Q&A: Ronnie Dunn

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Videos by American Songwriter

I want to go back to one Brooks & Dunn song if we could, my personal favorite “Red Dirt Road.” I just realized last night that you and Kix co-wrote it. That was kind of a rare moment it seems. Any story behind it?

I remember it was after a show, and Kix stepped up on the bus. The bus was running and getting ready to leave. He stepped up in the door well of the bus, and was sitting at the table. I had wanted to take… this happens a lot, we’d get a record finished, and I wanted to reel everything into a concept or kind of hang a stamp on it. I thought we needed something like “Red Dirt Road.” Use that as the title. It was a road, the red dirt road, in Arkansas that my cousins and all of us lived on. It led from Rural Route Three which was East Main highway out of El Dorado down to my cousin’s farm. Well, it was about four miles long, but there were only two houses along the way. It was literally a dirt road that would get washed out come big rains and such. But we grew up on that road. That was where it all went down. I remember going to church with them one day. They’d come pick me up. Some evangelist was there, we were getting saved as kids. It represented all of us. At the same time we’d go camp out and get drunk. We’d get someone to buy us beer. We did it all So we started talking about it. I said, “that’s where I first met Jesus. That’s where I wrecked my first car”, which I did. We had the chorus written before we left. Somebody goes “hey we’re rolling,” because we had a long, long drive. I don’t remember where it was to. He will. We got where we were going. I remember Kix walking off of his bus as we were walking across the parking lot. He just looked like he’d been through the wringer. He wrote the verses to it. He played it, took us up on the bus. He was just beat man, like he’d been up for two days. He really plowed into it. He played it and I went, “Shoot! You want to arm wrestle over who sings this?” He goes, “No man.” I thought, ‘”My God!”

That’s cool that it came from the chorus, then verse, and he heard it and then did his thing on it.

Yeah. Cause, I got it back after he played it. The first verses, I went, “I don’t know if I’d be picking black berries. I questioned the “corner of my soul.” The imagery he was doing though, it was great. It’s funny—yesterday I was going through some songs, and I pulled up a song off of, golly, I forget which record it was, but it’s called “Tequila Town” that he sang. I thought that Jim Messina wrote it, and Kix and I wrote it!

Just totally forgot.

Yeah I was like “damn.” But I love the song. It’s real cool.

So every once in a while… Ya’ll would have one together.

Yeah, but we were so innately competitive that it just got to the point that we were like, let’s just do our own tunes. Yeah. We had to fight this hard to get one done. Just different ways of going about it, and both of them work. Kix comes from that philosophy; he’d been here for a long time. I agree with what he’s talking about to an extent. He’s like I’d rather fight through a bad idea and to finish it just to go through the discipline act of lifting the weights. I’m spoiled in a way. If it doesn’t just catch me right off of the bat, I don’t want to mess with it. If the fish aren’t biting I don’t want to be there. Which is a bad way to go about it I guess.

Yeah, both philosophies carry their own weight don’t they?

It can be a long day if you’re co-writing…somebody comes in with an idea, just throws it out there. Everybody just tries to placate one another. Just beat the hell out of something.

I had one of those today, earlier this morning. Just not worth it. Called it after lunch and cut our losses.

I’ve seen Dean Dillon just get up and leave the room! And disappear.

Back on “Red Dirt Road” for a second. The line that kills me is, “Happiness on earth ain’t just for high achievers.” That’s a phenomenal line. It just hammers that song home to me.

Obviously it’s self-explanatory. You can make it without having to go through the shuffle. A lot of the verse came from a religious background that I had going to school. Kind of plugging into that ministry sprint for a while. And I never even got the plug in. Just all the stuff the, You’ve got to play by the rules. I so enjoyed my act of rebellion. Back then was my tattoo. Just like, you know what, I can drink on that road, and the next day I can find Jesus. I loved putting those two together. I remember when we did it thinking, “that’s not gonna fly”

But it did.

Yeah.

I was just thinking about mentors. When you were coming up, were there some writers that you just listened intently to?

When I was in college I’d listen to Neil Young a lot. The thing that I was attracted to with Neil was just that loose approach that he did with most of his records. Like “down by the river.” That kind of stuff, that’s country stuff to me. He was way country, I thought. But still just had enough progressive edge and image to be a rock god. There was no one in particular that I just dove into. No. I see Dylan on the cover there. A lot of that stuff was obviously brilliant, but there were no songwriters around me or anyone wanting to be a songwriter in Tulsa when I was there. And I realized early into the game that The only way to get ahead, especially if you’re looking for a record deal. No one’s just gonna give you a good song. It’s hard enough to get a good song from the outside when you get pitched stuff. I was going to have to write. I would listen to the radio. I would listen to the formula. A four line verse, whatever the rhyme scheme. ABAB. AABB. Eight line verse. Eight line chorus. You know, Click, click, Out. The same thing. I taught myself that. There was no one around to do that with. Before I moved to town I had written “Boot Scoot”, “Neon Moon”, “Hardworking Man”, “She Used to Be Mine.”

So you came in with those?

Yeah. Just by listening to the radio.

When you were in Tulsa, JJ Cale and Leon Russell, they were on that scene at that point. Was this the late 70s? That’s a pretty cool crop of guys.

There were really some bad asses in town. Leon was there. I remember Willis Alan Ramsey. Those cats. And J.J. I mean, Cocker was hanging out down there. Clapton’s band was from there. We did a bunch of stuff together. The demos for “Neon Moon” I cut with Jamie Oldaker. I moved there instead of coming here from Abilene, where I went to college. My mother sent me an article in the paper. Jim Halsey had some big thing at the White House with Nixon, and it was talking about how Jim Halsey was the biggest country music agent in the world at the time. And she said, “Why don’t you come here? There are more clubs to play here than in Nashville. It’s rocking down here.” Sure enough, six months after I was there I was in a band, and we were blowing and going man. There were bars everywhere. Then when the country bars would close down, there would be after hours bars where all these guys would go play. Tommy Tripplehorn and guys would play just stinging blues. I got spoiled. A lot of them like Marcy Levy would be singing with girls like Debby Campbell You’d walk into a club, and someone would just be throwing it down.

I’m just curious which writers you really dig these days and are eager to hear their songs. Are there any that come to mind?

You know, as you know, a lot of writers get hot and cool. I really enjoy working with [Craig] Wiseman because he’s just so freaking crazy. I feel like when I’m sitting in a room with him it’s my job to channel. Just interpret whatever it is he’s channeling. I’m going to go back and say some of the guys we should really look at are John Prine, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell. Guys like that. I really like where their heads are at and how they go about it poetically and philosophically as well. They’re not as commercially groomed as a lot of us are. I would love to be able to go deeper. I’d love to be Dylan. I’d love to be Prine, Guy or Steve Earle. Those cats.

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