar-storming in the Northeast, Brooks floated down to Nashville to try his hand at writing songs. His “Modern Day Romance” was a #1 smash for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – and those songs had a hand in Brooks releasing a solo album.
All the miles, all the chords, all the words – each man had trod a pretty well-worn road on their way to destiny. Once the two came together, fate kicked in. Brand New Man bowed with 5 straight #1s and the jet packs were installed. But even as Brooks & Dunn forged a brand new high-impact, full-tilt kind of country, they never quite forgot where they came from.
28 million albums, 4 Entertainer of the Year and shattered Duo of the Year records for the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Awards, 3 Neon Circuses, the front of the Corn Flakes box, the Olympics and a Presidential inauguration later, the larger-than-life songwriter/guitarists decided the ultimate reality is to take everything they’ve learned and go back. And so there’s Hillbilly Deluxe, an album that revisits the people, places, music and moments that brought them to Nashville in the first place.
Given the response to “Red Dirt Road,” a song that exhumed the basic truth and conflicts of small town living culled from the rare bits of commonality between the two, Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks decided to strip everything back to how they started.
“Hillbilly Deluxe is very much a coming of age for us – who we are, what we have to say. Just doing it,” Dunn explains. “For me, there’s a certain void of unrest, a hunger that will never be satisfied – and that battle to maintain some kind of balance... that’s what ‘Red Dirt Road’ was about. ‘Red Dirt Road; defined everything for me: beer and Jesus, so you better get in the middle ‘cause that’s where the fire burns the hottest! Too much to one or the other, it’ll burn out; that’s the challenge.”
Continues Brooks, “’Red Dirt Road’ was turning a corner to roots and to letting go of everything we’d built up. We both became comfortable enough with where we came from and doing the stuff that brought us here – and we understood the fans loved that, too.
“That’s just extremes, really. The thing about either kind of bars: you’ll see the biggest sinners, and you know they pray the hardest. It’s universal. Just like ‘Red Dirt Road,’ which was so specific to Ron and to an extent me… you can’t believe the people in New Jersey or California or Detroit who come up and say, ‘That’s my childhood, like they’re from Texas. If you hold songs up – what they say, how they sound, what’s being played – there’s a sense of discovery we all share, so people figure out how to plug in their lives to our writing.”
Enlisting noted music man Tony Brown, known for his work with Steve Earle, George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Presley, Hillbilly Deluxe became about lean performances that gained their power from the centrifugal force of musical momentum.
“When Janine and I were driving back and forth, waiting on it to happen,” the man with the straight razor in his throat recalls, “we used to listen to all of Tony Brown’s records, and talk about how amazing what he was doing with the music was. He was a lot of the reason I wanted to come to Nashville – to work with Tony Brown. Now I finally get to.”
Brown helped the record-shattering duo assemble an intriguing cast of players, ranging from Little Feat’s Bill Payne to Joe Ely/John Mellencamp /Storyville anchor David Grissom, Willie Nelson vet Mickey Raphael, Raul Malo compadre Gordon J. Mote, Stevie Ray Vaughan alum Reese Wynans, Southern California country rock legend Dan Dugmore, Steve Winwood/Larry Carlton bass player Michael Rhodes and Kingsnake Kenny Greenberg, not to mention Stuart Duncan. And for Larry Willoughby and Hank DeVito’s ‘80s classic “Building Bridges” – which Dunn sang three out of four sets a night back in Tulsa – Brooks & Dunn got meaningful vocal support from no less than Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill.
“This one is more sure-footed than Red Dirt Road,” Brooks says. “If there were pieces last time, this is more complete. That’s as much about the roots and the word ‘real.’ We’re playing our hand with our cards showing. Musically, we knew what we were after, so we did this raw… just got out there and played. Or as I was telling someone the other day: the hot rod is still running real fast. It’s not about being all polished up, so much as it is going to the line knowing you gotta great car.”
To that kicked back and kicked up extreme, Brooks actually has 3 demos on the final project – in large part because that’s where the spark seemed to be. As Dunn says of the methodology behind Hillbilly Deluxe, “Tony Brown is the first producer I’ve ever worked with whose driving force is just pure love of music. It’s the only thing that mattered to him – and he was all about, ‘But THAT performance is the ONE.’ He didn’t care where it came from, he wanted the moment.”
Indeed, Hillbilly Deluxe is nothing if not a string of moments, heart-wrenching or otherwise. With a tip of the hat to Rod Stewart Glad Rags & Hand Bags-era folk-tinging on “Just Another Neon Night,” Dunn runs through a stack of polaroids that celebrate all the people he knew back in the bars, while the rafter-quavering “I Believe” embraces the solace of knowing salvation is a bigger thing than comprehension.
“I know the characters in these songs,” Dunn explains. “I’ve seen’em. A LOT. I know those emotions I write about ‘cause I’ve lived with all of them When I sit down to pour my heart out, pour my life out, this is what comes out – and I’ve led a life of extremes. But I’ve come to a place in my life where I have to tell the truth…
“You know, I’m not some suburban kid… My father spent 7 years in Leavenworth and came out breathing fire – and I was his oldest son, so I learned to breathe fire, too. But because of my mother, I’ve gone just as far the other way. So music’s my equalizer, and it lets me hit both of those extremes hard without giving into one or the other – from religious school to Gary Stewart’s beer joints.”
Brooks knows the dichotomy as well, wrapping his arms around the ache of “My Heart’s Not A Hotel” to the wistful memory of a love well worth the loss “Her West Was Wilder,” then whipping up the frothy undulator “She Likes To Get Out of Town,” with its romping party escapism. “As an entertainer, I have to connect… Whether it was a beer joint or a stadium, I’ve always wanted to be part of the crowd. After all, you make this music to play for people, whether it’s on the radio or at a concert. You wanna sweep’em up and take’em away – and I don’t think anyone has a chance with these songs.”
Working with longtime collaborators Terry McBride, Bob DiPiero, Craig Wiseman and Tom Shapiro, Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks also enlisted songs from the aforementioned Devito/Willoughby, Rob Crosby, Allen Shamblin, Darrell Brown and Radney Foster. Whether it’s the hammering undulations of the title track or the arcing hope that is love reborn in “Again,” Hillbilly Deluxe works both ends of the human spectrum with utter abandon and commitment.
“Some of the subject matter or content IS dysfunction, drinking, divorce,” Dunn allows, “but that’s the way life is. Maybe we shine a light on that, because it IS a reality. But there’s more to it than that, and we’re just trying to tell the truth about who we all are as people. There’s nothing to be ashamed of… It’s just part of it.”
“And fun is a big factor, too,” continues Brooks. “People work a long, hard-working week, and they wanna get away from all that stuff, too. They want to shout, clap and let it go! You tell’em the truth, you let’em cry – and then you make’em forget it. I think this time, we got it all done.”
Without a doubt, Brooks & Dunn found a way to bring it all home. Deeper truths, more personal songs, guitar parts that buck and bristle, steels that weep, pianos that ripple and roll, drums that crash – and voices that wail and moan and witness with everything they’ve got. Well into their second decade, Brooks & Dunn show why they’re still the industry standard and honky tonk heavy weight champs of the road. Hillbilly Deluxe is a mission statement that throws it down hard and proud, taking no prisoners and leaving no one unmoved in its wake.