Behind the Song: “Only in America,” Brooks & Dunn

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People who’ve never seen a live Brooks & Dunn show, or who aren’t readers of album credits, may not be fully aware of the contribution Kix Brooks has made to the duo for three decades. Ronnie Dunn’s distinctive lead tenor is one of the most recognizable voices in country history, and Brooks hasn’t always been recognized for what he has brought to the table. But he had been a recording artist and working songwriter before he and Dunn were introduced to each other, and he played a major role in shaping some of the duo’s most successful singles back when they were a country radio staple.  

Brooks, along with writers Don Cook (Barbara Mandrell) and Ronnie Rogers (Alabama), wrote the patriotic “Only in America” just a few months before the terrorist attack on New York City in 2001. And with its opening line, Sun comin’ up over New York City, it became an unofficial anthem of healing for the city and the entire United States. Brooks discussed the song’s birth and evolution in an interview with veteran journalist Dan Rather on The Big Interview, Rather’s program on the AXS network, in 2017.

“That was a song that caught a really strange place in time. I wrote that with a couple friends of mine, Ronnie Rogers and Don Cook … We’d been four-wheelin’ in the woods one day and got all caught up in our patriotism, grown men getting’ really sappy about how fortunate we are to have been born in America and to make songs rhyme and live the life that we live … I said, ‘We gotta write this, boys.’ And we got it probably at least half done or so.”

“We had an album that ended up being called Steers and Stripes, and Ronnie and I thought we were finished with it. And Joe Galante, our label head, came up with a song called ‘Nothin’ About You’ that he had found, [and he said] ‘I just want you guys to do me one favor and just record this to go on this album.’ We said ‘okay.’ So we set up a session, we finished our tour in Vegas and we were about to fly the next day into Nashville, we were gonna record one song, you know, a whole session together, a whole group of players, all the things to record one song.”

“Well, you know, the songwriter in me, I’ve got this ‘Only in America’ thing half-done, so I spent all night in my hotel room. I finished the song, and we’re about to go onstage and I pulled Ronnie over before we went on, I go, ‘Hey, I gotta play you this song man.’ And I played it and he goes, ‘That’s cool, better than anything I got.’ And I go, ‘You wanna cut it tomorrow, you wanna sing it?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I like it.’ So we cut those two songs.”

“Because of the patriotic nature of ‘Only in America’ we called the album Steers and Stripes. And then it starts goin’ up the charts. It was about somewhere in the Top 10 … when 9/11 happened. And our country woke up to a morning that we had never seen before, and our true patriotic heart started pounding … to see our country just rally in a way where people are just huggin’ policemen, and anyone in the service is all of a sudden is respected for what they were and their commitment to our country. And that song all of a sudden took on a life of its own.”

The song would go on to be an important part of presidential campaign events on both sides of the aisle for many years after it was released. “We played that song at George W’s inauguration,” Brooks said, “which is a whole story unto itself.”

Are you a songwriter? Enter the American Songwriter Lyric Contest.  

Photo by Martin.

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